Penn and Drexel students have held protests this week, demanding that their respective universities meet their calls to preserve affordable housing in West Philadelphia.
On Feb. 22, over 30 Penn student and community members from the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes and Students for the Preservation of Chinatown gathered outside of College Hall ahead of the University Council Meeting and Open Forum, demanding that Penn commit $10 million to preserve the UC Townhomes as affordable housing.
Penn does not own nor has plans to purchase the UC Townhomes property, and administrators have said that it does not have any direct control over the redevelopment plans for the Townhomes property site. In September, Penn announced it would partner with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, a local community revitalization organization, to assist approximately 75 West Philadelphia low-income homeowners.
Speakers at the Feb. 21 demonstration highlighted Penn’s history of displacing West Philadelphia residents and gentrification. An hour later at the Open Forum, multiple students addressed President Liz Magill and other University administrators about what they said was Penn’s responsibility to protect the UC Townhomes.
"You, through Penn, have the institutional, financial, and political power to prevent evictions and homelessness, and preserve the longstanding low-income housing community of the UC Townhomes," College and Engineering junior Emma Glasser said at the Open Forum.
Students from the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes have held rallies and protested before the Open Forums since early 2022, condemning Penn’s disciplinary actions against protestors and demanding that Penn prevent the eviction of residents from the UC Townhomes.
On Feb. 21, Drexel for Justice – a student-led abolitionist group – and the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes hosted a rally on Drexel’s campus. In addition to a rally outside the building, Drexel students began a sit-in occupying the main building, which is ongoing as of time of publication.
According to an Instagram post from Drexel for Justice, Drexel President John Fry and Vice Provost Lucy Kerman met with residents of the UC Townhomes on Jan. 30. Drexel has not responded to requests for comment.
Previously, Interim Penn President Wendell Pritchett agreed to meet with the UC Townhomes residents. Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli and Director of City Relations Leigh Whitaker have met with the residents twice since last spring.
The UC Townhomes were first constructed as federally-subsidized low-income housing in 1983 to compensate for the displacement caused by gentrification. After nearly 40 years of offering below-market rates to residents, IBID Associates decided not to renew its contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
This announcement sparked backlash from some students and residents, who have been protesting the closure of the townhomes and the potential effects of displacement and redevelopment.
HUD has repeatedly extended IBID’s contract, with the goal of offering residents necessary time to acquire housing vouchers and relocate. According to Kevin Feeley, a spokesperson for IBID, the last renewal request was granted on Jan. 31 for 30 days, and they recently put in a request for a new one. Feeley said he was confident that HUD would get back to them within “a few days or a week.”
“I don’t see the end of February deadline as being the last deadline,” Feeley said.
However, Winter Schneider, who works in direct contact with the townhomes residents, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that the residents had been given Feb. 21 as the day that the HUD contract expired.
Confusion about a potential property sale and eviction deadline is just one aspect of the battle over the Townhomes that lacks a clear consensus. In a press release, residents said that they suspected Altman Management of intentionally neglecting upkeep to induce a faster move, but IBID denied these claims.
“The mice and cockroaches are everywhere. It’s unacceptable how Altman is treating us,” townhomes resident Krystal Young wrote in the press release.
Feeley told the DP that IBID has not been ignoring the complaints of the residents, but rather addressing their concerns and providing onsite management services to ameliorate the living conditions.
“From the moment that they decided to opt out, IBID made it clear that it wanted to treat the residents as fairly as possible and try to do the right thing by them,” Feeley said. “On the rodent question, as soon as complaints were filed, we had folks go out there, and we had it remediated by an exterminator.”
According to Feeley, the decision to not renew the contract was a result of “considerable interest” shown in the property for a variety of uses, potentially including research spaces, retail stores, and a replacement of the affordable residential units.
“The highest and best use of that land is as a laboratory research facility. And our preference was to find a buyer who would be interested in building a residence there, so the impact on the residents would be minimal,” Feeley said.
According to the Business Journal, the property was in the process of being sold to a Philadelphia-based company called National Real Estate Development, but Feeley said that the sale was never completed. He did not name any other prospective buyers.
Feeley emphasized the benefits of the Section 8 vouchers granted to residents, which can be taken to any rental property to obtain a federal subsidy for an apartment of the resident’s choice.
Urban Studies instructor John Kromer said that some landlords might choose to reject these vouchers.
“Discrimination is probably part of it,” Kromer said. “It may be that a landlord doesn’t want to sign a contract with HUD and be subjected to HUD-mandated inspections, or it could be racism.”
Kromer said that a potential solution to the existing problems would be allowing the city to mediate an agreement between Penn, IBID, and the residents.
“I think there was a big opportunity early on for the mayor to get involved,” Kromer said. “Expressing sympathy for the residents is not enough. To say, ‘That’s just the way the HUD program works’ is not enough.”
Students involved in the protest said that they intend to continue pressuring Penn administration to take action.
“We are here to make the universities uncomfortable,” College senior Gigi Varlotta said. “Drexel and Penn have close relationships with all of these billionaires. We know that they have influence over what happens with the Townhomes, and we know that once they commit real funds to the preservation, other institutions in the city will follow suit.”
Staff Reporter Vidya Pandiaraju contributed reporting.