Finding and Keeping Affordable Housing: Analyzing the Experiences of Single-Mother Families in North Philadelphia

Article excerpt

The location, availability, and quality of housing shapes one's social networks, affects access to jobs, and impacts on social relations within the housing unit. However, access to affordable housing is limited for a significant portion of the population in the urban United States. In this study, I interviewed eighteen African-American and Puerto Rican single mothers in two low-income neighborhoods of Philadelphia about how they create and maintain their housing arrangements. Within the constraints of an affordable housing shortage, women told me how they struggle to share housing with others, rehab abandoned properties, live in substandard housing, and remain in unsafe neighborhoods. Though their strategies allow them to currently retain housing, they are not without costs. I discuss these findings using the theoretical framework of social capital.

Keywords: single mothers, single mother families, housing, affordable housing, low-income neighborhoods, HUD


In 1999, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated that 4,9 million families spend more than half of their income on housing or live in sub-standard housing. How do these families, and others just on the edge of affordability, negotiate housing arrangements? Can they find places to live--in an apartment or a house that is not in sub-standard condition, and in a neighborhood in which they feel safe? Are there costs to the type of strategies they use?

The affordable housing problem is exacerbated for low-income African-American and Latino families who must deal with the additional hurdle of housing discrimination. Compared to white households, they receive poorer-quality housing for the same cost (Stone, 1993). Moreover, researchers have documented that they have limited neighborhood options in which they can secure housing (Massey & Denton, 1993; Rosenbaum, 1996). In 1999, 41% of Latino very low-income renters (without housing assistance and making less than 50% of area median income) faced severe housing affordability problems. Among African-American very low-income renters (without housing assistance), 49% had severe housing affordability problems (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2001).

In this paper, I describe the housing arrangements of African-American and Puerto Rican single mothers in two low-income neighborhoods of Philadelphia. I use qualitative methods, in order to examine the stories behind these numbers I have just cited. We know how many households are unable to afford housing, but we have not documented how they manage to stay off of the streets and out of the shelters. By analyzing qualitative interviews, I find that low-income single mothers rely on several strategies to secure housing. However, though these strategies reduce their housing costs, they come with other individual costs.

Literature Review

Affordable Housing Shortage

Providing suitable and affordable housing for poor families has always been a problem in U.S. cities. Despite the work of housing reformers in the last century, the U.S. has historically depended on the private market to meet the demand for affordable housing (Radford, 1996; Apgar, 1993; Squires, 1994). The market's method of supplying affordable housing operates through a filtering mechanism where units presumably filter down to low-income households. However, unit rent cannot fall below the landlord's cost of maintenance; thus there is a floor beyond which the rent cannot fall. Many units which would be predicted to filter down, are actually upgraded by developers for affluent households, or demolished for new units, based on the desirability of the neighborhood (Apgar, 1993).

If the market does not find it profitable to provide sufficient amounts of affordable housing, what has been the recent role of the government in filling this need? The federal government dramatically cut back funding for low-income housing assistance in the 1980s. …


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