University City Townhomes, renamed the Peoples Townhomes by residents and activists, sits next to the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. On Aug. 29, over 100 residents and supporters converged on UPenn’s convocation for the 2,500 students of the incoming class of 2026, shouting down President Liz Magill with chants of “Housing is a human right” and “Stop Penntrification.”
As Magill and other university officials gave up trying to conduct their ceremony and walked off stage, Townhome residents and other participants used bullhorns to educate the hundreds of receptive first-year students on how the university is greatly to blame for displacing people of color from the nearby area known as the Black Bottom, a historically Black neighborhood. Workers World Party member Brice Patterson denounced the university for its long history of insults and crimes against the city’s Black community.
Townhomes resident Rasheda Alexander complained that Magill had ignored their calls for a meeting for months. Calling out the university for its part in gentrifying large parts of West Philadelphia, Alexander called on the Ivy League institution to purchase the Townhomes property so residents could stay. Purchasing the homes and keeping them affordable for residents would amount to spare change from UPenn’s huge endowment, which rose 41.1% in 2021 to $20.5 billion. (tinyurl.com/3wbnh6mh)
The fight to stop evictions continues
For over a year, 68 Black, Latinx and Indigenous families have been fighting to stop their evictions by IBID Associates. The UC Townhomes were built in 1983 as low-income housing, as a result of protests demanding affordable housing. The Frank Rizzo administration gave the land to IBID, a subsidiary of the Altman Group, for $1 to build and manage the affordable homes through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Now Altman can reap an estimated $100 million by selling the property to developers and evicting the 68 families, many of whom include children, seniors and people with disabilities. Protests, podcasts, rallies and meetings continue in Philadelphia, as UC Townhomes residents resist the threatened eviction from their homes, now postponed to Oct. 7.
Housing is a right
The enthusiasm from the successful Aug. 29 action spilled over the next day to a Community Speak-out on the Housing Crisis, sponsored by Workers World Party. UC Townhomes resident organizers Sheldon Davids and Darlene Foremen joined other housing activists on a panel at the Calvary Center for Culture and Community.
Davids described the UC Townhomes as “one of the last bastions that allows people of color to build community with easy access to services and amenities. We have reached out to pertinent shareholders and been rebuffed time and again.
“It wasn’t until we took actions that we got attention. We are not standing at the end of the tunnel — there is still light ahead for us. Our fight is to keep people in their homes. Every human has the right to a home. This fight sets precedent.”
Darlene Foreman, a resident of the UC Townhomes for 29 years, raised three children there, where everything needed for her family was nearby. She stated: “We are hardworking families. It is not fair for the owner to do this to us. We are not asking for more time anymore, because we are not going anywhere. They [Altman Group] didn’t think we would fight back, but we are going to fight to stay!”
Alex Stewart with the Workers Revolutionary Collective and the Philadelphia area Cooperative Alliance challenged the audience to move away from compliance with situations that are not serving community people. “If we choose not to comply but follow the lead of our elders here, we will find we are more alike, with more similarities than differences. We have to move toward building what we need.”
UPenn’s decades of racist gentrification
Cindy Lou, with Mobilization4Mumia, challenged the city’s historic use of eminent domain to evict thousands of Black families from the area where UC Townhomes are located. She described how five entities, including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science (now University of the Sciences), Presbyterian Hospital (now Penn Presbyterian Medical Center) and the Osteopathic Medical School (now Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine), established the West Philadelphia Corporation in 1959 to rebrand the area as “University City.”
“The WPC, as a major not-for-profit community development organization, built the University City Science Center in the 1960s in the Market Street corridor as one of five planning units designated for the University Redevelopment Area by the Redevelopment Authority,” she explained. “The RDA proceeded to expand the project by displacing the majority-Black residents in the Black Bottom.
“The University of Pennsylvania is a multimillion dollar nonprofit, paying no taxes to the city. The creation of the WPC was one of UPenn’s biggest sins.”
5 million homes needed across the U.S.
Michael Wilson with Workers World described growing up in the Black Bottom, when the universities made it easier for their employees to buy homes there and drive out the original residents. “Housing is becoming one of the biggest fights the U.S. has seen. We need 5 million housing units to meet the demand.
“Our fight is against the capitalist developers and the local governments that accommodate them. For most workers the choice boils down to paying the landlord or feeding their families. When wages average $16 an hour, there is no choice.”
Other speakers included Assantewaa Nkrumah-Ture with the Philadelphia Tenants Union and Jimi Alade with Workers World. WW members Brice Patterson and Joe Piette co-chaired the program. Nipun Kottage with UPenn medical students announced plans for a Sept. 2 “Housing = Healthcare” rally.
Organizers have called for supporters to come out to City Hall at 5 p.m. on Sept. 7, a month prior to the October eviction deadline. They will hold a press conference about the current status of the campaign to save the townhomes, followed by a rally in support of the residents’ fight to save their homes. Darlene Foreman urged supporters: “Stand with us. If we win, then the entire country will win!”