UC Townhomes residents demand ‘right to return’
Leading chants of “we saved the peoples townhomes” and “housing is a human right1” activist Krystal Strong opened a press conference and rally attended by University City Townhomes residents and supporters at 40th and Market streets on April 21.
After a two-year struggle to stop the demolition and displacement of one of the few remaining predominantly Black and Brown affordable housing developments in Philadelphia, a tentative agreement was reached April 19 between the city and site owner IBID Associates, for the development of 70 new units of affordable housing on one-fifth of the 2.7-acre property.
While claiming credit for the settlement, following their tenacious two-year struggle, members of Save the UC Townhomes Coalition challenged provisions of the agreement, which was made without their input.
IBID agreed to provide $3.5 million to the city for the tenants’ relocation and housing costs — about $50,000 per household. A separate, much smaller fund, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, will be provided by a coalition, including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Children’s Hospital, which residents have targeted for their central role in gentrifying an historic Black neighborhood.
The court-ordered settlement defines “affordability” as targeting those with incomes of 60% to 80% of area median income, making it open to tenants with higher incomes than the existing residents of UC Townhomes earn. Councilperson Jamie Gauthier, whose district includes the property, claims the city will attempt to match the previous levels of affordability at the site, and that the agreement will include a right-to-return for previous tenants.
Put ‘right to return’ in writing
Residents are demanding a written guarantee of certain provisions, including Gauthier’s promise of their ‘right to return.’
Residents see the settlement as falling far short of solutions to address the needs of individual families, seniors and people with disabilities, who are being pushed out of the Townhomes, and the city’s growing affordable housing crisis. The deal sets aside only 19% of the current site for housing, leaving the rest open for more university laboratory buildings.
Residents are demanding that affordability be defined as 30% of AMI, which would be more in line with rents they were paying when the property was subsidized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Speakers pointed out that over a quarter of the city’s existing subsidized housing units face expiring affordability provisions within the next few years.
Residents of the People’s Townhomes and their wide array of supporters have put the issue of affordable housing in the spotlight, with bold actions including numerous marches blocking major intersections near the site, a 31-day encampment on the site in July 2022, a press conference outside City Hall and a disruption of a private gathering of developers and their political supporters in October 2022.
Their struggle has gained support from students at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, who have denounced the historic role their schools played in the racist displacement of working-class Black and Brown communities. UC Townhomes residents and supporters shut down the Aug. 29, 2022, UPenn first-year students convocation. Students led protests disrupting campus events, including the fall 2022 homecoming football game.
At the April 21 press conference, People’s Townhomes resident Mel Hairston stressed that the struggle is far from over. “At the beginning of this fight we were asking; now we are demanding. There can be no development of this property without the people who have been residing here for decades. We have the first right to return. We are also putting the University of Penn and Drexel University on notice that they owe dues to this community for all they have taken from us.”