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City readies seizure of thousands of workers' homes

Published Jul 5, 2005 9:42 PM

Over 80 people gathered in West Philly´s Clark Park June 29 for the premiere of the film “All for the Taking.’ This work documents the stories of residents affected by Philadelphia´s urban-renewal program, and of housing activists fighting eminent-domain abuse.

Carolyn Thomas, left, whose home
was seized by the city, at film showing
in park with co-producer Joy Butts.

The film was the first of a biweekly outdoor summer film series, now in its third year, sponsored by the Philadelphia International Action Center.

Since the city of Philadelphia established the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative in April 2001, over 5,334 properties have been scheduled for demolition. Carolyn Thomas´s home on Hoops Street was one of them.

In May 2003, Thomas, age 62, found a notice stuck under her door informing her that the city planned to demolish her home.

Thomas, who attended the film premiere along with producer and director George McCollough and co-producer Joy Butts, told those gathered in Clark Park: “I worked all my life to acquire the little bit I have.  Their letter basically told me that the city had already taken my home, which my parents had owned before me. I knew I would have to fight to take it back.’

NTI has a budget of $1.6 billion. But the city offered Thomas only $40,000 for her home, half of which was for moving costs.

Thomas fought because this “would only leave the option of moving to another blighted area that would be subject to demolition as well.’

Because she fought back, Thomas was eventually able to get over $70,000, nearly twice the amount first offered. However, to add insult to injury, the city sent her a bill for over $9,000 for demolishing her property. They also turned off her electric and phone service before she had a chance to pack to move.

Under the NTI project, Philadelphia has authorized the seizure of thousands of homes. The object is to create a massive land bank to entice private developers to rebuild some of its most historic neighborhoods.

Philadelphia´s program is part of a nationwide epidemic of eminent-domain abuse. Using the vaguely defined "public" purpose of eminent domain, developers have convinced governments to seize the land they desire.

On June 23, a five-to-four Supreme Court decision in a New London, Conn., eminent-domain case gave the green light for wealthy developers to snatch the land and homes of working and poor people without just compensation. Cities can claim that development will “create jobs and increase municipal tax revenue.’

Al Alston of the Philadelphia African-American Business and Residents Association, who is also featured in the documentary, told the Clark Park audience, “The ‘Blight Plan´ was allegedly to improve communities, but the real plan was to get people to sign on to a program that would move them out.’

As far as the developers were concerned, Alston said, “The people were the blight!’

Alston also said, “The classic justification for gentrification is ‘neighborhood improvement,´ but it´s really intended to drive the poor out.’

He offered the example of West Girard Avenue in Philadelphia´s predominantly African American northwest side. There, neighbors had no notice that the city was taking their homes until the law was passed. “Now the developers are putting up $200,000 luxury condominiums on West Girard,’ Alston said.

Often the lifelong community residents whose homes are targeted for demolition are elderly, poor and people of color. In the film, Arun Prabhakardpa of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union pointed out that development like this brings dramatic rent and tax hikes, driving these residents out and further away from city centers and services.

“All for the Taking’ documents the struggles of residents like Thomas and community activists from the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and the Community Leadership Institute, who are organizing residents to fight back.

For more information on “All for the Taking,’ contact georgemccollough@hotmail.com.