Improving Philadelphia's Rental Regulatory and Housing Support Systems

Published Date
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Health Impact Project

Strong evidence demonstrates the impact that housing has as a social determinant of health, including how it affects the health of individuals, families, and communities. In Philadelphia, low-income renter households and low-income Black households are more likely to live in substandard housing.

This HIA examined Philadelphia’s rental housing regulatory system to understand the health and regulatory challenges facing renters, landlords, and housing code enforcement entities, and the authors put forth recommendations for improving the system’s capacity to address substandard rental housing conditions.

Below are key findings from the analysis:

  • When code violations are overlaid with demographic data, the violations are concentrated in census tracts with high shares of Black residents and high poverty rates.
  • Approximately two-thirds of complaints are related to conditions that could contribute to chronic health concerns and safety hazards. Of those, nearly three-quarters were in areas with higher-than-average poverty rates, and more than two-thirds were in areas with a higher-than-average share of Black residents.
  • Because Philadelphia’s housing code enforcement program is complaint-based, code violations do not represent all substandard housing—only housing where violations are reported. Many residents, particularly those in Latino and Asian households and those who fear retaliation from landlords and possible displacement, may underreport subpar housing conditions.
  • External structure violations are the most common type of complaint. They can be visible from outside, without needing to enter the home, so they can be identified by neighbors or inspectors instead of or in addition to the renter.
  • The majority of code violations are found in properties owned by landlords with only one or two properties. These landlords may lack the capital to make needed repairs. Stakeholders reported that complicated processes and systems within the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, along with limited access to loans and grants, can make it difficult for landlords who want to maintain quality rental units to do so.
  • Because of limited capacity, the Department of Licenses and Inspections does not take enforcement action against all landlords that do not remediate cited code violations.
  • The current rental license self-certification process does not incentivize landlord rental registration and a lack of streamlined procedures can make the process cumbersome, contributing to the estimated 30% of rental units that are not registered.

The HIA issued the following recommendations:

  1. Philadelphia’s Managing Director’s Office should convene a cross-agency working group to improve cross-department coordination and collaboration within the city government by synchronizing and enhancing existing city data, programs, and resources to address substandard rental properties.
  2. City officials, nonprofits, and community and civic leaders should pursue a comprehensive community education and public health campaign that explains how substandard rental housing conditions affect communities and disproportionately harm the health of the city’s low-income residents and communities of color—and what resources are available to support residents and landlords.
  3. City officials, housing and community development entities, rental property owners, business leaders, and philanthropists should coordinate and expand a portfolio of programs and resources supporting “mom and pop” landlords (those with 10 or fewer units) and their tenants, including through training, technical assistance, and home repair programs.
  4. Nonprofit housing and community development leaders, in collaboration with city and public health officials, philanthropists, health care institutions, and rental property owners, should form a citywide initiative for the preservation of safe and healthy rental housing. This entity would pilot and incubate new projects and strategies that involve all dimensions of housing preservation policy and programming.


This HIA served as a stepping stone to advocate for short-, medium-, and long-term recommendations related to supporting small landlords and creating a strategic code enforcement approach that prioritizes health and safety.


This Health Impact Assessment Report first appeared in The Cross-Sector Toolkit for Health. The Cross-Sector Toolkit for Health was originally developed by the Health Impact Project, formerly a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The creation of this resource was supported by a grant from the Health Impact Project. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Affordable Housing

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Older Adults

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People Living in Poverty

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Children and Youth

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Black and African Americans