An encampment has taken root at the University City Townhomes, a show of solidarity with the West Philadelphia residents facing displacement after the sale and redevelopment of the property.
Around a dozen tents set up on the lawn of the Townhomes, the site of ongoing protests since the announcement of the planned sale and demolition of the 2.7 acre affordable housing complex at 40th and Market streets. As many as 69 primarily Black and Hispanic families are set to be displaced.
Many of the families have lived there for decades, protesters said Monday morning.
On Saturday, residents invited supporters to set up the encampment, at the tail-end of a daylong rally and party. Tenants and supporters said the encampment would stay on the lawn as long as the fight would continue.
“This is residents saying: This ends here. This ends now. This is where we rise up,” said Melvin Hairston, who has lived at University City Townhomes for 28 years.
The University of Pennsylvania, the rumored buyers of the property, was still formulating a response to the encampment, according to a university official
On Monday morning, chants of “Housing is a human right” rang out steps away from the 40th Street trolley station, with supporters donning T-shirts emblazoned with “Save the UC Townhomes.” Protesters draped a new sign over the University City Townhomes sign that read “The People’s Townhomes.”
Last year, IBID Associates, the family partnership that owns the townhomes, announced plans to end its federal affordable housing contract and sell the property to developers. Originally, tenants of the 69 units had until July 8 to move out, but residents now have until Sept. 7 to leave to accommodate the arrival of federal housing vouchers for displaced tenants.
Several residents on Monday told The Inquirer that IBID has not met with them, sending an intermediary to meetings instead. A spokesperson for IBID said Monday that the owners had been providing tenants with relocation services since last July.
“This does not — I believe — have to go this way,” said Sheldon Davids, a resident of the townhomes for 13 years. “This displacement is going to affect too many people. Have too much follow-up effects for us to take it lightly. And this is a phenomenon that’s not just affecting us. It’s affecting people all over the country.”
The townhomes are in the Black Bottom neighborhood, a historically Black neighborhood that has gradually gentrified.
In a statement, the property owners called Monday’s protest and the encampment “ill-advised.”
“The owners of 3900 Market Street are in the process of reviewing the unfortunate and ill-advised decision by a group of protesters to occupy a portion of the premises,” IBID said in a statement. “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 encampment included people like sisters Jannie and Yolanda Mitchell, who camped out on the townhomes’ lawn in tents, a symbol, Davids said, of insufficient shelter. The sisters know full well the impact of homelessness and what could happen without a safety net. Jannie lived at the homeless encampment stationed outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority, dubbed “Camp Teddy,” in 2020.
“When you start putting people displaced out of homes on the streets, what do you get? Disgruntled individuals walking the community. It becomes a mental health issue. You might have mothers turn to drugs to try to cope. How do you feed your kids if you don’t have shelter? You might turn to crime,” said Yolanda.
“This issue creates 10 different issues that need to be addressed across the board,” she added.
A spokesperson for the city’s Office of Homeless Services said those camping out are “not a homeless encampment — yet.” Often, people who are experiencing homelessness will drift toward protest encampments because they believe the spots will attract food and services that will help them, said Stephanie Sena, a Villanova University professor and expert on homelessness.
She added that several housing activists who were involved in the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway two years ago appear to be attaching themselves to the West Philadelphia protest.
Residents, along with their supporters, were prepared to camp out and fight as long as they needed to, said Hairston.
“They’re trying to move us out with no place to go,” said Hairston, who lives with and takes of his 68-year-old mother. “Housing inflation is up. People are on fixed incomes. And they’ve been stripping low income, affordable housing from these communities of Philadelphia for well over a half a century.”
Services provided by the property owners included ensuring tenants could secure federal Tenant Protection Vouchers, IBID spokesperson Kevin Feeley said. The vouchers can be used to pay for other affordable housing in Philadelphia and outside of the city, the spokesperson said.
But residents like Davids said the fear is that a shortage of affordable housing means that displaced residents will ultimately have nowhere to go, even with vouchers. What little affordable housing is available is often stymied by many Philadelphia landlords’ reluctance to accept housing vouchers.
And ultimately, many tenants who have raised children and built lives at the townhomes will now potentially have to uproot everything they know to rebuild in a place they’ve never lived before, said Davids.
“Where are we going to send our kids to school?” he said. “Schools have been already closed around the community. People have had to adjust and find alternative places to send their children to. They’re going to have to do that again. Not only are they going to have do that again, but worse: they have to do that again in a community with which they’re unfamiliar.”