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50 community members from the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes and other students marched down Walnut Street on Feb. 10 in protest against Penn's role in the gentrification of West Philadelphia. Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

A group of student protestors interrupted a Penn Alumni event with President Liz Magill on Feb. 10, urging Penn to preserve the University City Townhomes as affordable housing.

The protestors, affiliated with Fossil Free Penn, disrupted the Class Presidents Event dinner on Huntsman Hall's eighth floor at 7 p.m. for around five minutes, beginning while Magill was delivering remarks. After exiting the building, community members from the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes and other students joined the demonstration as the group of nearly 50 marched from Huntsman Hall to the UC Townhomes.

The group is demanding that Penn commit $10 million to the preservation of the UC Townhomes, according to College senior Gigi Varlotta, one of the demonstrators who interrupted the event. They said that once Penn makes this commitment, they believe that other institutions across Philadelphia — including Drexel University and the University Hospitals — will follow suit.

"Penn is the most influential player in the city," Varlotta said. "The reason that the [UC Townhomes] are being sold is because of Penn's history of expansion and displacement in West Philadelphia."

Penn Alumni did not respond to a request for comment. University spokesperson Ron Ozio wrote, "Intentionally disrupting a private event with a bullhorn is inappropriate and inconsistent with our values."

The protestors carried banners into the event displaying their demands while chanting "Save the UC Townhomes" and "housing is a human right." Varlotta alleged that the alumni and class presidents were not happy with the demonstration, claiming that one person pushed Varlotta's bullhorn into their face.

"They were angry, and I said I'm angry too, because my friends are losing their homes," Varlotta said. "I said that if Magill and the administration had listened to their students, we wouldn't be here today."

Following the interruption at the Class Presidents event, the group left Huntsman Hall and convened with other demonstrators on the corner of 38th and Walnut streets where residents of the UC Townhomes spoke about their demands for the University.

"We will win out," Mel Hairston, a UC Townhomes resident, said at the demonstration. "No matter how long this takes, and no matter how long we have to go through the processes, we will win."

Around 7:20 p.m., demonstrators marched down Walnut Street and stopped in front of the now-closed McDonald's location near campus — which is in the process of being redeveloped into a mixed-used office building operated by Penn with a new McDonald's on the first floor. Here, protestors demanded that the University take accountability for its role in the gentrification of West Philadelphia.

The demonstration ended at the UC Townhomes. Recently, the eviction deadline for the residents of the UC Townhomes has been extended until Feb. 21. Residents in 13 out of 70 units are still living on the site, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer

The UC Townhomes are a rental property located at the corner of 39th and Market streets. Since the property's owner, IBID Associates Limited Partnership, announced its decision to sell the UC Townhomes last year, residents, student and local activists, and the city council have organized opposition against the sale and what the effects of displacement and redevelopment could mean for the city.

Previously, the University has said it is committed to helping tackle the City's issue of affordable housing.

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. Administrators also asked faculty at the Penn Institute for Urban Research to produce a “comprehensive study” with “actionable strategies” on how the University can support the increase of affordable housing and determine “best practices” for partnerships between the University and the West Philadelphia community.  

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. 

Previously, FFP interrupted Penn's Homecoming football game in October, delaying play for over an hour. Protestors from Save the UC Townhomes also interrupted convocation for the Class of 2026 last semester.

Varlotta said that student activists and community members will continue to disrupt University events until Penn meets their demands. Regardless of any direct control, Varlotta said that it is the University's "duty and responsibility" to preserve affordable housing in West Philadelphia.

"We are here to show Liz Magill that the University does not get to have their little dinners and their fancy events when students and community members are fighting for their lives," Varlotta said. "Sorry that your event was disrupted, but we're more sorry that people are losing their homes."

Senior reporter Jared Mitovich contributed reporting.