We Need to Prioritize Home Repair
Interventions in Philadelphia
By Cade Underwood
Image: Middle Class Row House in Black Neighborhood of North Philadelphia, August 1973.
Source: Dick SwansonSource: The U.S. National Archives
Cade Underwood is a dual degree Master of City Planning and Law School student with a general concentration in housing, debt, and ownership. Cade studies cooperative economies, community ownership, housing financialization, public finance, the political economy of debt, and how working people can reclaim the power to their housing and labor.
Philadelphia’s housing crisis—decades in the making, exacerbated dramatically by COVID-19—is overwhelmingly due to the reduction of affordable units. Between 2000 and 2014, Philadelphia lost one out of five housing units with rents that fell below $750 per month. Part of this decline is residents—both homeowners and tenants—have lost homes because they were unable to maintain them.  Between 2015 and 2017, around 75 percent of low- to medium-income homeowners have been denied home repair loans from traditional lenders, meaning that many of our neighbors are struggling quite literally to keep a roof over their head.  As we try to recover from a year of profound instability, a growing mountain of evidence is showing that home repair interventions are uniquely powerful tools for equitable city redevelopment.
 Howell, Octavia. 2020. “The State of Housing Affordability in Philadelphia.” Pew Trust.
 McCabe, Caitlin. 2018. “Getting a home improvement loan in Philly is harder when you’re low-income or a minority, study shows.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 27,2018
 Blumgart, Jake. 2016. “What’s at stake if Toomey and Trump cut funding to Philly?” WHYY, December 2, 2016.
 “Basic Systems Repair Program | Making Philadelphia Better Block by Block.” n.d. Philadelphia Land Bank.
 “Restore Repair Renew | Making Philadelphia Better Block by Block.” n.d. Philadelphia Land Bank.
 “Built to Last.” n.d. Philadelphia Energy Authority.
 “Repairing a Home, Improving a Child’s Health: CAPP+.” n.d. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Accessed February 20, 2022.
Home repair is one of the few existing redevelopment tools that strives to keep people in their homes. Devoting public dollars to opportunity zones and abatements on new construction frequently leads to rising prices and the displacement of longtime residents. But investing in home repair for low-income homeowners – especially in a city with one of the highest rates of Black homeownership in the country – grants communities the stability to stand against gentrification, exploitation, and climate change.
In an era of decreased state and federal support, the City of Philadelphia has been locally funding home repair interventions for decades.  Philadelphia launched its Basic Systems Repair Program (BSRP) in 1995 to provide free repairs to low-income owner-occupied homes.  More recently, the City of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority launched a new initiative, Restore, Repair, Renew (RRR), to help lower income homeowners access low-interest loans for home repairs.  RRR is specifically for homeowners who make too much for BSRP but do not qualify for traditional financing. These two programs operate alongside several other targeted critical interventions such as adaptive modifications for residents with intellectual and physical disabilities, weatherization for climate resiliency, and HVAC repairs for greater energy efficiency. Homeowners frequently need to apply for several programs to approach their home’s repair needs holistically. Precisely to address this, The Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA) has launched a pilot program – Built to Last – designed to support homeowners with needs that span across multiple programs.  PEA’s whole home approach is predicated on not just the intersection of homeowner needs, but also on the fact that stable housing is fundamental to a safe and resilient society. Philadelphia has been making impressive strides on public home repair interventions, which is commendable. However, these programs often have long waitlists and often do not fully meet low-income homeowners’ needs. As new studies on health, safety, and climate are released, we know now that every dollar spent on repairing homes is not simply stopping homes from collapsing on our neighbors. The following studies demonstrate how every dollar spent on repairing homes is also associated with falling crime rates, increased public health, intergenerational wealth building, and climate change mitigation.
Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) has identified decaying homes as a central culprit in preventing asthma in Philadelphian children.  Through their CAPP+ home repair projects, they have seen a reduction of 40 to 50 percent in hospitalization rates in communities they serve.
Image:Council President Darrell L. Clarke in Olney celebrating fresh funding for the Basic Systems Repair Program.
Source: Jared Piper/PHL Council Fellow[
"Home repair unites affordable housing work, the fight for racial justice, and public health. Critically, it also is imperative for meeting environmental justice goals.”
Home repair and maintenance also have critical impacts on public health and environmental justice. Older residential properties often contain unremedied lead, untreated mold, and leaky roofs. Gas hookups for stoves and other appliances are correlated with higher rates of asthma in children. These inefficient homes have external costs: In Philadelphia according to the Office of Sustainability, buildings and industry constitute 79 percent of our city’s greenhouse gas emissions. 
Home repair interventions are uniquely positioned to attack all these problems at once. Home repair unites affordable housing work, the fight for racial justice, and public health. Critically, it also is imperative for meeting environmental justice goals. The energy needed to repair a home compared to that required to build a new one (and demolish and cart away the remains of an older one) is much lower. Furthermore, home weatherization makes those homes more efficient as well as sturdier against the rain-wracked, increasingly disastrous storms that characterize our era of climate change.
New research also shows a significant association between home repair and crime reduction in Philadelphia. Contrary to the debunked “broken-windows theory” that has been used to justify heightened policing, this research suggests something critically different.  These repair programs help our neighbors feel secure, stress-free, and comfortable in the place that they already call home. The residents who are integral and historic parts of their neighborhoods are the experts on how to keep their own communities safe – not outside agents like the police. And these residents can only keep their neighborhoods safe when they have stable homes in those neighborhoods.
Lastly, long-term homeowners of well-maintained homes can pass those homes down as intergenerational wealth. In a city of Black homeowners, this is critical to building intergenerational wealth in communities of color.  Years of racist lending practices encoded in federal policy were designed to exclude Black homebuyers from lending and housing markets: from denying access to federally subsidized mortgage lending programs (“redlining”) to practices of locking Black people into substandard properties with punishing loan terms (what the scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor calls “predatory inclusion”).
In many respects, it isn’t surprising that the project of home repair offers an unparalleled look into the profound difficulties, and potential solutions, facing our city and state. And there are still more aspects of the idea that have yet to receive sufficient attention. For example, the extent to which a home repair program could include renters, by having grants to landlords be contingent on guaranteeing deed-restricted affordability. The history and success of existing programs, however partial their implementation and despite the overall lack of federal and state support, suggests the power of home repair as well as the need to do more.
Recent polling from Data for Progress suggests that investing in programs designed to make our homes more efficient has support across the political spectrum in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania legislature often pleads “poverty” in response to public calls for greater spending, a response that could not be more mendacious than today, when the Pennsylvania legislature sits on billions of unspent federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan.  Importantly, it is not just Philadelphia; the need for home repair is clear across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In its 2020 Pennsylvania Comprehensive Housing Study, the PA Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) found that Pennsylvania has one of the oldest housing stocks in the country and that age correlates strongly with the need for repair.  It is long past time for Harrisburg to begin investing heavily in the infrastructure for all Pennsylvanians to access holistic home repair programs.
Lastly, while the City of Philadelphia has made strong efforts in home repair, it has yet to consider public programs for home repair as big budgetary priorities. Extensive research suggests home repair interventions could be a powerfully efficient use of city funding to foster safer neighborhoods, less displacement, stronger communities, and intergenerational wealth. It is time for Philadelphia to make home repair a central budget priority.