Byline: Caitlin McCabe
Date: 1/18/2018

Long before her roof leaked, her pipes cooled at night, and holes and cracks crept along her house’s walls, Christine Soder worked to build a life for herself in Philadelphia’s once-thriving Frankford neighborhood.

She bought a modest house, worked a full-time factory job, and raised a son. Soder was happy and money was plentiful, she said. “We always had what we needed.”

Then, in 2003, everything changed: She injured her back on the job, forcing her to take a leave from work. Months later, her husband suffered a massive seizure and died unexpectedly. Silently, cancer had spread through his body, she said. Neither of them knew.

The years that followed were a blur: There were funeral services, workers’ compensation payments, back surgeries, and unemployment. And debt — lots of debt.

All the while, her 1940s-era Frankford home continued to age, but home repairs had to wait — even when the roof began to leak two years ago, staining her ceiling with water. Soder, now 66, worries that the pipes in her basement crawl space will freeze during the cold winter. She has spent days haphazardly plastering holes that have appeared in her walls. And while she considered applying to city home repair grant programs, Soder said she was deterred by warnings of a multiyear wait.

“I’m trying to just live each day as I can, trying to save up, which is hard,” said Soder, who works as a volunteer at St. Christopher’s Hospital. “You have monthly bills you have to pay. … I just can’t afford to pay a roofer.”

Soon, however, that might change for Soder and potentially thousands of other low- and middle-income Philadelphia residents. Starting this summer, the city is launching a low-interest loan program that aims to give homeowners as much as $25,000 to fix up their aging homes.

The initiative — born out of city legislation passed in 2016 and called the Housing Preservation Loan Program — aims to give residents who have struggled to get loans a new chance at borrowing. For years, homeowners who had less-than-perfect credit scores — and who were not eligible for city grants — were forced to sideline major repairs, worsening their home’s problems.

Collectively, officials say, it’s created a city housing stock filled with more troubles than just old houses. In 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 160,000 homes in the Philadelphia metro area experienced roof leaks. Nearly 120,000 had a crumbling foundation. At least 70,000 homes had mold. And 258,000 were reported as being “uncomfortably cold” for 24 hours or more.

“We have this extraordinary asset in these resilient rowhouses, but we are going to lose them because they are falling apart,” said Karen Black, the CEO of the research firm May 8 Consulting and the cofounder of the Healthy Rowhouse Project, a local advocacy program that worked with city officials to create the loan program. “If folks live in safe, quality housing, their children do better in school. They have more stability. It changes their health.”

Black, along with architect Kiki Bolender, founded the Healthy Rowhouse Project in 2014 to raise awareness of that very issue: Too much of Philadelphia’s housing was slipping into disrepair, they thought. And even while their research found that 54 percent of Philadelphia’s homes could be repaired for $10,000 or less, many residents do not have those funds, they said — raising major health and safety problems.

“Installing a grab bar for a senior is $50. A broken hip is $50,000,” said Jill Roberts, executive director of the Healthy Rowhouse Project. “Some of these simple interventions are really needed.”

By 2016, city officials were more than listening. That year, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke proposed raising Philadelphia’s real estate transfer tax from 3 to 3.1 percent — an extra $200 in taxes on a $200,000 home — to find revenue for home repair. In total, Clarke planned to pump a $100 million bond into repairing the city’s housing stock, using future transfer tax revenue to pay down the debt.

Specifically, Clarke and his cosponsor, Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, envisioned splitting that $100 million into two categories: $40 million would go to create the new loan program, which will be housed under the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. The remaining $60 million would be used to alleviate massive backlogs in the city’s home-repair grant programs.

“We think that the most significant opportunity for us to create affordable housing is to keep a person in their existing home, as opposed to a highly subsidized housing unit that is affordable,” Clarke said Tuesday. “That costs between $300,000 and $400,00 a unit. Here, we give you an extended life of that household.”

For years, three of the city’s home repair grants — the Basic Systems Repair, Weatherization Assistance, and Adaptive Modifications Programs — had faced a three-to-five-year waiting list of nearly 8,000 residents. In May, those programs received the $60 million cash infusion. Already, city officials have reached out to half of those wait-listed and productivity has “tripled,” said Dave Thomas, executive vice president of the Division of Housing and Community Development.

The low-interest loan program has been slower to launch as the city has searched for financial lenders to partner with the Redevelopment Authority. The agency issued a Request for Proposals in late December, seeking private or nonprofit lenders who will service the new program’s loans. According to Greg Heller, executive director for the Redevelopment Authority, the city’s intention is to “reduce the public sector’s role as much as possible” because “the private sector can originate and service these loans more quickly and efficiently than we can.”

“We think that is a more efficient use of public dollars,” Heller said.

The new loan program comes at a time when public officials have publicly expressed concern that Philadelphia has become “a tale of two cities.” In recent years, the city has experienced an influx of wealthy residents and an unprecedented development boom. Yet at the same time, Philadelphia faces a poverty rate of nearly 26 percent and thousands of residents with credit scores far below a healthy range.

According to research from the Healthy Rowhouse Project, 24,000 Philadelphia households applied for home-repair loans on the private market between 2012 and 2014, with nearly half requesting less than $10,000. Yet 62 percent of those applications were denied — a rate that exceeds the national average of 37 percent.

“The main reason they deny them is credit scores,” Black said. “Right now, a lot of lenders are not extending credit to folks with scores below 660.”

In contrast, the city’s new loan program allows residents with credit scores as low as 580 to apply, according to Heller. Loans, which can be used to repair anything from leaky roofs to installing wheelchair ramps, will be distributed in amounts of $2,500 to $24,999, always at an interest rate of 3 percent. The term length for each loan will be 10 years.

Applicants must also be the home’s owner, use it as a primary residence, and be current on all city taxes. The maximum income an applicant may have is much higher than the guidelines for home-repair grants — 120 percent of area median income, or $70,000 annually for one individual. However, Heller added that the city hopes to make loans “at levels below” that.

For now, Heller said, the city has not released targets for how many residents it hopes will receive loans. Yet Soder, with a credit score in the 600 range, is hopeful that she will be a recipient.

“It would be a huge benefit,” Soder said. “I could finally get done what I have always needed to do.”