Pew finds most poor Philly renters receive no public assistance

A new study out today from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that the vast majority of low-income Philadelphians receive no assistance with their housing costs. As a result, many have to rely on unconventional and sometimes illegal arrangements to secure shelter.

“The key housing takeaway is that four out of five low-income households in the city live in private market housing with no rent subsidies,” said Octavia Howell, researcher for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research initiative and author of the report.  “80 percent of people living in that private housing are devoting at least half their income to housing costs." 

This data can be found in Pew’s report titled “Philadelphia’s Poor: Experiences From Below the Poverty Line,” which collects data from polls and the trust’s own analysis to provide insight into workforce participation, neighborhood violence, and insecure housing.

The research highlights the grim reality that government assistance for low-income housing does not reach the vast majority of those in need. Programs like the Housing Choice Voucher Program, colloquially known as Section 8, have never enjoyed the flexibility of, say, food subsidies programs.

Once someone’s income falls below a certain level they become eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps. Low-income people in need of housing, however, usually have to join the queue. There are 42,900 families currently on the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s waiting list. 

Pew’s report details the alternative arrangements that low-income people have to turn to for shelter. Many Philadelphians “double up,” where multiple families squeeze into the same house. They also turn to landlords who operate in the vast shadow economy of unregulated housing units in Philadelphia’s low-income neighborhoods. Pew found that around 28 percent of rental units in low-income neighborhoods did not have a rental license.

To get that number, Pew compared rental license data from the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections to Census data of the total number of rental housing units in every census tract in the city. (Public housing units were excluded.) 

“Unlicensed rentals are pretty highly concentrated in eastern north Philadelphia,” said Howell, “and that’s an area where there is a high poverty rate above 40 percent and that’s an area where there is a high concentration of Hispanics living in poverty.”

    • Pew map of poverty and high poverty census tracts in Philly
      Pew map of poverty and high poverty census tracts in Philly
    • Unlicensed rental units in Philly by census tract
      Unlicensed rental units in Philly by census tract
    • Philly eviction rate by census tract
      Philly eviction rate by census tract
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The research also tracks eviction and shows that eight percent of renters were kicked out of their homes in 2016. They also found that evictions for tenants with short term or verbal leases were twice as high where poverty was above 20 percent.

Bizarrely, the heavily Puerto Rican section of North Philadelphia east of Broad Street with a high concentration of rental housing without a license also had unusually low eviction rates. The more heavily African-American lower income neighborhoods west of Broad Street in North Philadelphia saw far higher eviction rates, even though income levels were very similar.

Asked if this disconnect might be related to illegal evictions from illegal housing units, Howell allowed that could be a possibility but says Pew had no data on the subject.

“We don’t have data on illegal evictions but that was something that was striking to me as well,” said Howell. “[It is strange] that you weren’t seeing evictions in this part of the city where poverty is really high.”

Much of the data trends collected in the report correlate to neighborhoods in Southwest, North, and West Philadelphia that have long been areas of concentrated poverty. But there are also outlier districts like the handful of census tracts on the border of Bucks County in the otherwise middle income Far Northeast.

“Philadelphia is home to nearly 400,000 people living below the poverty line,” the report concludes. “At a time when Philadelphia has been experiencing a growth in population, new investment, and household incomes, vast stretches of the city remain entrenched in poverty.”

WHYY is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly

About the author

Jake Blumgart, Reporter

Jake Blumgart is PlanPhilly's planning, development, and housing reporter. He covers the city's built environment and the people who live and work there. He lives in Cedar Park and has also contributed to Slate, CityLab, Next City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine, and the American Planning Association's magazine. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart and email him at


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