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Opinion: Philadelphia’s recovery from COVID-19 must put housing first

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Via WHYY/Plan Philly

By Andrew Frishkoff, Executive Director and Carolyn Placke, Housing Program Officer, LISC Philadelphia

As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into May, local government and the philanthropic community have helped slow the curve in Philadelphia by raising an estimated $30 million for shuttered small businesses, arts and human services organizations – an unprecedented collective response to a public health crisis many of us could never have imagined.

The time has come for similar efforts to support housing assistance for struggling Philadelphia renters and their landlords. The city’s affordable housing was already in crisis prior to COVID-19, with a deficit of nearly 70,000 affordable rental units and approximately 150,000 households experiencing high rent cost burdens, unsafe or overcrowded housing conditions, or homelessness. Without stable housing, you cannot maintain your health, focus on educating yourself or your children, secure employment, or be productive at work.

The pandemic has left low-and-moderate income tenants unable to pay rent and landlords without the income to make needed repairs and pay mortgages. Unless we act now, Philadelphia will experience increased homelessness and bankrupt owners. There will be more foreclosed homes and apartment buildings throughout our neighborhoods.

Philadelphia’s recovery from COVID-19 must put housing first. As critical first steps, the federal CARES Act has provided Philadelphia with $41 million for homelessness and housing, and City Council members have introduced bills to protect renters from further economic fallout.

Yet, we all must do more to assist renters, small landlords, and property owners, and to preserve our scarce affordable housing.

We propose the following broad solutions to avoid disaster and meet rental housing needs:

  • Emergency rental protections to keep distressed renters stably housed and to ensure they are not saddled by accrued rent when the crisis abates;
  • Financial assistance to help affordable housing property owners cover unpaid rent and higher operating costs as a result of the pandemic, including maintenance and cleaning; and
  • Financial support and capacity building to safeguard at-risk affordable rental housing and to ensure housing under construction is completed.

These solutions require collective actions from multiple sectors.

Federal government

Congress and the White House must prioritize housing assistance and increase resources to help local communities address pandemic-related housing needs. We need to advocate for up to $100 billion to support:

  • Emergency rental assistance, which can also address higher operating costs for affordable housing owners;
  • Flexible affordable housing resources for localities through the Community Development Block Grant and HOME Investment Partnership programs;
  • Increased allocation and value of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits,    including a permanent cap on 4% credits;
  • Capital for community development financial institutions (CDFIs) so they can provide flexible financing for affordable housing.

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

The Legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf must prioritize housing assistance in deployment of the $4.9 billion in federal CARES Act funding it has received and allocate at least $400 million for similar housing needs. Also, it should lift the cap on tax-exempt bond financing.

City of Philadelphia

City Council and Mayor Kenney must protect tenants, property owners, and buildings by restoring $14 million in proposed cuts to the Housing Trust Fund and by deploying local, state and federal funds for:

  •    Rental assistance and housing services for tenants and landlords;
  •    Gap financing for new housing facing unanticipated cost overruns;
  •    Preservation of at-risk affordable rental housing.

CDFIs and other lending institutions must raise at least $50 million for flexible financing and asset management support to affordable housing owners to help them stabilize their finances and maintain their buildings. Foundations and corporations should commit $10 million to community development corporations and other nonprofits for housing assistance and services for vulnerable tenants and unsheltered individuals; and commit grants and program-related investments totaling at least $50 million for CDFIs to provide flexible financing to property owners.

As a leading CDFI and capacity-building organization, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) works with these sectors and stands ready to do its part. For 40 years, LISC has supported the development and preservation of 8,500 affordable homes and apartments in Philadelphia. But it will take collective and cross-sector action to adequately protect our vulnerable residents and preserve affordable housing. The time for talk is over. The time for action is now.