The grid of tents that dotted the Parkway’s Van Colln ball field this summer and fall are gone, but the problem they so vividly represented is not. Every tent was occupied by a person — sometimes two or three — who was unable to afford more sturdy shelter. While a deal has been made to provide real houses for the encampment’s residents, there are still more than 230,000 families in Philadelphia who must choose every month between making the rent or paying for life’s basic necessities.

Those families aren’t homeless — not yet, anyway. The official name for their situation is “cost-burdened.” The adults often have jobs, but don’t earn enough money to reliably cover their expenses. Partly because the minimum wage in Philadelphia remains fixed at $7.25 an hour by the state legislature, low-wage workers end up devoting a substantial portion of their paycheck to housing and utilities, far above the federal government’s recommended 30%. If anything major goes wrong — from a flat tire to a health crisis — those families risk being evicted for not paying their rent.

Some advocates say the government needs to fund more public and subsidized housing, so rents could be set at prices those families could easily afford. Others argue that the real estate market would quickly solve the problem if only the city would loosen up its zoning code to stop favoring single-family rowhouses and allow developers to build more apartments. While either approach would help, both solutions take a long time to bear fruit.

Maybe that’s why experts who specialize in housing policy have begun to talk with increasing excitement about a third way that President-elect Joe Biden put forward in his campaign platform. Under his proposal, every cost-burdened, low-income family would receive a check to bridge the gap between their actual rent and the rent they can afford. The impact would be immediate.

“It would be like food stamps, but for housing,” explained Anne Fadullon, who directs Philadelphia’s Department of Planning and Development, and is a fan of the proposal. “If you qualify, you get it.”

That’s it. With this one program, Biden could stabilize the housing situation for millions of cost-burdened renters.

Philadelphia Councilperson Kendra Brooks led a protest at City Hal in May to get Mayor Kenney to restore money cut from the city's Housing Trust Fund.
ALEJANDRO ALVAREZ / FILE PHOTOGRAPH

Philadelphia Councilperson Kendra Brooks led a protest at City Hal in May to get Mayor Kenney to restore money cut from the city’s Housing Trust Fund.

The idea of helping poor and low-wage workers with the rent isn’t exactly new. The federal government already provides rental assistance as part of its Section 8 voucher program. But Section 8 has been grossly underfunded for decades. The result is a kind of cruel lottery where just one in four qualified households scores a winning ticket.

Biden’s proposal calls for dramatically increasing funding so that cities no longer have to pick and choose who gets rental assistance. Every person living below the poverty line would be eligible for a subsidy, just as they’re now eligible for food stamps. That means a family of four earning less than $26,000 a year would pay 30% of their income toward rent and the government would pick up the remainder of the tab.

If you scroll through Biden’s campaign website, you’ll see a laundry list of ideas to address the nation’s housing problems. Most of the proposals are so wonky that a normal person’s eyes will quickly glaze over. The beauty of the universal rent subsidy — call it rent stamps if you want — is that it is simple to understand.

Of course, getting Congress to approve the plan probably won’t be so simple, especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate. Since Congress currently allocates about $19 billion for Section 8 vouchers, it would have to approve any increase to expand the program. A 2015 study by the Congressional Budget Office estimated that it would cost $50 billion to provide every cost-burdened household with a rent subsidy.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority has seen its federal funding slashed by more than a third in recent years, and has struggled to complete its plan for subsidized rental housing in the Sharswood section of North Philadelphia.
INGA SAFFRON / FILE PHOTOGRAPH

The Philadelphia Housing Authority has seen its federal funding slashed by more than a third in recent years, and has struggled to complete its plan for subsidized rental housing in the Sharswood section of North Philadelphia.

But Biden has already indicated that housing issues are going to be high on his to-do list, and pledged during the campaign to allocate $640 billion over 10 years to combat housing insecurity. The universal rent subsidy would be just a small a piece of that larger program — and significantly less than the $70 billion that homeowners now receive in tax breaks.

Biden’s detailed housing platform is evidence that previously overlooked issues of affordability, eviction and homelessness are now squarely at the center of the national conversation. He was the first presidential candidate in decades “to make fair housing an issue,” said Vincent J. Reina, a housing expert at Penn’s Weitzman School of Design. Biden has also been explicit in identifying the connection between housing and ending systemic racism, something he mentioned no less than three times in his victory speech after the results in Pennsylvania were announced.

He also won the election despite efforts by President Trump to demonize low-income housing. Throughout the campaign, Trump told voters that Biden would “abolish the suburbs” by allowing funding for affordable housing and enforcing fair-housing rules. The fact that so many suburban areas voted for Biden suggests that the message didn’t resonate.

In fact, some Philadelphia suburbs are finally talking about providing affordable housing in their own backyards, said Michael P. Malloy, a real estate lawyer in Chester County for the Obermeyer firm. “People are starting to realize that their kids aren’t going to be able to afford to live in Chester County if they don’t do something.” Delaware County just produced a housing plan and Monica Taylor, who joined the County Council last year, has been leading a conversation about building more affordable housing in Upper Darby’s downtown.

Because new entitlement programs are always suspect in the U.S., the challenge for Biden will be finding the right language to describe universal rent subsidies. Fadullon’s comparison to food stamps is a good place to start. The creation of the food stamp program, officially known as SNAP, in 1977 was one of those Congressional kumbaya moments when both parties came together to address hunger, a problem that afflicts both rural and urban communities. The initial bill was drafted by Sen. Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, and Sen. George McGovern, a left-leaning Democrat from South Dakota, and made law during the Carter administration.

Given the persistence of rural poverty in America, rental assistance should also have broad political appeal. ”We’ve made housing a partisan issue, when so much of it is nonpartisan,” says Reina. Ensuring that families have stable housing is crucial to chipping away at Philadelphia’s stubbornly high poverty rate, and affects everything from children’s health to their success in school.

Built during the Obama years, Paseo Verde apartments at 9th and Berks is one of the few successful projects in Philadelphia that mixes market-rate and affordable units.
WRT

Built during the Obama years, Paseo Verde apartments at 9th and Berks is one of the few successful projects in Philadelphia that mixes market-rate and affordable units.

Universal rent subsidy is also something many landlords would applaud. While eviction moratoriums have helped unemployed tenants stave off eviction during the pandemic, they have left landlords struggling to pay their own bills, everything from mortgage payments to maintenance.

It’s well known that many landlords are reluctant to accept tenants with rent vouchers. There was little enforcement of the Fair Housing laws during the Trump years. Biden has pledged to crack down on violations. His administration is also likely to ramp up funding for new affordable housing. Philadelphia and its housing authority saw their federal grants slashed by nearly a third over the last four years. Fadullon is hoping Biden will restore the lost funding. Without that extra housing supply, more rental vouchers still won’t be enough.

In the end, winning support for universal rental assistance will have to go beyond appealing to self-interest. As the Parkway encampment demonstrated, ensuring access to housing remains one of the great moral challenges of our time.