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Protesters in support of the UC Townhomes residents on March 19.

Credit: Sophia Leung

To those first years who were disappointed that their convocation was disrupted: We understand your disappointment. We would all like to live in a community where we celebrate each other’s achievements and dreams. Unfortunately, Penn has a long and troubled history of silencing dissent on campus and, more significantly, harming its Black and low-income neighbors. When the administration continues to ignore the needs of its neighbors for its own self-interest, we are left with few choices. We must ask ourselves: Is the celebration of our achievements and dreams more important than the right of our Black, low-income, and disabled neighbors to live in our community? Do Black lives only matter to us if they are Penn students?

As we explain below, our tactics are the only proven way to convince the administration of the importance of this issue. Until our demands to Penn are met — that Penn pledge $10 million to support the preservation of the Townhomes as 100% low-income housing — you will continue to hear from us.

Myth #1: Penn has no direct connection to the UC Townhomes.

As we have written elsewhere, low-income housing at 39th and Market is directly historically tied to Penn’s practices of expansion and displacement. In 1959, the West Philadelphia Corporation, headed by Penn, sought to rebrand 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 Black working-class community that the City Council designated as “blighted,” invoking the right of eminent domain and paving the way for the Redevelopment Authority to demolish the area beginning in 1966. A total of 2,653 people were displaced. Roughly 78% of them were Black.

The displacement of the Black Bottom sparked community-led protests in West Philadelphia and at Penn. In 1969, student protestors and community activists occupied College Hall to demand that Penn provide compensation in the form of housing to displaced Black Bottom residents.  As a result of this occupation, Penn trustees pledged $10 million and accepted a proposal dedicating five plots of land for low-income housing, including land at 39th and Market. But over the course of years, Penn strategically waited out the housing activists, and never delivered the land or the money to community groups. Instead, the land stayed in the city’s possession until 1978, when current owner Altman Management purchased a parcel and developed the UC Townhomes.

Penn’s historical connection to the Townhomes is real. While it is true that they do not own the land, low-income housing only exists on that land because of the pressure activists placed on Penn to make reparations for their displacement of an entire Black community.

Myth #2: Gentrification is unfortunate, but we should not blame Penn for so-called inevitable changes to city neighborhoods.

Over the past 30 years, Penn has deployed an array of tactics to redevelop so-called University City and displace the community that lives there. In 1974, Penn created its own militarized police force to protect the privileged class of newcomers. The force has ballooned into the largest private police force in Pennsylvania and has been accused repeatedly of racial profiling. Now, UPPD patrol as far west as 52nd Street, where in 2020 they assisted Philadelphia Police in quelling protests after the murder of George Floyd, making the neighborhood appear safe for real estate investors while criminalizing Blackness and poverty.

Penn pairs residential subsidies with selective investments into nearby public schools to accelerate the real-estate market within school catchment zones and attract wealthy families and faculty to the neighborhood. In the Penn Alexander catchment, home prices have more than quadrupled since the University began investing in the school in 2000.

Now, Penn and Drexel are aligned in an effort to drive the market for the Life Sciences industry by densifying University City. This coordinated real-estate speculation inflated land values and induced the attempted sale of the Townhomes property. Altogether, Penn pioneered the university-led gentrification model.

These tactics amount to an intentional strategy to transform West Philadelphia into a privileged enclave for students and faculty through the dispossession of land from Black families, increased policing and surveillance of surrounding communities, and direct interventions in the real-estate market.

Myth #3: There is nothing Penn can do to save the Townhomes.

Penn is business partners with the Townhomes’ current owner, Brett Altman, and is the most powerful institution in this city. A public statement from Penn would apply immense pressure on Altman to seek an alternative. A financial pledge to support the purchase of the Townhomes through a land trust would go even further, setting a precedent that other institutions in the city would be likely to follow.

But what about the money? Penn has a $20.7 billion endowment and an operating budget of $4 billion. They will tell you that their money is tied up in investments and dedicated to specific funds. But this is a lie: When Penn wants to find money to support community interests, they find the money. They found $100 million to help public schools mitigate asbestos. They invested $4 million in the Lea School in West Philadelphia (in another gross attempt to stimulate neighborhood growth). They found $35 million to redevelop the McDonald’s on 40th and Walnut after Penn admin described it as a “safety concern.” While we should question the real motivations behind these investments and continue to demand that Penn pay PILOTs, it is plain to see that they have resources at their disposal.

Myth #4: The Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes is not interested in a civil discussion.

We have tried everything. Since October 2021, when the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes was formed, we have held dozens of teach-ins and non-disruptive protests on Penn’s campus to raise awareness around the issue. We have attended formal open forums hosted by Penn to raise the issue to administration and the board. We have had several civil written communications with Penn administration, including with then-Interim President Wendell Pritchett, who refused to engage them. It was only after student activists disrupted one of Pritchett’s prestigious events that he agreed to meet with us.

Residents have already met with Pritchett, who gave them the runaround on their central demands: that Penn intervene to stop the sale to a commercial buyer, and invest capital in a preservation fund to save the site.

So we also reached out by email to President Magill when she arrived this summer and asked her to meet with residents to continue to explore options. President Magill’s office responded by saying, “Because Penn does not own the UCTH property, our options are limited.” Another day, another disavowal.

Calls for civic engagement are a hallmark of Penn’s repression of dissent. Just last week, 10 out of 12 student groups addressed President Magill at the meeting of the University Council and spoke in support of the Townhomes, and still we hear nothing. When 10 out of 12 major student groups endorse the Townhomes’ demands and we continue to be ignored, what other options are we left with? The administration’s behavior leaves us with little choice but to take a more disruptive approach. This is the only proven way we have of getting their attention.

Meanwhile, time is running out for the residents, who face a current eviction deadline of Dec. 27. If the Townhomes are sold and demolished, University City will lose one of its last remaining federally subsidized low-income developments, leaving low-income residents with few options for staying in their community, and furthering Penn and Drexel’s decades-long colonization of the surrounding neighborhood.

It is true, you may not have gotten the welcome to Penn that you dreamed of. Instead, you got the truth about the institution which you are now a part of. Which side are you on? As members of the Penn community and vital stakeholders in this institution, we ask you to join our cause and we can grow together. Find us at Fossil Free Penn’s encampment, join our mailing list, and meet us in the streets.

COALITION TO SAVE THE UC TOWNHOMES consists of University City Townhomes residents, community organizers, Penn students and faculty, activist groups, and other Philadelphia residents. Their email is