West Philly protest encampment takes shape to support tenants of closing affordable housing complex

Housing activists have formed a camp on the grounds of an affordable housing complex that’s slated to close. The owners are weighing their options.

Tents are visible on a lawn in front of a red-brick building.

A ''Housing Is A Human Right'' banner is seen atop the UC Townhomes on Sunday, July 10. (Emily White/Billy Penn)

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The owners of the University City Townhomes are weighing their options after a group of housing activists set up a protest encampment on the grounds of the soon-to-be-shuttered affordable housing complex — a decision the owners are calling “unfortunate and ill-advised.”

“To be clear, while we respect their right to protest and express their opinions, these individuals are trespassing on private property and have no legal right to assemble on the site or access public utilities there. The owners are in the process of reviewing their remedies and will make a public announcement about next steps as events warrant,” said spokesperson Kevin Feeley in a written statement.

The Save the UC Townhomes Coalition contends that members of the encampment are not trespassers, but supporters invited by residents to occupy part of the site.

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The response from IBID Associates is the first since the encampment formed on Saturday. It is the latest development in an ongoing campaign to save nearly 70 residents from being displaced. For now, about 15 tents comprise the camp, which sits on a grassy plot near the corner of 40th and Market streets.

The statement came hours after a news conference on Monday, where residents ceremonially renamed the complex the “People’s Townhomes,” unfurling a hand-painted sign over the site’s official marker near the corner of 40th and Market streets.

“We reject the name University City Townhomes because the universities and the city have been pushing us out of our neighborhoods for decades,” said longtime resident Darlene Foreman to applause.

Built in 1983, the townhomes were constructed with the explicit goal of providing affordable housing in a section of West Philadelphia reshaped by racist urban renewal practices. Known as the Black Bottom, the city demolished hundreds of neighborhood homes there in the late 1960s and early 1970s to make way for more campus space and a science and technology hub — what today is known as the University City Science Center.

Now the site, located in the same swiftly gentrifying neighborhood as the University of Pennsylvania and fast-expanding Drexel University, may be demolished after IBID decided not to renew its affordable housing contract with HUD, again displacing mostly Black residents. This comes as Philadelphia continues to contend with an affordable housing crisis that’s left low-income residents who rely on subsidized housing particularly vulnerable.

“[IBID principal Brett Altman] could choose to do the humane thing: Extend the contract for a year or two to give us enough time,” said townhome resident Sheldon Davids during Monday’s event.

Davids became a tenant 13 years ago after moving from Jamaica to join his wife. He said the townhomes offer him and other residents an affordable, safe place to live, an increasingly rare combination in a city desperate to slow a surge in homicides and shootings.

The townhomes also sit walking distance from Penn Presbyteran Medical Center and other doctors’ offices. The 40th Street stop along the Market-Frankford El is steps away from front doors.

University City Townhomes in West Philadelphia
University City Townhomes in West Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“This is the lighthouse,” said Davids.

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Townhome residents now have until Sept. 7 to move. Their leases were originally set to expire on July 8, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development agreed to extend IBID’s contract for two months, largely because many residents had not received housing vouchers needed to secure a new place.

With agreement from a private landlord, the vouchers enable residents to continue paying 30% of their adjusted household monthly income in rent. Through its Section 8 program, HUD makes up the difference between those payments and the full contract rent, whether the apartment is located in Philadelphia or somewhere else in the country.

But landlords in Philadelphia have a history of being resistant to taking on Section 8 tenants, making residents fearful that the deadline will come and they won’t have anywhere to go.

On Monday, residents who are part of the Save the UC Townhomes Coalition signaled that they intend to remain on site beyond the move-out date in September. Civil rights attorneys say IBID could choose to forcibly evict residents if that happens.

The decision will likely be made as the outcome of a federal lawsuit over the future of the site remains unsettled. IBID is suing the city, as well as City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, with hopes of blocking legislation that imposed a 12-month demolition moratorium. IBID says the measure violates its “constitutionally protected right” to sell the housing complex.

The bill, introduced by Gauthier and backed by the Philadelphia Planning Commission, also rezoned the valuable land so developers are required to build some affordable housing on the site containing the complex. Under the measure, rents for those units must be below market rate.

Foreman, the longtime resident, said she hopes Altman will decide to leave the townhomes standing.

“You have the right to do whatever you want to do. But where’s your heart in this matter? Why would you want to displace 68 residents? Sell it to somebody that wants the property. Stop putting property over people. We are people. We’re human. Leave us alone,” said Foreman.

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