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The lesson of the Philadelphia fire: It’s not about more subsidized housing

by Howard Husock

 January 13, 2022 12:00 AM

The tragic Philadelphia row house fire last week claimed the lives of 12 residents, including eight children. The fact 18 people had lived in the two apartments that the house had been divided into has been linked less to fire safety than to an affordable (subsidized) housing shortage.

Wrote the New York Times: “The situation — a growing family forced to crowd ever more tightly into the apartment it already had — is not unique to Philadelphia. Across the country, a crisis in affordable housing has been festering for years, and with the lifting of eviction moratoriums and the dwindling of rental assistance funds offered during the coronavirus pandemic, it is only getting worse.”

But a closer examination of what happened in Philadelphia actually raises questions about the effectiveness of one of the most favored versions of subsidized housing as an antidote to poverty: relocating public housing families to so-called “high-opportunity zip codes.”

The Philadelphia victims were a public-housing eligible household living in a “scattered-site” home owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority and located in the high-income Fairmount neighborhood (median household income: $84,000). But there’s little evidence that living in a housing project in an upscale area (instead of a low-income area) has the sort of positive effects social science has predicted. Indeed, one can reasonably conclude that the availability of the Housing Authority unit in Fairmount allowed the poverty of its residents to worsen.

The idea that moving to a better neighborhood will somehow serve as a path out of poverty has gained traction ever since the 2015 publication of work by prominent Harvard economist Raj Chetty that endorsed the idea. Chetty wrote that “offering low-income families housing vouchers and assistance in moving to lower poverty neighborhoods has substantial benefits for the families themselves and for taxpayers. It appears important to target such housing vouchers to families with young children — perhaps even at birth — to maximize the benefits.”

That is exactly what the Philadelphia Housing Authority did for the families hurt or killed in last week’s fire. In 2011, it offered three sisters, all single mothers, the apartments with a combined four bedrooms. There were six residents in all. There is no getting around the fact that low-income single parents and their children are at high risk for a lifetime of poverty and other problems. Among single-parent households in Philadelphia, 42% are in poverty compared to 25% of the city’s overall population.

By the time of their most recent lease, the number of residents had increased from six to 14. As the Times put it, “There were three sisters ... and a growing number of children.”

We do not know the details about the mothers’ employment, but subsidized housing terms discourage any income increase because earning more leads to higher rent (subsidized rents are set at 30% of income). At the time of the fire, the resident count had increased to 18.

In effect, the affordable housing crisis is a crisis disproportionately affecting low-income single mothers. Housing policy is not just about housing. It hinges on a decision as to whether the needs of those who make a decision that lays the foundation for poverty should be accommodated with a subsidy — and, indeed, whether that actually benefits single mothers and their children. HUD records show that 79% of subsidized-housing households are female-headed, and 41% of households with children are headed by single parents, compared to only 6% of such households headed by two parents.

Those who argue the route out of poverty lies in relocating the poor in wealthier neighborhoods continue the fundamental error of public housing that Harvard housing expert Alex von Hoffman has called “environmental determinism.” It is actually the set of choices one makes to improve one’s prospects — the so-called success formula of completing high school, deferring child-bearing, and remaining employed — that make it possible for low-income households to move to a better neighborhood and to make low-income neighborhoods themselves better.

The same non-results are likely to occur as a result of the other "silver bullet" policy currently favored by subsidized housing advocates — new "mixed-income" neighborhoods or buildings whose very mix is supposed to uplift the poor.

The lesson of the Philadelphia fire is not one about expanding subsidized housing. Rather, it shows that moving to a higher-income neighborhood without the life decisions that make such a move up possible is no path out of poverty.

Howard Husock is a senior fellow in domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on municipal government, urban housing policy, civil society, and philanthropy. He is the author of The Poor Side of Town: And Why We Need It.

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