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Early in 2020, the City of Philadelphia was getting ready to launch a rental assistance program that doubled as a pilot that could serve as a national precedent for how housing assistance is provided.
Housing advocates had been talking for years about the need for a shallow rent subsidy to provide small amounts of money that would help low-income tenants pay their rent. The city budgeted for two small pilot programs to be run by the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC). One set of payments would go to participating landlords, and the other set of payments would be given directly to tenants for their housing. The City enlisted Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning Vincent Reina at the Weitzman School and Assistant Professor Amy Castro Baker at the School of Social Policy and Practice to track outcomes for both groups, and for a third control group that wouldn’t receive any subsidies.
Then the pandemic reached the United States. Since the spring, cities all over the country have been using money from the federal CARES Act to create small rental assistance programs of their own, aiming to prevent tenants from becoming homeless and thus more vulnerable to COVID-19. To monitor their success and share best practices, a growing group of city officials — starting with Philadelphia, Atlanta, Cleveland, Baltimore, Oakland and Los Angeles — are working with the Housing Initiative at Penn (HIP). The lessons they’re learning now will help inform how they administer housing assistance throughout the rest of the pandemic and beyond, says Vincent Reina, faculty director of HIP.
“We are going to be able to look at the impact of rent relief on individual outcomes and neighborhoods and things like that, but we’re also going to get to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of ways of providing support to households in need [generally] but also specifically in moments of crisis,” Reina says. “Our housing affordability problem is only going to be worse at the tail end of this, and we should not be convinced that this is the last pandemic or the last natural disaster or shock that we’re going to be seeing nationally or globally.”
HIP grew out of Reina’s research on housing policy in the U.S., and the relationships he built with city officials as part of that work. Along with Claudia Aiken, director of the Housing Initiative at Penn, Reina completed a Housing Action Plan for the City of Philadelphia in 2018. This year, Reina and Aiken also completed a community-wide housing strategy for Cincinnati and a statewide housing analysis for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. They’re currently working on a ten-year housing plan for Cleveland along with Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning Akira Drake Rodriguez. The Housing Initiative convened the six cities participating in its rental assistance research in May.
Aiken says that part of the goal is to help cities understand the tradeoffs involved in designing a locally funded rental assistance program: what kinds of tenants are eligible, how much monthly subsidy they can receive, how the subsidy can be used, and so on. All those considerations can determine how successful the programs are in achieving different outcomes.
The HIP team, which also includes Data Director Sydney Goldstein and Postdoctoral Fellow Jamaal Green, is surveying tenants who receive assistance in participating cities. They plan to ask participants over time about their ability to pay for housing, access childcare, keep their children in school, and pay for healthcare and other basic necessities, Aiken says. The goal is to track how well rental assistance helps prevent displacement, but also how it contributes to tenants’ overall economic security and physical and emotional well-being, with questions about worries and anxieties as well as ability to pay bills. Through PennPraxis, the consulting and community engagement arm of the Weitzman School, seven Design Fellows also contributed to the research project over the summer.
The research has two-way benefits. For HIP, it’s a growing pool of data that will contribute to an understanding of how housing assistance benefits individuals and neighborhoods. And for participating cities, it’s a chance to learn from each other’s successes and mistakes in real time, as a housing crisis unfolds.
Greg Heller, the senior vice president of community investment at the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, which is administering the city’s rental-assistance programs, says he’s been in weekly contact with Reina and HIP since the research project was launched. Heller notes that the U.S. spends a lot of money on Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8 vouchers, which help low-income tenants access housing on the private market, but which are limited by landlords’ willingness to accept them and the availability of relatively low-cost housing in the market. Direct cash assistance may be a more effective way of helping people find and keep housing, Heller says. And the work with HIP has allowed Philadelphia to dig into questions about program design that are on a lot of city officials’ minds.
“There’s a lot to evaluate through the rental assistance programs we have now, and there’s a lot of data to collect,” Heller says. “I think having a strong partnership between the agency that’s designing and delivering public programs and a really thoughtful and knowledgeable research team, like what Vincent has put together, is really valuable for city government.”
Since the rental-assistance research began, HIP has also added Los Angeles County to the list of jurisdictions providing data and helping to distribute surveys to participating tenants. Each jurisdiction has different pools of money and slightly different goals, says Aiken. Baltimore, for example, is hoping to help tenants cover past-due rent that may have accrued because of the pandemic or other challenges, while other cities are hoping to prevent tenants from falling behind on rent as the crisis evolves. Aiken hopes the variety of programs will help feed a rich trove of data that can help cities offer more effective programs in the future.
“This summer has kind of been a turning point for us,” Aiken says. “I think we’ve really built a network in a way that we didn’t have before. And I hope these cities and counties will see us as partners going forward as they continue to innovate housing policy.”