New program aims to build 1,000 affordable homes in Philly

City Council President Darrell Clarke speaks Thursday, April 28, about the “Turn the Key” program, a new affordable housing initiative.
Jack Tomczuk

Large empty lots, with weeds growing through cracked pavement and random debris scattered about, take up two corners of 55th and Popular streets in West Philadelphia.

In the coming months, crews will begin constructing 41 units — two- and three-bedroom houses — that will be sold as part of a new program to build 1,000 homes, officials said, an effort City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office called the largest investment in affordable housing in Philadelphia’s history.

“What you will see is a blank canvas,” said Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., gesturing toward the lots, “that can go either way. It can go into private hands, and it can be developed into housing that the people who used to live in this neighborhood cannot afford.”

“I want this to be a place where working families grow, make memories and become a part of the fabric of the existing community,” he added, speaking at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

As part of the “Turn the Key” program, developers can acquire city-owned land for a nominal fee in exchange for building and selling homes for below market value (at 55th and Poplar, units will be priced at $190,000 to $230,000).

Officials said two vacant parcels at 55th and Poplar streets in West Philadelphia will be converted into 41 affordable housing units as part of the “Turn the Key” program. Jack Tomczuk

Instead of subsidizing construction costs, the city will be aiding the buyer, with a “soft loan” of up to $75,000 in addition to a mortgage that will be gradually forgiven over a 30-year period to help lower monthly payments.

For a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom home, the average mortgage would be around $1,200, less than some families are paying to rent, according to Clarke’s office.

The unique arrangement allows the government’s initial investment in the program — around $8 million — to go further, said Clarke, who is spearheading the initiative.

Prospective homeowners who want to take advantage of the mortgage assistance must meet income guidelines, making no more than $85,050 combined for a family of three or $102,100 for a five-person household.

“I think everybody here realizes that we’re in the midst of an affordable housing crisis,” Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said. “We are losing affordable housing at scale every day, and we need to be preserving and replacing affordable housing at scale.”

A competitive housing market, along with rising costs for everyday goods, is creating affordability challenges for homebuyers and renters.
Just under 80% of tenants in the Philadelphia region said they were having trouble affording a new apartment, according to a poll conducted by WSFS Bank in February.

Results from a Pew Charitable Trusts survey released earlier this month found that 65% of renters in the city said they were having difficulties paying for their current housing.

City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier speaks Thursday, April 28, about the “Turn the Key” program, a new affordable housing initiative.Jack Tomczuk

Clarke said he expects work to begin on 100 “Turn the Key” units before the end of the year, with requests-for-proposals published for various city-owned sites on a rolling basis.

The program is being funded through Council’s Neighborhood Preservation Initiative, a $400 million four-year spending plan approved in 2020.

Council and Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration in October authorized an initial $100 million loan for the first year of the program, with about $28.2 million set aside for creating affordable housing.