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Illustration of all kinds of people wearing hats in the shape of house roofs.

The Housing Initiative at Penn tackles issues of affordability and accessibility before, during, and after the pandemic.

COVID-19 has added millions to the roster of people struggling to keep up with housing costs, but the struggle itself is nothing new, says Vincent J. Reina, associate professor of city and regional planning at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design. According to the US Census Bureau, as of this summer about 8 percent of homeowners and around 16 percent of renters were behind on their payments, and the fate of the Centers for Disease Control’s nationwide eviction moratorium remains in doubt even after a recent two-month extension for the majority of the country that will last until October 3. 

“The pandemic highlighted that many of us have no safety net when it comes to housing—but that’s been the case all along,” says Reina, who is also faculty director of the Housing Initiative at Penn (HIP). “We just needed to acknowledge these supply and demand issues and to realize that government can use tools to alleviate them.” One of HIP’s primary missions, he adds, is to help local jurisdictions get a handle on housing barriers and develop strategies to address them effectively.

Reina worked at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and as a senior program officer at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), where he underwrote financing for affordable housing developments across the country, before coming to Penn in 2016. Not long after that, he and one of his then-graduate students, Claudia Aiken GCP’18, partnered with LISC to prepare Housing for Equity, the City of Philadelphia’s first ever housing plan.

“Through detailed neighborhood planning efforts and a robust effort to develop a historic preservation plan, the city had set the foundation for a lot of meaningful work,” Reina says—which was “a great start, but if you want to meaningfully address housing in any city, you need to make links between all of those components.”

Housing plans dig into supply shortages, repairing or upgrading existing housing, and issues of fairness, affordability, and access. “The idea is to identify opportunities for improvement and figure out how the government can play a role and if the private sector can help,” he explains.

The work for Philadelphia generated interest from officials in other cities, who approached Reina for help writing their own housing plans. Realizing “we had a thing,” he says, he and Aiken set up the HIP program and she was hired to run it. Sydney Goldstein GCP’18 soon joined them as research director. The group has produced housing plans and studies with local practitioners for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the cities of Cincinnati and Cleveland (with the participation of Akira Drake Rodriguez, assistant professor of City and Regional Planning).

HIP has also developed a concurrent research specialty in examining government responses to the pandemic when it comes to rent relief programs and other housing assistance. The CDC has cited HIP’s reports in previous extensions of the eviction moratorium. While the agency approached this from a COVID-related public health standpoint—reasoning that allowing people to stay in their homes would facilitate isolation should they become sick, as well as keep them out of “congregate settings” like homeless shelters—the public health dangers of housing inequities go beyond the pandemic. When people struggle to pay their housing bills, that money also comes out of other expenses like healthcare and food.

If keeping up on the rent (or mortgage) payment is one half of the problem, the other half is the increased difficulty of locating affordable housing, a struggle that has grown increasingly familiar to middle-class Americans. Over the past five decades, new housing construction has gradually shifted toward larger and more expensive homes. Last year only about 7 percent (65,000) of new homes completed could be considered entry-level, which is less than one-fifth the number of entry-level homes built annually during the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to mortgage loan company Freddie Mac.

Creative takes on increasing affordability and accessibility include erecting “tiny” houses (as small as 300 square feet), legalizing accessory dwelling units (from backyard shacks to mother-in-law suites); encouraging co-living communities with shared kitchens and baths; enacting zoning that restricts single-family home construction in favor of more multi-family units; and converting hotels to housing for the homeless, as has been done on a temporary basis during the pandemic.

“There’s no one single solution,” Reina says. “Housing is so entangled with a broader set of societal problems—segregation, discrimination, barriers to credit—that it’s become a persistent national crisis.”

Geography matters, too. “Two cities can have an affordability problem, but the drivers can be very different,” Reina points out. “San Francisco, for example, is a high-cost market with a distinct undersupply of affordable housing. In Philadelphia, though, there’s plenty of aging housing stock—but not enough incentives for investing in them.”

Even when government lends a hand—with tax incentives or Housing Choice Vouchers, federal rental subsidies more commonly known as Section 8—the need greatly exceeds the funding, he adds. Nearly 200,000 households applied for 20,000 spots when Los Angeles reopened its waiting list for vouchers for the first time in more than a decade. 

HIP recently partnered with six jurisdictions—Atlanta, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Oakland, Philadelphia, and the State of California—to evaluate their varied approaches to COVID-related rent relief. “We’ll be asking questions like: What restrictions do they come with, how are they designed, who’s using them, how are dollars getting out the doors, what are the administrative burdens, how do they relate to political control, how do they address broader issues of racial equality?”

With a new administration in Washington and a renewed interest in housing, Reina feels optimistic. “I’m excited to see the lack of federal commitment toward housing reversed,” he says. “For too long, we’ve politicized housing and stopped abruptly in the face of criticism. The reality is that these are complex issues and so we have to keep looking at them from new angles.”

And by doing that, he hopes HIP can use the assets of the academy to realize practical solutions. “With the rent relief work, we’ve been placed at the center of a national conversation that I wasn’t expecting,” Reina says. “It’s showed me that there’s real opportunity in partnering with municipalities and developing new and innovative programs.”

JoAnn Greco

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