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The Department of Housing and Urban Development Headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo from HUD)

It is upsetting to see longtime residents forced out of their affordable rental units at the University City Townhomes. 

Townhome residents who have, for decades, lived in their homes are now being forced to relocate and find new residences. Some residents, along with some Penn faculty, students, and staff, are disillusioned by these events, and have manifested this through numerous protests to raise awareness of the plight of those living in the Townhomes. And on a few occasions, these protests have been directed at the University. As a bordering neighbor to the Townhomes, we share these sentiments. Indeed, the current circumstances evoke great frustration and sympathy.

Yet, while open expressions on Penn’s campus are lauded, such expressions must ensure that they are truthfully informed and are not carried out at the expense of other members of the community. The Administration believes the Penn community should have transparency into the situation and Penn’s role related to it — starting with a few clarifications.

Penn does not own the UC Townhomes property, nor has any influence over its redevelopment

IBID Associates, a private real estate development partnership unaffiliated with Penn, owns the UC Townhomes. Altman Management Company operates the Townhomes.

In 1982, IBID purchased the land from the City of Philadelphia with the goal of building affordable housing, eventually constructing the UC Townhomes that we know of today. IBID contracted with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to accept Section 8 vouchers, a government program to assist low-income families in securing housing in the private market. 

In 2021, IBID made the announcement that they will exercise their legal right to not renew their contract with HUD — giving the Townhomes’ residents one year’s notice to relocate. Following IBID’s announcement of the sale and redevelopment of the Townhomes site, which included replacement of the existing units, the Philadelphia City Council passed an ordinance in the spring of 2022, rezoning the property to allow only lower density residential use, with some modest retail. The prior zoning allowed a dense mix of commercial and residential uses, consistent with the City of Philadelphia’s 2035 Citywide Vision. 

In response, IBID filed a federal lawsuit claiming the rezoning violated their property rights. The continuation of the legal proceedings creates ongoing uncertainty for the prospective use of land which is a substantial deterrent for purchase or redevelopment. 

No Townhome resident engaged in the relocation process will face eviction

The displacement is reasonably causing many Townhome residents great pain and anxiety. Beyond the stress of relocating and the disruption of one’s life, there are the concerns of leaving a community that has been their home. Following IBID’s announcement to sell the property, Penn has undertaken measures to advocate for the residents to IBID and the city. 

Penn representatives have met directly with Townhomes residents. After hearing concerns about lack of communication and information, Penn directly expressed to IBID the importance of treating Townhomes residents respectfully. IBID has shared that they have retained a third-party service to work directly with residents to help identify alternative housing choices and to pay for residents’ relocation expenses, including security deposits, packing, and transportation. 

IBID has also shared with us that, as of now, 65 of 67 current Townhome households have accepted a voucher to secure alternative housing and relocation assistance. As of Sept. 20, 2022, more than 30 of the 65 households are in the process of moving, and IBID, working with the Philadelphia Housing Authority and HUD, has continued to extend its deadline for residents to leave the Townhomes so that every willing resident is relocated to another affordable housing site in Philadelphia before its new deadline of Dec. 27. 

IBID has assured us that no residents will face eviction, provided they actively engage the relocation assistance and use of their housing voucher.

Affordable housing is a complex, much larger issue

What is occurring at the Townhomes is emblematic of a long and tangled history that is a microcosm of city, state, and federal action and inaction when it comes to affordable housing. What is the role of a university in the current situation? While we recognize the complexity of the problem and know that progress requires government and actors in the private market, we too will be among the parties working to increase the supply of quality affordable housing in West Philadelphia.

Presently, there is a scarcity of quality affordable housing in Philadelphia. Housing experts report that Philadelphia could lose an additional 1,700 affordable units by 2027, including several hundred units in West Philadelphia. This situation calls for innovative partnerships among local, state, and federal governmental entities and an array of stakeholders, including Penn and other anchor institutions. 

Penn’s efforts on affordable housing in West Philadelphia

This brings us to Penn’s ongoing efforts related to housing in West Philadelphia. Penn, through partnerships with the community and collaborations with federal and local governments, private and nonprofit real estate developers, and affordable housing organizations, is contributing to solving the issue in the following innovative ways.

We are pleased to announce that Penn is partnering with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, which revitalizes communities by bringing volunteers, community partners and communities together to transform vulnerable, owner-occupied houses into safe, healthy, and energy-efficient homes. Helping people, particularly seniors, with modest financial resources remain in their homes in West Philadelphia is important. People with limited incomes are even more vulnerable to displacement when maintaining their homes becomes too costly. We are finalizing an agreement with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia to provide funding over four years to assist approximately 75 West Philadelphia low-income homeowners.  

We are also exploring other steps we can take to work on this problem, specifically to increase the supply of affordable housing. Our faculty with expertise in affordable housing and community development have much to contribute to this conversation. In this vein, we have asked the Penn Institute for Urban Research to convene them for a comprehensive study that recommends actionable strategies as to how Penn can support the increase of affordable housing using market-based solutions. One possibility is working with others to attract and collaborate with experienced developers that are in the business of creating affordable housing. We would be among the actors — along with government agencies and others — to enable such projects by helping finance those developments through low-interest loans or long-term equity which could enable affordable projects in West Philadelphia to move forward. 

PIUR would also explore best practices for university-community partnerships including outreach to our West Philadelphia neighbors. 

West Philadelphia is our home, and we are deeply committed to the health and well-being of its residents. We want to engage with our neighbors and our community partners to confront the current crises, effectively fulfilling the functions of a world-class university and a local anchor institution. As we have communicated directly to student and faculty activists, the Administration remains open and committed to productive dialogue on these important and complex issues.

CRAIG CARNAROLI is the senior executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania.