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The Fairfax Apartments are in West Philadelphia.

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Residents at the Fairfax Apartments located at 43rd and Locust Street, many of whom are Penn graduate students, said unsafe living conditions and potential increase in rent may prompt them to move out of the building.

Rushmore Management bought the Fairfax in October and is currently renovating the apartment complex to upgrade the units and courtyard, according to residents. Residents have become increasingly concerned by dust entering the hallways from the construction, which may contain lead paint from the original structure built in 1920, and construction materials blocking fire escapes.

Rushmore Management, a developing company based in New Jersey, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Jeremy Gallion, fourth-year English Ph.D. student and resident at the Fairfax, said the dust has caused smoke detectors to sound, adding that the fire department has come to the Fairfax six times in the last two months. Gallion also described the construction itself as hazardous, and said Rushmore construction workers have put tape over the smoke detectors. 

Mariah Min, a part-time English instructor for the College of Liberal and Professional Studies who has lived in the Fairfax for five years, said she noticed that construction materials block hallways and the fire escape, which poses a challenge to residents who use wheelchairs.

After residents filed a report to the Department of Licenses and Inspections for the City of Philadelphia, the department issued the property three violations on Jan. 7 for engaging in construction without a permit.

Jennifer Sweda is a 25-year resident of the Fairfax and worked as a cataloguing and metadata librarian at Penn for 24 years before retiring in 2018. She said the vast majority of the people she has met in the Fairfax since she moved in have been members of the Penn community, including graduate students, employees, or alumni.

“We’re here because Penn is here,” Sweda said. “Those of us who’ve lived here a long time, we’ve seen a tremendous number of changes in the neighborhood.”

Residents at the Fairfax also voiced concerns over potential rent increases in the coming months due to the renovations. Gallion said he may not be able to afford to stay in the apartment, especially because English Ph.D. students who receive the Benjamin Franklin Fellowship do not receive funding in July and August.

Min, Gallion, and Sweda added that the events taking place at the Fairfax are an example of gentrification, the renovation of deteriorated urban neighborhoods by the influx of more affluent residents. A 2018 study by RENTCafe, a real estate website, ranked two of Philadelphia’s zip codes among the most gentrified in the country.

"A number of us from a bunch of different departments who live at the Fairfax are trying to figure out what to do," Gallion said. "How do we either slow this process of gentrification so that we can at least live here long enough to complete our degrees, and help protect the long standing people who have been living in this neighborhood who now can't afford to live?"

Penn has long been criticized for its role in the gentrification of West Philadelphia and their refusal to pay PILOTs, voluntary payments in lieu of property taxes, to the city. Min said that Penn’s actions have consequences for local residents.

“Penn’s plans for expansion have negative repercussions for how the housing market operates in University City and West Philadelphia,” Min said. “I definitely see the way that Penn handles its relations with the community being a large part of what's going on with gentrification.”

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