On the brink of eviction, one Philadelphia mother applied for assistance. But getting it could take years

Tribune Content Agency

Kimberly Clark has lived in the same Southwest Philadelphia house, on the same block, with some of the same neighbors for 24 years.

“This block actually is a nice block,” Clark said. “Everybody’s known me since I was small.”

Clark’s elderly aunt, daughter, and grandchildren live across the street. Her mother lives nearby. “We have a small little family, but we always try to stick together,” she said.

But on April 1, that’s going to change.

Her longtime rental, a three-bed, one-bath apartment on a block lined with pretty pink cherry blossom trees was sold. After a year of rigamarole, Clark said, the new owners want her out at the start of April. So, Clark launched her journey into public housing assistance for the first time in her adult life.

In January, she applied for a subsidized housing program administered by the Philadelphia Asset & Property Management Corporation, or PAPMC. But it could take years to get help.

That same month, nearly 37,000 people applied for housing vouchers, better known as Section 8, through the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s lottery, which opened for the first time in more than a decade. While 2,000 applicants can be processed right away, 8,000 others could wait as long as five years to get a voucher, and the rest may be left with nothing.

The wait times for Clark and others underscore the dire straits facing some subsidized housing applicants, and the vast gap between the need for assistance and what’s available.

“We are still in crisis mode,” said Nichole Tillman, spokesperson for PHA.

Clark hoped to get a voucher but inadvertently applied for a different program called tax credit sites. Designed for low-income tenants, the program uses factors like an individual’s income and household size to cap rents at 22 Philadelphia sites owned by investors who receive federal tax credits. Eligibility varies at each site, said Jenna Collins of Community Legal Services, and wait times for the homes can range from a few months to several years.

The last time the city opened the voucher lottery, it amassed a list of more than 100,000 applicants which took more than 10 years to clear.

Amid what advocates have called an affordable housing crisis, families like Clark’s hang in the balance. She has weeks, not years, before it’s too late. “I don’t know what to do,” Clark said through tears.

A quarter of Philadelphia households, or more than 350,000 residents, fall below the poverty line — and it can be hard to find help even for those who qualify. Many landlords won’t accept the subsidies.

“Me and my son have to go into a shelter? I never had to live like this in my life and my daughter didn’t have to live like this and it’s like I’m cheating my son,” Clark said. “I don’t know what to do but to call on the Lord.”

Stable housing suddenly at risk

Clark, 50, has lived in Philadelphia all her life. After working since she was 14, Clark said, she injured her back on an apparel manufacturing job and required surgery about a decade ago.

She’s since collected Social Security Disability benefits, which now amount to about $1,200 a month, Clark said.

Her income was sufficient for her $500-a-month rent, a rate she said she’s paid for many years. Clark’s former landlord was a family acquaintance. So, when he called her announcing he was selling the property, she was shocked. It was November 2021, just as she was being wheeled into the operating room for knee surgery.

“He said, ‘I’m gonna try to keep you in there,'” Clark recounted. “Tears just started running down my face.” Concerned nurses tried to calm her, thinking she was anxious about surgery.

“But I’m just thinking, like, oh my goodness. What’s gonna happen?”

The property was purchased by A&K Acquisitions LLC, according to property records. Clark met the owners in early 2022 and started down a confusing path to eventual threatened eviction, she said.

After months of contacting advocates, going to court, and praying, Clark was told by a friend that PHA was reopening its Section 8 list for the first time in years. After a website crash due to high demand, Clark submitted an application, but for the wrong housing program.

She was hoping to join the 19,500 households that currently use PHA vouchers. The vouchers cover about 70% of rental costs, and households must make less than 50% of the area median income to qualify.

Clark’s primary focus is her child. Her son is an eighth grader at Boys’ Latin Charter Middle School in West Philadelphia, and she can’t talk about him without her voice filling with pride, or, when considering their circumstances, choking with tears.

“He’s doing excellent in math,” she boasts. “He got all A’s and two B’s and one C and he really likes it. It brings him out.”

Now forced to move, she hopes to stay close to her son’s middle school and the nearby Boys’ Latin Charter High School. Clark said she doesn’t drive or have a car.

The average three-bedroom rental in Philadelphia was $1,650 in 2022 — more than Clark can afford.

“I’m just trying my best,” Clark said. “[My son is] doing good. I don’t wanna cheat him out his life.”

Taking advantage of tenants ‘far more common’ than people know

Once a nice, well-kept property, Clark said, her apartment had fallen into disrepair over the course of her more than two-decade residency. It now has eight open violations with the Department of Licenses and Inspections, according to city records.

That would ordinarily be grounds to halt an eviction, said Karla Cruel, interim director of Philadelphia’s Tenant Union Representative Network, or TURN. But she said many tenants are taken advantage of and unknowingly sign away their rights.

There’s usually only one attorney on-site in court to represent tenants facing eviction, and Cruel said they can help only about five clients a day. That leaves others on their own to interact with landlords’ attorneys. There’s not enough oversight to ensure tenants are treated fairly, or even legally, Cruel said.

According to records from TURN and Clark, she unknowingly engaged with the attorney for her new landlord, and appears to have unwittingly signed away certain rights that would protect her from eviction.

“Kimberly’s experience is probably far more common than most people know,” said Cruel, whose organization connects at-risk tenants to legal advocates, especially before eviction hearings. Clark reached out to them for assistance before, during, and after her housing drama.

“If you want to stop eviction,” said Cruel, “stop letting landlord attorneys negotiate with tenants without third-party oversight.”

An attorney for A&K Acquisitions did not return requests for comment.

Philadelphia has some of the most protective tenant laws in the country. Last February, the city rolled out its heralded Right to Counsel program, which provides free legal services to low-income Philadelphia renters in certain zip codes. Initially rolled out for two zip codes in West and North Philadelphia, the program expanded in February to include two more in Germantown and Port Richmond — but the program doesn’t yet include Clark’s neighborhood.

According to the city, 38% of low-income tenants in the first two Right to Counsel zip codes were represented by attorneys, compared with less than 21% citywide. Before the legislation passed, only about 11% of renters were represented by lawyers in eviction court.

By comparison, about 80% of landlords are represented by attorneys during eviction proceedings.

PHA has started notifying voucher applicants selected for the wait list. In the meantime, Clark has been working with a real estate agent to try to find a rental unit she can afford.

“It’s not like I’m just sitting here waiting for somebody to call me,” she said. “I’m out there looking myself. … But it’s only by the grace of God that I will be called.”