But it isn’t really a housing problem — it’s an income problem.
The housing itself is quite cheap here compared to most of Philadelphia’s peer cities. The real issue is the 28.4 percent poverty rate, one of the highest in the nation. Cheap as the housing is in absolute terms, a sizable segment of the population still doesn’t earn enough money to afford it.
Which, fair enough. The fact that housing affordability can be broken down into two relatively distinct issues – housing costs, on the one hand, and income, on the other – is actually a really important point and, based on the income data the author provides for various neighborhoods in Philadelphia, it seems that the city does, in fact, have a major income problem.
(A “housing” problem exists when a city’s housing costs are higher than they should be, based on the cost of land and construction. That’s usually a result of artificially low density restrictions. An “income” problem is just when people can’t afford to pay for housing, even when its price is as low as the market can reasonably bear. See Glaeser and Gyourko’s Rethinking Federal Housing Policy for a longer, more involved explanation.)
But the fact that Philly has an income problem doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also have a housing problem. And I would bet a fair amount of money that it does.
For one, although the author shows that a variety of poor inner-city and gentrifying neighborhoods have very low rental costs, a quick jaunt over to Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks suggests that the wealthy central city and a large number of surrounding suburbs have much higher costs.
For two – and this is a point I wish would come up more in affordable housing conversations – it really doesn’t cut it for there to be affordable housing units if those units are largely in poor, segregated neighborhoods with high crime, terrible schools, and little access to basic amenities like, say, grocery and hardware stores. I haven’t been to Philadelphia, so I can’t speak from personal experience, so maybe I’m off base – but going off of the little I know (from anecdotal and more rigorous sources), that seems to be the situation, as it is in many large American cities. We should not, in a country with the resources and commitment to a high standard of living that we have, be satisfied that people can put a roof over their heads. The mandate, I think, is that they can live in a place that you, reader, would not be aghast to raise your children in. That doesn’t seem like so much to ask.
So yes, by all means, let’s call attention to the fact that affordable housing, in most places, involves both fixing our housing policy and lifting incomes. But let’s not kid each other that the housing problem is fixed when so many of the places with the best access to the most basic accoutrements of a decent life are still off-limits.