UPenn students rally for environmental and housing justice

Students at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia held a press conference and rally Sept. 26 at the Fossil Free Penn encampment in front of College Hall. Speakers called on UPenn to end its practice of investing millions of dollars in fossil fuels and to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry, its financers and its upholders.

UPenn student rally exposes university’s long history of Black community displacement, Sept. 26.

They also demanded that UPenn commit funds to preserve the nearby University City Townhomes, whose Black and Brown residents face eviction. While UPenn does not own the property, the students and other activists believe the university should intervene in the sale because of its historic role in gentrifying the Black communities in West Philadelphia known as the Black Bottom.

In 1969, 400 students and activists occupied College Hall to force university trustees to pledge $10 million for low-income housing to counter its encroachment into the Black Bottom. UPenn never delivered on its promise. Instead, the property where UC Townhomes are located was sold to the Altman Group, which is evicting the residents. Speakers noted that UPenn continues to work with Altman Group to build student housing in the area, often at the expense of longtime residents.

An additional demand was for the university, considered a “nonprofit,” to make voluntary payments, called PILOTs, that many tax-exempt organizations make to local governments. While UPenn did pay PILOTs to the City of Philadelphia from 1995-2000, it has since failed to make payments. With a $20.7 billion endowment, UPenn could easily have paid $62 million in PILOTs this year.

Speakers called on UPenn President Liz Magill to drop all disciplinary actions against the two students involved in a disruption of the Convocation for incoming students, Aug. 29, to protest “Penntrification.” Townhomes resident Rasheda Alexander called out the hypocrisy of UPenn officials for failing to adhere to their own mission statement that urges students to develop “critical thinking” and “awareness of moral and social issues.”

The press conference and rally brought together many diverse groups in Philadelphia that are fighting gentrification. Speakers voiced opposition to the city’s plans to build a new arena for the 76ers pro-basketball team in Chinatown and its plans to destroy natural wetlands in South Philadelphia’s FDR Park in order to build facilities for the pending World Soccer Cup scheduled for 2026. Also of issue was the city’s failure to address community concerns over remediation and redevelopment of a former industrial site in Point Breeze, where a Sunoco refinery was destroyed by an explosion and fire in 2019.

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