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Protesters outside of College Hall on Feb. 23 rallying against the selling of townhomes in University City.

Credit: Derek Wong

Nearly 100 students and West Philadelphia residents gathered outside College Hall on Wednesday to demand that Penn prevent the eviction of residents from University City Townhomes — a housing development near Penn that is primarily occupied by Black and low-income Philadelphians — before the University Council meeting held that day.

The protest was hosted by the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes, a group composed of Penn faculty and students, the Black Bottom tribe, housing justice organizers, and West Philadelphia community members. Several townhome residents at risk of displacement spoke at the protest, aiming to pressure Penn into intervening in the planned redevelopment of the property.

Real estate firm Altman Management Company currently owns UC Townhomes on 39th and Market Streets, but it has not renewed a 40-year affordable housing contract with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. As a result, the townhome residents face an eviction scheduled for July which will displace 69 households.

College sophomore and Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes member Janay Draughn listed the group’s four demands to the dozens of listeners, which included a request for Interim President Wendell Pritchett to hold an open meeting with the townhome residents and community members.

In addition, the coalition is asking Penn to “repair harms” — by converting the townhomes into a community land trust rather than demolishing them, putting more investment into affordable housing in West Philadelphia, and using its resources to ensure that residents have a "safe, secure, and desirable place" to live.

“While Penn stands by and watches, planning its next luxury, high-rise office building, we're here today in front of College Hall, where Penn administrators have their offices,” Penn Associate Professor of English and a coalition organizer Chi-ming Yang told the crowd.

Yang noted the University’s $20.5 billion endowment and its exemption from paying property taxes, which she said proves that Penn is an “engine of inequality.” Penn is the only Ivy League university that does not participate in payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTS, to the city in which it is located.

“Housing is a human right. Housing is the people’s right. Stop 'Penntrification,'” Yang said in a chant that the crowd joined.

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials said in October 2021 that the agency, along with a contractor, would facilitate the relocation of the residents to “decent and safe” housing. Connie Astillero, a Philadelphia resident who lives in one of the townhomes, told the protesters that residents have not received vouchers for new homes and that it was difficult for people in general to find somewhere to live in Philadelphia. 

College sophomore and Police Free Penn member Jack Starobin, a former reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian, helped organize the protest, and he spoke at the University Council open forum in Houston Hall held after the protest.

At the open forum, Starobin reiterated the coalition’s concerns and directed the group’s demands to the University administrators who are University Council members. Approximately 30 open forum attendees stood up from their seats while Starobin was speaking, holding pieces of paper calling on Penn to “Save the UC Townhomes.”

“President Pritchett knows what displacement looks like. He is a scholar of affordable housing law,” Starobin said to the Council. “He and others here know what will happen this summer when the 400 townhome residents, mainly Black working class families, are scheduled to be evicted.”

Sam Rise, a Southwest Philadelphia resident, was one of the speakers at the protest. When they asked attendees to raise their hand if they were a native Philadelphian, most of the audience did not raise their hand. Rise said that since most people in the audience are not native to Philadelphia, they have a responsibility to care for their neighbors who have lived in the city longer than they have.

“I think that students at all of the universities in Philadelphia have an obligation to Philadelphia's communities to show up and care for them if you're going to benefit from the institution, because at the very least, we need to hold the institution accountable,” Rise said.

The pending eviction of the townhome residents comes amid several Penn development projects that have drawn scrutiny, including the purchase of the McDonald's on 40th and Walnut streets at an unspecified future date. 

In addition, West Philadelphia’s median market value has increased significantly from 2015 to 2021, which has made it more difficult for current residents to remain in their homes and which has been partly attributed to the founding of the Penn Alexander School in 2001.

The coalition has hosted multiple teach-ins to educate Penn students on the sale of the UC Townhomes. Another teach-in is planned for March 3, and another protest will be held in March on 40th Street with an exact date to be confirmed. 

“This is going to be a day everyone knows,” UC Townhome resident Darlene Foreman said of the upcoming protest. 

Astillero emphasized the need for Penn students to continue showing up at future events to put pressure on Penn to prevent the residents’ evictions. 

“We need everybody’s support. We need physical support out there, singing, raising voices,” Astillero said.