Philly’s housing market takes center stage during ‘Bridging Blocks’ event

About a dozen residents participated in Thursday’s discussion inside the Walnut Street West Library in University City.

People discussing housing

WHYY's April 18, 2024 "Bridging Blocks" event centered on the housing market and took place at Walnut Street West Library in University City. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY News)

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Gentrification. Home prices. Tangled titles. Vacant land.

All of it came up Thursday night during a wide-ranging discussion about housing and development in Philadelphia, an often polarizing subject in the nation’s poorest big city.

Without any private developers or real estate investors in the room, the two-hour conversation, part of WHYY’s Bridging Blocks initiative, lacked some of that tension. But the dialogue in University City wasn’t short on passion as attendees talked about the city’s weak housing market, how that market has directly impacted their lives and their struggles to afford home repairs.

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It unfolded as the city continues to experience a housing crisis marked by a limited supply of affordable units for low-income residents. Thousands of residents are also cost-burdened, meaning more than a third of their income is used to pay for housing.

People discussing housing
WHYY’s April 18, 2024 “Bridging Blocks” event centered on the housing market and took place at Walnut Street West Library in University City. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY News)

Susan Cochrane, a longtime renter in West Philadelphia, said rising property values in her neighborhood have forced her to move more than once over the years. She’s worried she’ll soon be completely priced out and finding an affordable place to live will be challenging.

“I had to move from apartment to apartment at one point because they kept getting bought up from under me and we were told to move,” Cochrane said.

Amid rising prices and lagging wages, a third of homeowners and half of all renters are paying more than they can afford for housing, according to a recent report from the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities.

In City Council’s 3rd District, where the library is located, 54% of renters and 30% of homeowners were cost-burdened by housing in 2022, according to the report. This as parts of the district swiftly gentrify, including University City.

Against that backdrop, Eric Evans and Toi Hutchins are both looking to buy homes in Philly.

Hutchins hopes to buy a property of her own in Overbrook Park or Wynnefield, the area where she raised her children with her late husband. She’s taking the next year to prepare for that purchase, hoping that mortgage rates drop a bit between now and then.

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She’s not overly optimistic, but she doesn’t want to miss a window of opportunity if it comes along.

“I’m hoping that as volatile as the housing market has been, that maybe it comes down a bit, because I’m looking at what the houses are going for,” Hutchins said.

The average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage is around 7%, a figure that has contributed to an affordability crisis in Philly and across the country. High mortgage rates and overvalued homes have also created an inventory crisis as many homeowners have decided to stay put rather than move into a property with a more expensive mortgage.

Like Hutchins, Evans is trying to remain optimistic about the undertaking despite those conditions. “I just have to keep faith and hope alive,” he said.

Thursday night’s conversation also touched on how expensive it is to resolve a tangled title. The alliterative term is used when a homeowner’s legal claim to a property is not reflected in official records.

Having a tangled title often prevents people from selling a property, taking out a home equity loan, obtaining homeowner’s insurance or participating in home repair programs.

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