Ousted West Philly tenants win more time as gentrification moves in

 Members of Philadelphia's Human Relations Commission (from left) Shalimar Thomas, Thomas H. Earle, and Sally Baraka, hear testimony from tenants at the Penn Wynn House who are being evicted to make way for a $40 million rennovation. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Members of Philadelphia's Human Relations Commission (from left) Shalimar Thomas, Thomas H. Earle, and Sally Baraka, hear testimony from tenants at the Penn Wynn House who are being evicted to make way for a $40 million rennovation. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A group of low-income tenants in West Philadelphia protesting their evictions have gotten some relief.

At an emergency hearing with Philadelphia’s Human Relations Commission Thursday, the building owner, Cross Properties agreed to give nine residents who complained to the commission an extra month to move out before redeveloping the property for higher-income tenants.

The commission will continue investigating 17 complaints that allege Cross Properties discriminated against Penn Wynn House tenants on public assistance during the eviction process.

“They deserve to be compensated, they deserve to have their stories heard and told and I think the owners deserve to be held accountable for what they’ve done if it’s determined that what they have done is illegal and wrong,” said Rasheedah Phillips, an attorney with Community Legal Services who represents nine of the tenants.

During the hearing, David Blumenfeld, a managing partner at Cross Properties, denied any wrongdoing and said the company has tried to help all Penn Wynn residents find new apartments within the three-and-a-half-months they were given, including giving extensions to those who asked for them.

The company gave residents until May 31 to leave, but Phillips alleges those with public housing or “Section 8” vouchers were not given the extensions afforded market-rate tenants.

Now, Phillips’ nine clients will be allowed to move out on June 30. When they turn in their keys, Cross Properties has promised to immediately return their security deposits.

While Thursday’s settlement only affects a handful of tenants, the situation has inspired new legislation introduced by City Councilman Curtis Jones. The ordinance introduced last week would give tenants in multi-family buildings the right to at least six months to move under similar circumstances.

Cross Properties bought Penn Wynn — a crumbling, 17-story high-rise that sits next to the Wynnefield Avenue SEPTA station — in late December. The company plans to gut the building, replacing electrical and plumbing systems, adding amenities such as a dog park, pool and rooftop deck, and then “market it to young professionals who commute to Center City or Bala Cynwyd for work,” said Patrick Northern, Cross Property’s attorney.

During the hearing, Northern said the tenants had all been given adequate notice to move out and Cross Properties ensured all those with public housing vouchers had new ones by April 18.

Citing a letter and Facebook posts by the Philadelphia Tenants Union, which has taken up the Penn Wynn cause, Northern alleged the residents’ true grievance is a political one: gentrification.

While the evictions are a consequence of that phenomenon, Phillips said her clients are merely trying to make sure they don’t end up in eviction court or homeless if they are unable to find new, affordable housing in time.

“This all started out because of people’s individual experiences of being told that they have to leave a home where they’ve been comfortable, a home where they may have lived for many years, a place where they’re near their families and their friends and their doctor’s offices and their grocery stores,” she said.

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