On November 1, Jill Roberts, Healthy Rowhouse Project Executive Director, and Markita Morris-Louis, Clarifi General Counsel and Senior Vice President for Community Affairs, testified before the Finance Committee of Philadelphia City Council on the subject of extending credit for low-to-moderate income homeowners to pay for important health-related repairs to their homes.
The Finance Committee was considering Bill 170878, sponsored by Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilwoman Cherelle Parker. When passed by Council, the bill will allow for the issuance of a $40 million bond to support a loan program for hard-working low-and-moderate income Philadelphia families. Roberts and Morris-Louis, along with other organizations, made the case that the loan program should reach Philadelphia homeowners with credit scores as low as 560, which is below the 620-640 range that most banks and lenders consider the minimum scores acceptable. Only with this lower credit score limit will the program be able to meet the needs of those residents City Council wishes to target with the home preservation loan program.
As an example of the need for the program, Emily Lucas of Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, said that Habitat’s home-repair program gets 300 calls a month asking for assistance. Thomas Flaherty of the Energy Coordinating Agency said 20 percent of the city’s affordable housing stock had been lost between 2000 and 2014 and sees the City losing “vibrancy of diversity and opportunity” as more is lost. Andy Frishkoff of LISC supported the bill’s inclusion of a loan program for landlords. Greg Heller of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, citing Philadelphia’s high (52 percent) rate of home ownership and our aging housing stock, enthusiastically backed the program.
A credit score can be low for many reasons, not just untimely payment of debts, such as insufficient traditional credit history or accounts not opened long enough or used frequently enough. These scores deprive people of the opportunity to maintain their homes and build wealth through homeownership.
Roberts testified that a low-interest loan program, like the one that Bill 170878 supports, is an essential tool to help homeowners maintain their homes and avoid displacement. Research by Healthy Rowhouse Project shows that extending credit to individuals with scores as low as 560 would allow up to 94,000 more Philadelphians, many who are homeowners, obtain the capital that they need to repair their homes.
A loan program with financial counseling— as well as other wrap around services incorporated into it can have very low default rates. In 2015, Detroit established a home-repair loan program, that lends to homeowners with credit scores as low as 560. Detroit currently has 570 loans outstanding to homeowners with credit scores below 660 and has suffered no defaults. Only three percent of the loans are as much as 90 days behind in payments. Detroit’s experiences shows what can happen with the right wrap-around services in place.
Higher credit score thresholds disproportionately exclude communities of color. Among the Philadelphians to whom Clarifi provided financial counseling from the beginning of 2015 through September of this year, the initial average credit score for people who self-identified as black or African American was 571, for people who self-identified as white or Caucasian the average credit score was just above 600. With counseling, the clients achieve an average 42-point increase in their credit score after about six to eight months. Even so, a gap remained along racial lines. Our next newsletter will explore this topic in more detail.
Roberts closed by citing the benefits of the loan program to the city as a whole. Homeowners need access to funds to improve their homes or many will face displacement and their health will continue to be harmed by mold and other unhealthy housing conditions. She asked the Committee members, “If our thousands of affordable houses turn to blight and decay, will there be enough affordable homes there for the next generation?”
The Healthy Rowhouse Project will continue to support City Council’s efforts to pass Bill 170878, to create resources for a loan program that will connect Philadelphia homeowners with credit scores as low as 560 to the capital they need to repair their homes and lead healthier lives. The bill is scheduled for a second reading at Council on November 16, and then may be passed shortly after that. We will keep you posted. Thank you, as always, for your support.
by Corianne Payton Scally for How Housing Matters
Housing organizations and health providers have realized they are natural allies. They serve the same people living in the same places, and are learning that their missions are aligned: improving housing quality and stability can lead to better population health outcomes. A growing emphasis on prevention within the health care sector has housing organizations eager to help. But partnering across sectors can be bumpy.
Last week, we shared best practices for engaging citizens in health and housing interventions discussed at a recent convening cohosted by the Urban Institute and the National League of Cities. But how do housing and health entities build partnerships in the first place? And how does their mutually supportive relationship work?
Community Development for All People
When Nationwide Children’s Hospital approached the city of Columbus, Ohio, for help with infrastructure for a facility expansion, the city brought the nonprofit community development corporation Community Development for All People (CD4AP) to the table to make sure the expansion offered maximum benefits for the surrounding neighborhoods. As Reverend Edgar of CD4AP recounted, the conversations “started small and grew over time as trust emerged, and we gradually realized that there was a lot we could do together that we simply weren’t able to realize independently.”
They discovered that their goals aligned and their resources were complementary. Nationwide Children’s could tap into its funds and leverage business relationships, while CD4AP could apply for government housing funds. That was the start of a 10-year partnership.
Together, they formed a subsidiary corporation owned by CD4AP and funded by the hospital, with a board chaired by Nationwide Children’s chief financial officer but made up of residents, CD4AP staff, and hospital staff. Healthy Homeshas completed the gut rehabilitation and sale of 71 vacant homes, new construction on infill lots, and 150 grants for current homeowners to undertake renovations. The partnership says it has reduced the number of vacant and blighted properties more than 50 percent, and property values have started to rise again—so much so that they are now focusing almost exclusively on providing affordable rental housing. Most recently, they completed a Low-Income Housing Tax Credit development with 2,500 square feet of job training space for the hospital to provide job readiness and skills training just a seven-minute walk from its front door.
Community Development for All People has expanded beyond housing to look at other social determinants of health in partnership with Nationwide Children’s, including neighborhood safety, neighborhood and family well-being, fresh fruit and vegetable distribution, peer health coaches, cooking classes in a demonstration kitchen funded by the hospital, and a social enterprise (a community bike repair shop). They have also launched a major initiative on reducing infant mortality where CD4AP identifies women who are pregnant or have infants and engages them through home visiting, connecting them to other resources for maternal and child health needs.
“It is housing first, absolutely,” said Reverend Edgar. “But in addition,…our priority is not just that the neighborhood looks better, in terms of housing, but that the people feel better…[with] zero displacement, in an opportunity-rich community.”
For other community development organizations, his advice was to start small by talking to the hospitals—not by telling them all the things they should be doing but aren’t, but by finding places where their goals align with yours. Show the value you bring to their work, including your legitimacy as a neighborhood advocate. As a large hospital on a national stage, Nationwide Children’s faces image risks if new programs don’t work right from the start. The partnership with CD4AP gives the hospital more capacity to try new things, especially because CD4AP is more willing to take the blame for failures and shield the hospital from negative feedback.
The Boston Housing Authority + Boston Public Health Commission Partnership
Public housing authorities provide rental housing to vulnerable individuals and families, including those who struggle with health issues. For a health organization, the local housing authority can be a valuable partner for reaching populations with prevention and treatment services. Early partnership efforts, however, should be mindful that housing authorities are often fighting an uphill battle to build a positive image and shed their recurring role as a scapegoat for all manner of neighborhood fears.
Trying to understand the source of health disparities, researchers nearly 20 years ago analyzed housing conditions within properties owned by the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), the largest landlord in Boston. Researchers found pests, mold, and dust contributing to residents’ poor health. But BHA was the subject of research, not a partner in the study. The independent study made the agency feel underappreciated and attacked. As Gail Livingston, deputy administrator for housing programs at BHA, described, “BHA’s first foray into public health issues could have been its last” if partners had not found a way to collaborate more effectively.
Fortunately, BHA cared about the findings and its residents’ health, despite its lack of voice in the initial research. As a key “impartial institutional player with a mission to make things better,” the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) got involved alongside BHA to launch follow-up programs and research focused on improving BHA residents’ health, including funding for BHA and the potential to improve operations rather than simply criticize them.
Since then, partners have worked hard together, including BHA, BPHC, and local universities. “Some people think partnerships just happen when you put people together and say ‘here is what you are doing [together],’ but it doesn’t happen like that by a longshot,” remarked Livingston. It takes slow and steady work to identify shared goals, overcome turf issues, build trust, and reach a shared understanding that solving problems together will make everyone’s jobs easier. Each partner brings important resources to the table that can be leveraged to work together, whether it is resources, expertise, or an audience with policymakers.
Just as in the case of CD4AP and Nationwide Children’s, small successes strengthened the partnership and led to larger ones. Livingston noted it started with “everyone want[ing] housing to be better and healthier for the people living there.” What began as a program on integrative pest management in a handful of BHA properties has expanded across its portfolio as part of its standard property management practices. By 2012, another major asthma trigger within its properties was eliminated when BHA adopted a smoke-free policy. The Boston Housing Authority also participates in a local partnership to house the homeless and is working with residents to combat obesity by reducing sugary drink consumption.
Local housing organizations, whether nonprofit community developers such as CD4AP or public housing authorities such as BHA, are critical partners in addressing local health needs. People usually spend more time in their home than anywhere else. If that critical environment doesn’t adequately promote health, the odds may be stacked against some of our most vulnerable neighbors. Though housing organizations have different terminology, different resources (with complicated compliance rules), and different skill sets than health providers, they are a natural ally for improving health and have proven themselves willing partners.
The Columbus and Boston partnerships started small and built on initial wins to sustain and expand their activities for the health of the people they serve. Starting such partnerships is hard work but entirely possible and definitely rewarding.