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Months of encampments, on-campus protests, meetings, and whispers around Penn and across the City stem from one ongoing issue: the impending sale of affordable housing complex University City Townhomes and plans to redevelop the property, located in the largely gentrified neighborhood of University City.

The University says it is committed to helping solve the City’s affordable housing crisis. But it's not the only player in the sale of the Townhomes, a privately owned property that came about during the nation’s push to develop urban cities — which was also a catalyst for the historical displacement of predominantly Black and brown communities.

Since the property's owner announced its decision to sell the Townhomes, residents, student and local activists, and the City Council have been raising their voices against the sale and what the effects of displacement and redevelopment could mean for the City. The controversy has shone a spotlight on the issue of affordable housing in Philadelphia and reinvigorated years-old demands against the University to give more back to its surrounding community.

But what exactly are the issues behind the UC Townhomes sale? And what do the parties involved have to say about it? 

A brief history of the UC Townhomes and affordable housing in Philadelphia:

The University City Townhomes, or UC Townhomes, is a rental property of 70 units located at the corner of 39th and Market streets. Built in 1983, the federally subsidized units were built to offer below-market rates to residents as a compensation for the destruction of the Black Bottom, a predominantly Black and working-class neighborhood now known as “University City.”

But in July 2021, the property’s owner, IBID Associates Limited Partnership, announced it will not renew its annual affordable housing contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which it had been renewing for nearly 40 years.

What was bought for a price of $1 in 1982 is now worth $12,967,500, according to the City’s review of the property. The complex has gotten attention from developers looking to build spaces for life sciences companies, according to a Philadelphia Business Journal report, which said the property could sell for up to $100 million.

Nearly 70 families, most of whom are Black and Hispanic families, are at risk of displacement after having lived in the Townhomes for years. The families are now up against a Dec. 27 deadline to leave their homes, a date that IBID has pushed back multiple times since the original date of July 8 after requesting the Department of Housing and Development to extend its affordable housing contract. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is providing residents with continued rental assistance payments in the meantime, after agreeing to extend IBID’s contract largely because many residents had not received housing vouchers necessary to relocate. IBID had given the required one-year notice to the Department of Housing and Urban Development that it would not renew its contract.

“Rental housing in West Philadelphia is in very high demand. And we can't find a great apartment tonight,” John Kromer, a Fels Institute of Government instructor and the City’s former director of housing from 1992 to 2001, told The Daily Pennsylvanian. “But the idea that I think IBID had was we're gonna give them a lot of lead time so that we can really work on this together and find decent places for these residents to live.”

But for low-income residents in increasingly gentrified areas like West Philadelphia, finding a new place isn’t easy. An inadequate amount of available rental units that accept housing vouchers in the City make it difficult to find affordable and subsidized housing options. Across the City, 1,700 affordable housing units are at risk of expiring in the next five years.

  • More on federal housing subsidies: The HUD Section 8 program provides housing subsidies to private landlords for about 5 million low-income households across the country, and contracts typically last between five and 20 years. These contracts allow tenants to pay only 30% of their adjusted household monthly income in rent.
  • More on the Black Bottom: Between the 1950s and 1970s, the federal government initiated a period of urban redevelopment, often referred to as “urban renewal,” across American cities in an effort to modernize blighted areas. Under this initiative, the City cleared many local neighborhoods to create space for university-affiliated commercial and residential buildings. An estimated 5,000 residents were displaced during this process, but exact numbers remain disputed.
Credit: Derek Wong Save the UC Townhomes protest on College Green on Feb. 23, 2022.

The ongoing legal battle between the City of Philadelphia, UC Townhomes owner IBID, and the residents:

The Philadelphia City Council approved a bill in March that would suspend the demolition of the UC Townhomes complex and ensure the area would be directed toward residential rather than commercial use. 

“Our ultimate goal with this legislation is to support the public interest by making sure as much affordable housing remains in amenity-rich and transit-adjacent neighborhoods, with a particular focus on residential properties that may otherwise be susceptible in either the near or long term to market pressures,” Councilmember Jamie Gauthier wrote in a Sept. 24 email to the DP. 

“I welcome development in my District, but also want to ensure that low income West Philadelphians can live within walking distance of high quality jobs, education, healthcare, and goods and services,” Gauthier wrote.

While the legislation, introduced by West Philadelphia Councilmember Gauthier in October 2021, does not stop the expiration of the property’s subsidized housing contract, it would require a portion of units built in the area to be offered at below market-rate prices. Gauthier recently won the City Council’s support to widen the geographic scope of this bill, seeking to add more affordable housing and subsidized development. The legislation has yet to be implemented, as Mayor Jim Kenney has yet to sign the bill.

But after the demolition ban had passed, IBID filed a federal lawsuit against the City and Gauthier, saying the councilmember had violated the developer’s “constitutional right” to sell the Townhomes, which rests on a 2.6-acre property. 

The developer’s original plan was to replace the 70-unit Townhomes building with 70 units of affordable housing, some retail shops, a life sciences and research campus, as well as a job training center that would train and employ local residents, Kevin Feeley, IBID’s representative, told the DP. The City refused the offer, and eventually Gauthier responded with the bill barring development on the site. 

“We wanted to do this in a way that would address the issue about what happens to the residents,” Feeley said. “We said from the beginning that we would give a preference to anybody, potential buyers, to anybody who came back with a plan that would include affordable housing in the development. And that gets missed time and time again, that somehow all that IBID wanted was to just sell the property and make as much money as they can.”

Credit: Olivia West Save the UC Townhomes block party on March 19, 2022.

IBID, the owner, intends to sell the property for the purpose of building a research and development center or luxury housing complex. It’s working with a developer that has agreed to replace the existing UC Townhomes with new units that would first be offered to current Townhomes residents who want to return to a “transformational redevelopment,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported

IBID is also working to transfer its funding for subsidized housing at the Townhomes property site to build about 100 additional affordable units in the West Philadelphia area, according to the Inquirer.

Community organizing, protests, and public confrontation: 

Members of the local community — from Townhomes residents to local activists to students — have rallied around the fight to not only save the Townhomes, but to amplify the City's issue of dwindling affordable housing.

July: The Save the UC Townhomes coalition had organized an encampment on July 10 at the Townhomes to protest its sale. Residents, organizers, and activists slept in more than 15 tents outside the complex for nearly a month in efforts to challenge the prior Sept. 7 eviction date.

IBID Associates, the real estate firm that owns the Townhomes, had called the protest “unfortunate and ill-advised” and argued that protestors were trespassing private property. On July 22, a Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge then ordered those participating in the encampment to vacate the property. This led residents to react with defiance, however, saying the judge’s ruling would not end their protest against displacement.

Credit: Jesse Zhang Save the UC Townhomes encampment on July 16, 2022.

August: The Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office enforced a court ruling on Aug. 8 to remove the encampment, and law enforcement ultimately vacated the area of the tents after arriving at the Townhomes. This confrontation between the residents and Philadelphia police resulted in a wave of chants, like “Housing is a human right” and “Shame on you.” Officers maintained their understanding of the issue, and said they were solely at the scene to enforce the law.

Over 100 protestors recently interrupted Penn President Liz Magill's first-ever Convocation speech on Aug. 29, demanding that the University take action to "Stop Penn-trification” and “Save UC Townhomes!”

September: Hundreds of protestors, including townhome residents and supporters, gathered in front of Philadelphia City Hall on Sept. 7 and demanded that the Townhomes’ property owner extend its affordable housing contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for two years or sell the Townhomes to a third party to preserve the existing rent.

The rally prompted City Councilmembers to release statements in solidarity with residents.

“Ultimately, the responsibility for this crisis is not on city government alone,” City Councilmembers Helen Gym, a 1993 College graduate, and Kendra Brooks wrote in a public statement released on Sept. 8. “We need a federal recommitment to fund and build public housing, and we believe that tax exempt institutions, which have helped drive the increase in housing prices and residential segregation, must now proactively support long-term and permanent housing affordability.”

Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil President Liz Magill speaking at Convocation on Aug. 29, 2022.

Gym and Brooks wrote they are in support of: implementing a one-year extension of the federal contract with Housing and Urban Development, committing City dollars to preserve affordable housing in the City and call on state and federal leaders to advance those investments; and as HUD contracts likely continue to expire, establishing a preservation fund and allowing residents time to organize and access housing solutions.

Since Sept. 14, Fossil Free Penn has been leading an encampment on College Green, demanding the University commit funds to preserve the Townhomes and meet with residents this month, divest its endowment from indirect and direct fossil fuel holdings by 2025, and pay PILOTs — payments in lieu of taxes — to the City’s public schools. The latter two have been backed by members of the University community for years.

A petition to “Save the UC Townhomes” has collected over 3,600 signatures.

Credit: Jesse Zhang Save the UC Townhomes protest at Convocation on Aug. 29, 2022.

What have residents of the UC Townhomes said? And what are their demands? 

Several residents have spoken to 34th Street Magazine, a publication of The Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc., about the impending loss of their home and a community many of them have created and lived in for years. Some families are not only worried about finding new housing; they’re also worried about how their children will get to their schools or if they need to attend a different school after relocating — and the challenges that would come with that.

“They’re tearing this whole world apart, and the government is allowing them because it’s the law,” Krystal Young, who has lived in the UC Townhomes for three years, told 34th Street in August. “I’m going to stand up and help put a stop to [the eviction]. With our voices, we have to stick together.” 

Save the UC Townhomes, the resident-led local activist group, has outlined several demands, including:

  • An immediate halt to the sale and demolition of the UC Townhomes and that the property be made entirely and permanently affordable.
  • A two-year extension for Townhomes residents, which the group says would allow time to find replacement housing that will accept vouchers.
  • Assign a maintenance person to the UC Townhomes complex to address years of outstanding repairs in the Townhomes.
  • A $500,000 financial compensation per family living in the Townhomes, which the group says amounts to 35% of what may ultimately be the total sale price of the Townhomes.

How is Penn involved with the UC Townhomes, and what has been the University’s response?

Protests on campus and the demands made against Penn administration have put a limelight on the University’s central role in the destruction of the Black Bottom and the ongoing gentrification of West Philadelphia. 

Many local community members believe the institution has a responsibility to rescue the Townhomes and help preserve the affordable housing in the City. “The problem of expiring affordable housing subsidies was not one that Penn created, but also not one that they are excused from participating in solving,” Gauthier wrote to the DP.

While the University says it is committed to helping tackle the City's issue of affordable housing, Penn does not own the UC Townhomes property and it does not have any direct control over the redevelopment plans for the Townhomes property site. 

Credit: Kylie Cooper Save the UC Townhomes protest at the Silfen Forum event with documentarian and filmmaker Ken Burns on April 18, 2022.

Since learning about IBID’s plan to sell the property, Penn representatives have met directly with Townhomes residents, and have actively and regularly engaged City leaders on the matter, according to Stephen MacCarthy, Penn’s vice president for University communications. Penn reached out directly to IBID after hearing concerns about communications and possible evictions, MacCarthy wrote in a Sept. 25 email to the DP.

“President Magill has met with and asked senior leaders at Penn to look at ways that the University can use its academic and research strengths, along with its influence locally, to help develop solutions,” MacCarthy wrote to the DP. “We expect we will be able to outline in the very near future some important ways the University can help address this complicated and challenging problem.”

The residents had met Interim President Wendell Pritchett and other top Penn officials in May to discuss the sale of the UC Townhomes, but no coalition demands were met at the time of the meeting. When protesters interrupted Magill’s Convocation speech in August, the University President emphasized the democratic importance of learning to live together and engage in “productive disagreement.” And when Chaplain Charles Howard took over the podium briefly, he told the crowd that he understood the issue’s significance, but that the ceremony was intended to celebrate the Class of 2026.

Penn, which is the largest private employer in the City of Philadelphia, has long faced backlash from student groups and local organizations who say the University has failed to give back enough to the surrounding community. According to MacCarthy, the University currently contributes more to the City’s general fund through a multitude of payments and initiatives than any other City-based employer, including both nonprofit or for-profit employers.

“The next question is, what development is going to be next? And what can be done about it to prevent this thing from happening again?” Kromer, the City’s former director of housing, told the DP. 

“The City and Penn and some of the nonprofit organizations that have been active in community development have a very sophisticated knowledge of these issues," Kromer said. "If a plan could be agreed on to address this issue, there's some real talent there and an ability to look at alternatives and find the best solution.”