West Philly gentrification means upheaval for these longtime residents

Leon Tyer has lived at Penn Wynn House in the Wynnefield neighborhood of West Philadelphia for six years with the help of a federal voucher program that helps low-income people living with HIV/AIDS pay rent.

But back in February, he got a letter from the property managers telling him and other tenants in the 231-unit building they would have to move out by June 1.

Cross Properties purchased the high-rise in late 2016. According to the company’s website, it’s planning to redevelop the 17-story building, just a few blocks from St. Joseph’s University, and to add a pool, a roofdeck with skyline views and other amenities.

But Tyer still hasn’t found a place.

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He’s only applied for two apartments so far because he can only afford to pay so many $35-$40 application fees. Plus, he claims some of the landlords he’s contacted will only show him smaller efficiency or studio apartments because he has a housing voucher and Tyer doesn’t want to give up the space he has now.

“I ain’t going to lie, the [building] is crap, but I love my apartment,” he said of his home at Penn Wynn House. “Two-bedroom. It was nice, roomy, I had a walk-in closet… a balcony, but now I don’t know what I’m going to get. I just don’t know.”

Tyer was one of about 30 people who held a rally Wednesday demanding an extra three months to move and for the company to return their security deposits in-person the same day they move out so that the tenants — many of them low-income — can afford payments for their new homes.

Cross Properties declined to comment and the property manager with Stonehenge Advisors did not return a message.

City Councilman Curtis Jones stopped by the rally and promised to hold a meeting with other local, state and federal representatives, as well as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Philadelphia Housing Authority, to resolve the situation.

“Long term, what we’re going to do is introduce legislation that talks about unfair practices of eviction and to show cause of why you want to evict them — not because you just want to bump up the rent,” Jones said.

Attorney Rasheedah Phillips with Community Legal Services has heard from about one-dozen Penn Wynn residents in the same boat as Tyer — most of them are elderly and on public assistance, such as housing choice or “section eight” vouchers.

Phillips is taking each case as it comes, but said in general, tenants have few legal options in these situations.

“There’s really not too many other protections as a whole to stop this sort of thing from happening to people or at least give them more notice than two months or three months,” she said.

Penn Wynn House tenants, especially those with vouchers, are also being thrust into an already-strained affordable housing market.

In December, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found the city has lost roughly 20,000 affordable dwellings since 2000 — a rate of about 1,000 per year. Another recent study by The Reinvestment Fund found one in 14 Philadelphia residents has been subject to court-ordered evictions, often prompted by tenants’ complaints about substandard living conditions.

One of Phillips’ clients, Karen Harvey, a retired social worker, said she was able to get an extra month to find a new home, but so far, her search has been difficult and expensive because of non-refundable application fees.

“Even though it looks like on paper or the website there are a lot of places available, in reality there aren’t,” Harvey said.

“There are apartments available, but who wants to live there,” interjected Regina Taylor, another Penn Wynn resident standing next to Harvey. “It’s unbelievable they’ve been approved for housing.”

Taylor and Harvey said they plan to stay in Philadelphia and to hold out for the best until they’re forced to compromise.

“You keep looking and we will probably end up going somewhere less than desirable,” Harvey said.

“And pray you got a yard,” Taylor added.

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