Think you have a housing problem? Why Philly says it doesn't

Does your city have an affordable housing shortage? Many cities think they have one, but one Philadelphia councilman says if you’re focused on housing, you’re focusing on the wrong problem.

He says a housing problem is really a jobs problem. If you could raise the standard of living through better jobs, homes, he says, would be affordable.

Of course, that may be an over-simplification. A city can’t survive with tech workers alone. But he does have a point that’s worth exploring. There are two sides to the affordable housing equation, and the jobs side often has untapped potential.

Philadelphia was one of the five inaugural winners of our Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge Grants. Act now to apply for one of our 2018 grants. — Kevin Ebi


If your city had a shortage of affordable housing in 2010, it’s probably in an affordable housing crisis today, according to a new analysis by mortgage lender Freddie Mac.

The report finds that the number of apartments within reach of very low income people has dropped by 60% over that period of time. In some states — North Carolina, Washington, Florida, Georgia and California, in particular — it found almost no units they could afford.

Freddie Mac says that without some government subsidy, the very concept of affordable housing is becoming extinct for very low income people, defined as people who make less than half the median wage for an area. It says the problem in the rental market is one of supply; after the housing market collapsed, people who were homeowners flooded the rental market.

A housing problem or a jobs problem?
But is it really a housing problem? Philadelphia councilman Allan Domb says to address the housing issue, cities really need to look to creating better jobs. The city has 400,000 living in poverty.

“We don’t have a housing problem as much as we have a jobs problem,” Domb told the audience at Philadelphia’s Smart Cities Council Readiness Workshop (applications for 2018 grants are now open). “If you get them a job, they can afford a house.”

When we think of high-paying jobs we think of high-tech jobs, and Domb said a misconception is that those jobs require a high level of education. One-third of coding jobs, he points out, don’t even require a college degree.

But it’s also about making other workers more valuable. Anne Froble, an IoT and digital transformation mentor at Cisco, says technology allows people to do jobs across departments — consider a garbage truck driver who could also read water meters — making them more valuable.

It’s also about keeping the well-educated
Cities also need to offer support to recent college graduates — people who have the skills to innovate and create new opportunities. Michael Borda, director of strategic initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, says while they’re students, people have access to a lot of resources (think: researchers, lab space, advanced computer equipment).

“The moment they graduate,” he says, “it’s kind of a big cliff they fall off.”

All those resources vanish and they’re forced to go it alone. The university finds many of the graduates end up leaving the area, heading for cities that have more resources and offer more of a start-up environment.

There is an opportunity, however, for cities to find a way to nurture those recent graduates, hopefully capturing their innovations to raise the living standards for everyone.