The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already endemic housing crisis in Philadelphia, killing neighbors and destroying communities. The recent devastating fire in Fairmount took the lives of 12 people, including eight children. The 12 people were all members of a low-income, extended family squeezed into a four-bedroom apartment in a neglected building owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA). The fire is the latest evidence of a systemic assault on Black residents, of which housing inequity is just one of many forms of violence. As Penn watches its endowment grow to over $20 billion and develops real estate across the city, tens of thousands of Philadelphians are struggling to find housing, turning to friends for shelter or living on the street. Penn is not just complicit in this inequity; it is one of its foremost perpetrators.
As we write, 70 homes in University City and hundreds of Black and working-class residents are Penn-trification’s next target. Just blocks off campus, the University City Townhomes at 3900-3999 Market Street are a private development of federally subsidized units, offering below-market rates to residents, some of whom have lived there a lifetime. 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 contemplate demolishing the Townhomes in favor of yet another mixed-use building boasting luxury condominiums, commercial space, or science labs.
The eviction is scheduled for July 2022, after which existing residents will have to confront Philadelphia’s extreme shortage of low-income housing. Those who qualify for 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. Neither natural nor inevitable, such forced displacements are the result of concrete choices made by Philadelphia and Penn administrators past and present. However, a closer look at the local history reveals that Penn community members also have a vital role to play in resisting this violence. Indeed, the struggle to stop Penn-trification led to the creation of the University City Townhomes in the first place.
In 1959, the West Philadelphia Corporation, a coalition claiming Penn as its majority shareholder, formed with a mission to redevelop West Philadelphia as University City. Working with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, the Corporation targeted the 105 acres between 34th and 40th streets, stretching from Chestnut and Ludlow streets in the south to Lancaster and Powelton avenues in the north, for "urban renewal." This area was known as the Black Bottom, a vibrant Black working-class community that the Redevelopment Authority nonetheless labeled “blighted” to invoke the right of eminent domain in 1966. In the face of bulldozers and arrest, residents had no choice but to leave. A total of 2,653 people were displaced. Roughly 78% of them were Black. “I come from a place where I had no love … my whole community showed me love,” said long-time activist Gerald Bolling, who grew up in the Black Bottom before being forced out. He has insisted on reparations for his now-dispersed community for over 30 years.
Anti-Black violence in Philadelphia has always been met with Black-led resistance. In the late 1960s, as the Black Bottom organized to defend itself, Penn students refused to sit on the sidelines. In 1967, reporters Lawrence Beck and Stephen Kerstetter of The Daily Pennsylvanian explained the insidious term “urban renewal” as shorthand for “giant impersonal institutions like the University of Pennsylvania … devouring small homeowners, spreading segregation and prolonging social inequalities.” Two years later, some 800 Penn and Philadelphia-area students, faculty and staff, and local Black activists occupied College Hall over six days. They demanded affordable housing within the core of University City, specifically for displaced Black Bottom residents. They forced Penn’s president and trustees to the negotiation table, who on Feb. 23, 1969 resolved “a policy of accountability and responsibility that accepts the concerns and aspirations of the surrounding communities as its own concerns and aspirations.”
Subsequently, the University created a quadripartite commission consisting of faculty, students, trustees, and community activists who were empowered to review any further Penn development in the Black Bottom. A plan submitted to the commission in 1969 proposed four new scientific developments in the area alongside three dedicated low-income housing projects. The plan was approved, but the three affordable housing projects were never built, and the University simply waited out their promise. A decade or so later, the Altman Group bought the property at 3900 Market for $1 and committed to building affordable housing there. In the end, the affordable housing complex that the Altman Group built was small, but nevertheless needed compensation for the devastation of an entire community. Today, those very same homes are being targeted for destruction.
Philadelphia politicians have recognized this injustice, but fail to provide a viable solution. The legislation amended by the city council on Nov. 4, 2021 extends the time to eviction beyond the currently projected six months, but offers little beyond that. In fact, it stipulates that only 20% of the current units must be preserved as affordable — itself an amorphous term measured against median income, which the continuing displacement of low-income residents will only adjust upward. If ratified, the legislation would reinforce the violent logic of the market, leaving most residents to fend for themselves.
What Altman purchased for $1 is now worth over $100 million. By its sheer presence, Penn increases property value around its perimeter, or more bluntly, within its police patrol zone, incentivizing the sale of any and all land to the highest bidder, driving out the poor and working class while professing benevolence.
On Dec. 14, 2021 the Coalition to Save UC Townhomes, comprised of Penn faculty and students, the Black Bottom Tribe, housing justice organizers, and West Philadelphia community members working alongside Townhomes residents, held a demonstration on campus calling on Penn to honor the Trustees’ 1969 commitment to a policy of accountability. After decades of broken promises, it is time to create innovative solutions to the racialized inequalities that rip through our city. An extension for residents to stay in their homes temporarily, 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. Nobody 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.
But justice means even more than that. Penn should use its wealth, knowledge, and innovation to support a tenant-managed cooperative or a Community Land Trust that would give residents the option of home ownership. While there are precedents for such arrangements in Philadelphia, Penn could lead the way in University-initiated, permanent low-income housing developed with the input of the community members.
This is a moment of reckoning for the University and its incoming president, M. Elizabeth Magill — a chance to begin the process of repairing the violence of Penn-trification. Penn created University City by displacing Black working-class residents. Now it must take responsibility and ensure that Black working-class people, who are here now, can stay.
Anne Berg is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jake Nussbaum is a community organizer, artist, and Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. His email is email@example.com.
Chi-ming Yang is Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
They write on behalf of the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes, whose email is: email@example.com. Members of the Coalition and endorsers of this letter include:
- Black Bottom Tribe
- Black Lives Matter - Philadelphia
- Penn Housing For All
- Philadelphia Housing Action
- Police Free Penn
- Reclaim Philadelphia