Obtaining Housing

Finding a place to live is one of the first challenges newly-arrived immigrants face. Sometimes, immigrants choose to settle with family - on either a temporary or permanent basis. Often they will settle in a particular area because they have family there or because there are people from their home country who can provide a support system and ease the transition. But no matter how many people you know, finding a place to live in a new country can be tough.

RENTING

There are many things to consider when looking at potential new homes.

  • Is it close to public transportation?
  • How safe is the neighborhood?
  • If you have children, what is the quality of the neighborhood schools?
  • How close are you to a grocery store, a bank, and other shops that you will need on a frequent basis? Having grocery stores nearby and public transportation means you might not need to own a car, thus saving on the added monthly costs of fuel, parking, and car insurance.
  • And, of course, price. To calculate how much rent you can afford, many financial experts recommend that your rent should be no more than 30% of your income.

Rental Agreements/Leases

Most immigrants will rent an apartment or a house - at least at the beginning. Most landlords (the person who owns the building) will want you to sign a lease. This lease can protect both you and the landlord. A 12 month lease is typical since landlords don't want to have to look for new tenants more often than once a year.

Depending on the terms of the lease, if you give the landlord enough notice (30 days or 60 days), you can break a lease without a penalty. Most landlords want a security deposit and the first month's rent before you move in. The security deposit is kept to ensure the tenant does not damage the apartment. If you have not caused damage to the apartment, when you move out, you can get your security deposit back. If there is damage, the landlord will keep all or some of the deposit to pay for repairs.

You have rights as a tenant, and there are laws that can protect you from predatory landlords (the ones who are willing to take advantage of you because you are an immigrant and unaware of your rights). Such landlords might make demands that are unreasonable. They might even try to use your immigration status as leverage. This is illegal. If you think you have a predatory landlord or have other rental concerns, you can call the Fair Housing Commission at (215) 686-4670 or the Tenant Union Representative Network at (215) 940-3900.

Landlords will almost always conduct a credit check on you to find out if you pay your bills on time and do not owe money that would prevent you from being able to pay the rent. Sometimes, they also ask for your rental history, and may want to call the landlord from your previous residence. If you have just entered this country and do not have a credit history or rental history, try to get as many letters of references from your previous employers, your religious organization, or professionals who know you. These people need to vouch for you, to tell the landlord that you are a trustworthy person who will pay your rent on time. Depending on your history, the landlord may also require that someone else co-sign on the lease, that is, promise to pay your rent if you cannot.

For more on tenant rights and eviction information, visit the Department of Housing and Urban Development website.
 

BUYING A HOME

For most people, buying a home is the single biggest expense they will have in their lives. When you are ready to buy a home, there are many things you have to consider:

  • How much can you afford? Find out what your monthly payments will be based on the sale price and interest rates. However, remember that most mortgage calculators do not include the cost of property taxes and insurance on the property. These costs can add several hundred dollars to your monthly payments.
  • Which neighborhood do you want to live in?
  • How long do you plan on staying in the area? This is important when selecting a mortgage. If you only plan on staying in the area for a few years, it might not be worth it to buy because of all the settlement fees you have to pay when you close on the house.
  • Is the neighborhood safe?
  • Are the schools appropriate for your children?

Knowing your rights as a homebuyer is critical in protecting yourself. Learn more about your rights.

Most people, when they are buying a home, get help from a professional real estate agent, who can help walk you through the process. For instance, they can help you find a house you like and can afford, help you find a home inspector and the right financing, and explain the many documents that are involved. Working with a real estate agent should not cost you anything if you are buying a home, because agents get their commission from the seller - but it is important to find an agent you like and can work with comfortably.

Remember that, in addition to the price of the house, additional costs will be incurred when you close (that is, when you sign the final papers and get the keys!) on your house. These are called settlement costs and can run into the thousands of dollars.

The City of Philadelphia's Office of Housing and Community Development offers several programs for first time home buyers. Some of these programs offer financial assistance or help as you navigate through the home buying process.

It is a good idea to enroll in one of these programs like mortgage loan counseling or first time home buyer classes. Organizations that help immigrants with home buying include the United Communities of Southeast Philadelphia and The Partnership CDC. These organizations, in partnership with the City and other groups, also rehabilitate homes in neighborhoods and sell them to qualified first time homebuyers. Some organizations also provide financial assistance that can be put towards settlement costs.

View a list of other organizations that provide housing aid and counseling. (PDF, requires Adobe Reader)

The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords and sellers to discriminate against individuals for many reasons - including your national origin. If you feel you have been discriminated against, you can call Community Legal Services (215) 981-2700 or the American Civil Liberties Union at (215) 592-1513.
 

UTILITIES

Whether you are renting or buying a home, one of the first things you need to do is to turn on your utilities such as electricity, gas, water, and telephone. In Philadelphia, PECO, PGW, PWD and Verizon are the major suppliers of these services.

Electricity

PECO

2301 Market Street

Philadelphia, PA 19101

Office hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

To turn on the electricity in your home, call PECO at 1-800-494-4000. If you do not have a Social Security card, PECO will ask you to personally go to one of their exchange locations to get services set up. You will have to show two forms of identification, including one with your photo (such as your passport). It would also help if you can bring in a lease of your apartment, which shows them the address they will be providing service to. If you do not speak English well and would like a translator, PECO will provide one. There is no upfront payment to turn on your electricity, but you will see a one-time transfer fee of $6 on your first bill. If you do not have any credit history, PECO might require a deposit, which they would allow you to pay over three months. This deposit is to ensure that you pay your bills on time. If you do, that deposit will be returned to you.

Gas Service

Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW)

(215) 235-1000

Call service open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

You will need to call PGW if you need gas service for your home for the stove or for heating in the winter time. To turn on your gas service, you will need two forms of identification, and proof of residency, that is, a rental agreement or a deed that shows you own the home where you would like gas service.
If you are not working or do not have a Social Security number, you might need to submit an income support form, to show how you would pay your bills. In such cases, PGW might require you to put a $250 security deposit, which you can get back if you pay your monthly bills on time for one year. PGW offers help for customers whose incomes fall below a certain level. Find out if you qualify for one of their assistance programs.

Water Service

City of Philadelphia Water Department (PWD)

(215) 686-6880


PWD provides water and sewer services throughout the City of Philadelphia. If you are renting, the rent may cover water and sewer, but this is something you will need to check.

Telephone Service

To have phone services connected, you can call Verizon (1-800-660-2215) or Cavalier Telephone (1-866-290-4200). These companies will ask you a series of questions, and it can take several days for the service to be installed.

As with all services, you will need to have to send in proof of identification. More and more often, people are subscribing only to a cell phone (Verizon, Sprint 1-888-211-4727, T-Mobile 1-800-866-2453, and AT&T 1-866-246-4852 are the most well-known companies). If you find the right cell phone plan (one that meets your needs for the amount of calling you make), it might be more cost efficient than if you subscribed both to a cell phone and a phone in your home (a land line).

If you make overseas calls, it is very important that you check with your phone carrier about various international calling plans they offer.

Developing a good credit history

Remember, paying your bills on time helps to develop your credit history, which will help you in the future if you decide to take a loan to start a business, buy a car, or a house. Whether it is paying your utility bills, making credit card payments, car payments or mortgage payments, it is important that you do not lose control of your bills.

Most of the time, if you have difficulty paying utility bills, you can call your utility company and they can work out a payment plan with you. If you are having problems with your utilities and feel you are being unfairly treated, you can call the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate at 1-800-684-6560. This office is a state agency that represents the interests of PA utility customers.

It is very easy to get into credit card debt. Credit cards have high interest rates. If you are having problems because of credit problems, you can call the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Delaware Valley at 1-800-989-2227.

The City, State and Federal governments have many programs to help families who cannot pay their utility bills because they do not make enough money. Such programs include LIHEAP, or Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federal program that helps pay for heating and cooling costs for low income and elderly people. View other public benefits.

Rebuilding Together Philadelphia has a helpful Guide to Homeowner Resources for more information.