For generations, the modest Philadelphia row house has made the city a relatively affordable place to live. Over the past decade, that affordability has started to change, however. About 40% of households now qualify as housing cost-burdened, spending at least 30% of their income on shelter, according to a report issued in September by Pew’s Philadelphia research and policy initiative.
One factor is that local housing prices have risen in recent years, in part because of population growth. But the main cause of housing cost-burden is Philadelphia’s poverty rate, which is the highest among the nation’s 20 largest cities. “Housing affordability in Philadelphia is really different from other places,” says Elinor Haider, who directs the Pew initiative. “It’s not that prices are so high; it’s that incomes are so low.”
The initiative is now working to identify barriers to accessing home loans, learn from innovative home-funding polices in other cities, and improve targeting of limited resources, Haider says.
More loan capital also is needed, she says, to help existing homeowners perform upkeep on their properties and remain in their homes; the median age of the city’s 685,000 housing units is 72 years, and much of the housing is in need of repair that residents cannot afford. Homeowners who have low credit scores, as many low-income people do, often have problems securing home-repair loans.
The focus on this element of housing policy reflects a new mission in the city where The Pew Charitable Trusts was formed in 1948. Since the creation of the Philadelphia research initiative more than a dozen years ago, Pew has explored a range of issues in the city and conducted surveys of residents, providing rich analysis of city services and other topics—but without specific policy recommendations. Reports often compared Philadelphia with other similar cities, providing new insights on national urban issues.
Now, that research will continue—with “policy” added to the initiative’s name and mission.
The initiative is focusing on four key areas to address the quality of life in Philadelphia: easing the housing problem, contending with the opioid epidemic, modernizing the civil court system, and improving the city’s fiscal health. The work, all of which is seen through the lens of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, will involve collaboration with Pew experts working on those issues in a variety of states and at the federal level, expanding the organization’s expertise in its hometown.
“The commitment is to double down on our research and double down on the expertise we can bring to the city,” says Frazierita Klasen, the senior vice president who oversees Pew’s work in Philadelphia. “That is what this initiative represents: combining our local research capacity with our national subject-matter expertise to help identify evidence-based solutions that could be applied to Philadelphia. We’re moving from analysis to asking how can we get policy objectives achieved.”
Haider, who joined Pew in 2018, is a public finance expert with master’s degrees from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She knows her way around City Hall because of her previous leadership as an economic development official for former Mayor Michael Nutter and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., the city’s public-private economic development partnership.
“Our goal is a stronger and more resilient Philadelphia,” she says. “We hope to address challenges facing the city through what we see as actionable research that leads to positive change.”
Haider takes over from Larry Eichel, a former top editor, columnist, and national reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer who started the Philadelphia research initiative in 2009. Eichel continues as senior adviser.
From its beginning, the Philadelphia research initiative aimed to bring facts to bear on the challenges faced by an old industrial metropolis at the outset of a new century.
In March 2009, the research initiative issued the first of its annual “State of the City” reports, which presented elected officials, policy advocates, and the news media with a complex portrait of Philadelphia gleaned from scores of measurable indicators, including demographics, household income, job growth and unemployment, and crime. Pew researchers followed that with several reports looking into the immediate problem of how to close the city’s budget gap. Would the licensing of casino gambling make a dent—and at what social cost? Would raising taxes help or hurt over the long run? How much of a problem was the size of city government itself?
“There really was nobody else doing this kind of work,” Eichel says. “When we started, Philadelphia was still seen as a city in long-term decline, or at least a place that was stuck, that wasn’t going anywhere.”
Over the years, the work of the research initiative closely followed the arc of the city itself. A 2014 report provided an early look into the expanding population of millennials, a phenomenon that had been widely observed by residents but had not been quantified. In 2016, Pew reported on gentrification and neighborhood change. In 2017, it explored the large influx of immigrants, which, with the boom in millennials, was causing the city’s overall population to grow for the first time in decades. The city that was stuck seemed to be getting unstuck.
Always, however, there was Philadelphia’s poverty problem, which looms even larger in the wake of the pandemic. Against that backdrop, Pew looked at the minimum wage, school closings, drug-related homicides, the lack of summer jobs for teens, and the opioid crisis.
Cherelle Parker, a member of Philadelphia City Council who has worked closely with Pew, says the Trusts’ help has been embraced by city officials because it is seen as nonpartisan and concerned with the big picture framed by long-term trends.
Pew “has helped give us direction,” Parker says. “It is invaluable to have independent, nonpartisan, data-driven information. The entity that produces this research has to have the respect and trust of the people in order for it to be valuable. And Pew has that.”
Although the Philadelphia initiative has identified policy areas where it will focus its work, it will recommend no positions before beginning its research, Klasen says. “Our policy recommendations will be grounded in data, the facts, and evidence,” she says.
Pew’s ability to break down its research data for each of the 10 City Council districts has been an eye-opener for Parker—particularly regarding data that deals with the crucial issue of housing stability in her area, Northwest Philadelphia, which includes several large neighborhoods that have historically high levels of African American homeownership.
She says the data showed her that although helping people to buy housing is important, the more pressing issue in her district is helping the existing residents, many of them seniors, to maintain their homes. Doing so helps not only them, Parker says; it also helps
“Homeownership stabilizes neighborhoods,” Parker says. “Any neighborhood where you see a high level of civic engagement, a high level of voter participation, that’s an area where people have a stake in their community.”
Pew’s goal to help the city with another of its key problems—opioid misuse—goes beyond any particular neighborhood or area of the city. Heroin and heroin substitutes are sold openly on the streets of low-income Kensington, but substance use disorders exist in every neighborhood, often the result of people becoming dependent on the pain drugs initially prescribed by their doctors.
A 2018 Pew report noted that the city is “facing one of the highest drug overdose death rates in the nation, fueled predominantly by an intensifying opioid crisis.” City health officials have said they expect the 2020 death toll to be even higher as a result of fallout from the pandemic.
The fight against the opioid epidemic has been led by primary care and emergency room doctors and clinics. Pew proposes to bring together a larger array of stakeholders, including city government, medical schools, hospitals, and insurance companies, to break down factors that have limited the use of buprenorphine, one of the most effective drugs for opioid treatment.
Another new area of focus—modernization of the civil courts—is Philadelphia Municipal Court’s Civil Division, where small claims cases are heard. Each year, thousands of Philadelphians are called into court over disputes involving housing, family relations, insurance, personal injury, and other financial claims under $12,000, all of which are likely to proliferate as a result of the pandemic.
These cases can be devastating for people with low incomes, many of whom miss their court appearances—sometimes because they never received notice to appear—and wind up with judgments against them, ruining their credit and hindering their chance to climb out of poverty. Pew is working on civil court modernization nationally and will examine similar courts in other cities, looking for good examples to apply in Philadelphia.
The fourth area of focus—helping to improve the city’s fiscal health—represents the continuation of a long-term effort by Pew’s Philadelphia researchers.
Because of high demand for services, as well as the aging infrastructure of streets, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, and water lines, Philadelphia’s finances are precarious even in the best of economic times. And the city is already one of the most heavily taxed in the nation, limiting the options for new tax revenue.
Pew’s research and policy initiative proposes to help Philadelphia with its budgeting practices, having encouraged the city to put money away for the next economic downturn in a rainy day fund. Haider and her team are working with the city to better understand its small-business ecosystem and make tax incentives more effective in producing economic development and jobs.
Pew works to help policymakers stabilize pension funding in states around the nation, including Pennsylvania, and hopes to continue to build on that experience in Philadelphia, where the deferred cost of employee pension obligations affects the city’s ability to provide funding for schools, streets, and other services. Fifteen percent of the city’s general fund revenue goes to pension payments.
A 2008 report co-produced by Pew and the Pennsylvania Economy League, “Philadelphia’s Quiet Crisis: The Rising Cost of Employee Benefits,” helped bring the issue to center stage. A year later, Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative released a follow-up report, “Quiet No More: Philadelphia Confronts the Cost of Employee Benefits.” Then, in 2010, another report was titled “Not Out of the Woods.”
Pew has followed the issue year by year since then. In 2014, the city moved to dedicate a portion of its sales tax revenue to pension funding, which has helped reduce unfunded pension debt. A Pew analysis in 2017 found that the city still owed $11.3 billion in back payments and that the pension fund had only 43% of the money required to cover its obligations. But, Haider says, Philadelphia has been making real and steady progress, as documented in a 2019 Pew report that found the city in good position to substantially pay down its pension debt in the decade ahead.
As part of that work, Pew recently convened a meeting of Philadelphia finance officials with their counterparts from other cities. Ron Dubow, who as Philadelphia finance director chairs the pension fund board, says it was helpful to compare best practices from around the country. It was also encouraging, he says, to hear from Pew’s “outside independent” experts—who work with pension officials in other states and cities—that Philadelphia is on track toward substantially replenishing the pension fund within a few more years.
Pew is now working with Parker and others on City Council to draft legislation to require regular stress testing of the city’s pension system to prepare for financial potholes that might appear in the road ahead—such as the coronavirus crisis, something that no one could have anticipated. When the pandemic hit, Pew quickly attempted to assess
its impact on Philadelphia.
“This kind of work is what really differentiates Pew,” Haider says. “We’re able to think about the long term in ways that other organizations can’t. Pensions is a perfect example of something that needs to be looked at over the long term if you’re thinking about the future of the city.”
It’s the sort of work that will help build a more resilient city, she says, and that “is what the Philadelphia research and policy initiative is all about.”
“Philadelphia is Pew’s hometown, and we care deeply about it,” Klasen adds. The new mission of the research and policy initiative, she says, “represents a commitment to help the city of Philadelphia come to terms with its challenges.”
Tom Infield is a longtime Philadelphia journalist and frequent contributor to Trust.