Save the People’s Townhomes: A Fight for Affordable Housing in Philadelphia 

Students and community members gather in front of the Ben Franklin statue at College Hall to demand that Penn take action to stop the sale of the UC Townhomes. At the center of the image, two organizers hold a white banner with black text that reads: "SAVE THE UC TOWNHOMES!"

by the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes

A couple blocks from campus, at 40th and Market St., a fight for affordable housing and Black autonomy is being waged by the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes. Families at the University City Townhomes are set to be evicted in a mere few months. In 2021, the Altman Group announced plans to sell the townhomes, refusing to renew its affordable-housing subsidies. University City’s insatiable expansion has ensured that the site now constitutes prime real estate. Developers plan to demolish the Townhomes in favor of yet another mixed-use building boasting luxury condominiums, commercial space, or science labs. 

The eviction was scheduled for July 8, 2022. After a year of organizing, residents were successful in securing a 2-month extension from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). However, come September 8, existing residents will have to confront Philadelphia’s extreme shortage of low-income housing. Those who qualify for Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) Section 8 housing vouchers, which offer rental assistance and are required in order to apply for federally subsidized housing, face a closed waiting list 40,000 households long

On Dec. 14, 2021, the Coalition to Save UC Townhomes, comprised of residents, housing justice organizers, the Black Bottom Tribe, West Philadelphia community members, and Penn faculty and students, held their first action: a demonstration on campus calling on Penn to honor the Trustees’ 1969 commitment to a policy of accountability (see: Black Bottom). Since then, the Coalition has been working tirelessly, building community, and advocating for affordable housing. There have been many actions since then. Residents showed up at Altman’s offices in Fort Washington on February 13. Less than a week later, on February 23, the Coalition held a rally on College Green, and Penn students and coalition members spoke at an annual forum with Penn administration, urging Penn to live out its professed values and meet the Coalition’s demands. Since then, the Coalition has organized rallies, block parties and protests, a movie night, a tour around Philly shaming displacement, and speeches in solidarity with other groups. Coalition members picketed and rallied at Altman’s other offices, disrupted Penn’s alumni weekend, and disrupted an annual talk held between Penn’s president and a guest speaker. The Coalition targeted the parties whose power and wealth will grow if residents are displaced and sent a clear message: you can’t put profit over people and expect silence. As a result of these actions, the Coalition was successful in securing a meeting with Interim President Wendell Pritchett. At this meeting, residents presented the following demands to Penn

  1. Stop the sale.
  2. Make a public statement.
  3. Convene a meeting with residents and key stakeholders.
  4. Support residents if they choose to leave the Townhomes.
  5. Support residents’ right to stay in this neighborhood.
  6. Support residents’ right to first preference of any Altman property of their choosing.
  7. Create a Preservation Affordability Fund to preserve very-low to low-income housing for Black, Brown, and low-income communities in West Philadelphia.

However, in the face of this pressing crisis, with residents calling for the support of its extremely wealthy neighbor, Penn failed to make any actionable commitments. Former President Pritchett, speaking on Penn’s behalf, refused to meet any of these demands in a tangible way. Pritchett’s refusal proves that Brett Altman, the owner of the Townhomes, and Daniel Killinger, the buyer, currently have Penn’s support.

Colorful tents are set up on the grass in front of the UC Townhomes. On the roof of the Townhomes is a white banner that says "Housing is a Human Right."
Community members camp out at the reclaimed People’s Townhomes to support the residents and fight eviction. Photo courtesy of WHYY.

After decades of broken promises, it is time to create innovative solutions to the racialized inequalities that rip through Philadelphia. An extension for residents to temporarily stay in their homes, offered by the current legislation, is only the bare minimum. Residents should be guaranteed the right to stay in their homes, permanently and affordably; the homes should be refurbished and made healthy and safe once more. No one should be displaced. People deserve to stay in their neighborhood and keep their children in their current school environment. Penn owes full assistance to secure such housing. If residents are forced to leave, they should be given two years to choose from any nearby luxury Altman properties.

This is a moment of reckoning for Penn and its incoming president, M. Elizabeth Magill — a chance to begin the process of repairing the violence of Penntrification. Residents’ meeting with former Interim President Wendell Pritchett on May 15, 2022, was demonstrative of Penn’s ongoing harm and refusal to confront it. This change in administration is a moment for Penn to rethink its legacy as the institution that spearheaded the creation of University City by displacing working-class Black residents. Now, Penn must take responsibility and ensure that working-class Black people, who are here now, can stay.

Rasheda Alexander, a resident of the UC Townhomes, highlights Penn’s duty to pay reparations in a real and substantial manner. “It is time for Penn to give back to the community since they have taken so much. I am not talking about a coat drive, or a food drive to give to struggling families. I am talking about investing in a community of mixed-income property which caters not only to those with an area median income of 40% or higher but for low to very low-income individuals as well,” Rasheda urged. “Housing is a human right. That will always be my fight.”

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