Are you houseless, paying too much for rent, living in unsafe or inadequate housing, threatened with eviction? Do you believe housing is a human right?
The Save UC Townhomes Coalition is asking you to join — in person or through sending statements of support — with others concerned about housing insecurity at a “Philly 4 Housing Fest — Protect the Block Party” July 9, starting at 3 p.m. at 40th and Market Streets.
Excessive rents and scarce housing availability are impacting millions of working-class and low-income residents across the U.S. In Philadelphia, the fight to save the University City Townhomes from demolition by gentrifiers and developers is on the front line of this battle.
Housing is a human right
One in four Philadelphia residents live in extreme poverty. There is no citywide plan for preserving low-income housing or constructing new low-income affordable units for city residents.
Making matters worse, 1,700 low-income housing units at 37 sites, in addition to University City Townhomes, currently have contracts with Housing and Urban Development set to expire within the next five years. Housing activists fear many owners of those properties will sell to gentrifiers rather than renew their HUD contracts.
The pressure to sell is on, as rising mortgage rates, inflation and other negative economic developments are causing real estate investors to fear a looming crash in the housing industry.
For the working class and especially for Black, Latinx and Indigenous oppressed communities, the housing crisis has existed for a long time. The U.S. faces a shortage of 6.8 million rental units that are affordable and available to extremely low-income renters with household incomes at or below 30% of their area’s median income, according to a National Low-Income Housing Coalition analysis.
Problems caused by the high cost of housing are so widespread that three-quarters of U.S. residents now believe adequate housing is a human right. Two-thirds believe that government programs need to be expanded to ensure this right, according to a 2018 poll published by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Stop the demolition
University City Townhomes, at 3900-3999 Market St., have provided low-income housing to 70 families since 1983. Notoriously racist Mayor Frank Rizzo — after being found guilty of housing discrimination by federal courts in the early 1980s — sold the city-owned land where the townhomes are located for $1 to IBID Associates, a subsidiary of the Altman Group.
Current owner Brett Altman wants to make a killing in the tight housing market. So he chose not to renew the low-income housing agreement with HUD, ignoring how disruptive this decision will be to the lives of the Black resident families, including many with children and/or disabled people.
In October 2021, Altman announced his intention to evict the families, demolish the townhomes and sell the land to developers and gentrifiers for up to $100 million.
Gentrifying developers of luxury high-rises for nearby university students and science research complexes want to push out the UC Townhome families, whose children would be forced to leave their schools and safe play spaces. Parents, elders and disabled residents would lose their proximity to hospitals and public transportation. The Townhomes is one of the few remaining Black communities left in a Philadelphia neighborhood once known as the Black Bottom.
A resident who has lived at the Townhomes since 2009, who prefers not to be named, explained why residents are resisting their evictions so strongly: “This complex is probably one of the few examples of an organically contained, yet not over densely populated, lower-income community that facilitates children’s play, interaction and growth in relative safety.
“Its location serves to facilitate otherwise less enfranchised residents’ access to a range of goods and services not as similarly accessible to those in comparable economic circumstances.
“If empowerment, self-actualization and building communities among the less enfranchised is meant to enfranchise us, then removing us from this complex is a leap in the wrong direction.”
The Save UC Townhomes Coalition, made up of residents and supporters who conduct weekly organizing meetings, has responded to the gentrification threat with frequent rallies and marches. They’ve shown up in numbers to protest at nearby University of Pennsylvania offices and events, at Altman’s and other real estate offices and even at HUD headquarters in Washington, D.C.
A Residents Council has filed amicus briefs with lawyers, which are to be read by court officials, Altman and the City of Philadelphia. Residents and supporters have written numerous articles and appeared on radio, TV and in social media and have spoken at many public events.
As a result of these many actions, residents got Altman to make some repairs and improve maintenance — and most importantly, to extend his HUD contract for two months, until Sept. 8.
But most residents rely on Section 8 housing vouchers, the federal government’s inadequate program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled to afford decent, safe and sanitary housing in the private market.
Two months is not enough time to find replacement housing that will accept Section 8 vouchers, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and with the extreme shortage of low-income housing in the city. Many residents are disabled or have other barriers to finding housing, including pets or poor credit.
Save UC Townhomes!
The July 9 protest will be the residents’ start of a renewed campaign to defend their homes. Their demands are clear: Stop the demolition of low-income housing at UC Townhomes and anywhere else in Philadelphia. No evictions or demolition should occur until every family has found desirable housing. If people are forced to move, the site should be preserved as affordable housing.
Altman and other developers should not get away with making millions of dollars off displacing low-income Black families. In fact, Altman owes residents compensation if they are displaced, especially since he stands to gain over $100 million from the sale.
The Save UC Townhomes Coalition insists they won’t stop their struggle until they win. They know housing is a human right — won only if they fight for it.
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