Philly Tenants Are Fighting on the Front Lines of the Low-Income Housing Crisis

Philly Tenants Are Fighting on the Front Lines of the Low-Income Housing Crisis

Philly Tenants Are Fighting on the Front Lines of the Low-Income Housing Crisis

As rents skyrocket, cities can’t afford to lose low-income housing like West Philadelphia’s UC Townhomes.


Darlene Foreman has been living in University City Townhomes, a privately owned, federally subsidized low-income apartment complex in West Philadelphia, for 28 years.

While much of Philadelphia’s low-income housing is relegated to redlined, disinvested neighborhoods, UC Townhomes is centrally located, with busy bus and subway lines stopping just a few feet from the main entrance. There are good schools nearby—which Foreman’s three kids attended—as well as supermarkets and the accommodations that come with being close to three universities, a medical school, and a hospital system. Plus, Foreman’s doctor of 20 years works just across the street.

“Everything that we need to make our lives comfortable is right here,” Foreman told me. “Why do they want to take that from us?”

Last July, the company that owns UC Townhomes informed the 69 families who live there that they had to move out the following year. For decades, UC Townhomes had a Section 8 subsidy contract with the federal government, allowing residents to pay no more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Now the company wants to sell the property for private development.

The landlord’s decision not to renew its federal contract is part of a nationwide trend. Owners of Section 8 housing need only give a year’s notice when canceling their subsidy agreements, and with rents rising rapidly, many of those landlords are incentivized to end them and sell. In Philadelphia alone, there are some 2,000 units in at least 37 complexes—many in gentrifying neighborhoods—with contracts set to expire within the next five years, according to an analysis by local housing activists.

The issue of expiring contracts is hitting other federal housing programs, too. Nearly a quarter of Low-Income Housing Tax Credit contracts, which have helped create some 3 million low-income units since the late 1980s, will expire by the end of the decade. And those cliffs approach as the country is experiencing an ever-worsening affordable housing crisis. After dipping slightly during the first year of Covid-19, rents have skyrocketed past pre-pandemic levels: In the Philadelphia metro area, multifamily rents were up 17 percent between March 2020 and March 2022, and nearly a quarter of renting households nationwide now put more than half of their income toward housing. Government programs offer little reprieve, as both public housing and private housing subsidies remain chronically underfunded: Only one in four people who qualify for rental assistance receives it.

The United States is millions of units short of meeting housing supply needs, and even if the nation is up to the task of closing that gap, it will take years. Given the crisis, cities aren’t in a position to lose low-income housing like UC Townhomes to speculative development.

Real estate watchers expect the UC Townhomes owner to sell the property for anywhere between $75 and $100 million to specialized developers, who will raze the block-long complex and build life science facilities to sell to the University of Pennsylvania or another one of the ever-expanding universities in the area. But residents are fighting back. With the help of local housing activists, UC Townhomes tenants have launched a campaign to pressure the local and federal governments to preserve the low-income housing. They’ve met with officials from the city and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), made their case in the press, and even set up an encampment in the townhomes courtyard, where they’ve held meetings, engaged with neighbors, and hosted community events.

The residents are calling out political leaders who speak about the need to increase the affordable housing stock but, in their eyes, are doing little to preserve the low-income housing on which thousands of Philadelphians—and millions across the country—already rely.

“Why do they keep doing this to our communities? Why do they keep making people homeless?” said Foreman. “They create so many problems when they take people’s homes. Where do you think crime comes from?”

The battle over UC Townhomes fits into a history of racialized forced displacement in Philadelphia.

The complex is in an area formerly known as Black Bottom. In the 1960s, the city conspired with local universities and a hospital system to demolish the predominantly poor and Black neighborhood and develop a new quarter more appealing to the white academic crowd. Despite organized resistance, the city displaced thousands of residents through condemnation, eminent domain, and police violence, then razed Black Bottom and established what became known as University City.

In the 1970s, HUD sued the city over its overtly racist housing practices, forcing it to build more public and subsidized housing—including UC Townhomes, which were finished in 1982. While imperfect (residents have complained about repair requests going unaddressed for years), for 40 years the townhomes have offered a glimpse at what integrated low-income housing can do for a community.

“The other options [for low-income housing] are nowhere near this,” said Sheldon Davids, who has lived in UC Townhomes for 13 years. He pointed to the corner with the bus and subway stops and told me, “That means a lot in terms of what folks have access to.” Moving, especially for the many seniors, like Foreman, could be devastating, Davids said, “especially if they don’t have a family support system around them” wherever they’re forced to go.

On recent visit, organizers had set up tables with literature outlining the UC Townhomes struggle and history. Behind one of the tables, in the main courtyard, was a cluster of tents, and between the courtyard and the sidewalk was a makeshift fence constructed out of wooden pallets painted with art and slogans. Homemade signs hung from the pallets, trees, and the nearby subway entrance: “The People’s Townhomes,” “Our Community Is Not for Sale,” “Housing Now: Where Else Do We Go?”

For some locals, the “Housing Now” sign, as well as the encampment infrastructure, are familiar sights—a reminder that the UC Townhomes fight is an extension of other recent housing activism in Philadelphia. In 2020, the same sign hung over one of two North Philadelphia protest encampments set up by Philadelphia Housing Action, the group that is assisting the UC Townhomes residents. Activists erected those encampments to demand that Philadelphia’s public housing authority—which has been auctioning off vacant buildings to private developers—give up some of its properties for unhoused people to live in. After months of standoff and negotiations, the city and the housing authority agreed to hand over 50 homes to a community land trust set up by encampment residents—a grassroots victory virtually unprecedented in the US in recent years.

“This is one of the epicenters of the last line of defense—against encroachment, against gentrification, against displacement,” said Davids.

The company that owns UC Townhomes, IBID Associates, wants the defense off its property. According to Kevin Feeley, a public relations agent representing IBID, “the encampment is populated chiefly by nonresidents who are trespassing.” But residents counter that non-tenant encampment organizers are welcome guests. When I visited the encampment, the crowd was roughly half residents and half supporters.

In July, IBID filed for an ejection order for the encampment, which a local court granted. And this week, officers with the county sheriff’s office and city police department rolled into the encampment. Amid chants of “Shame!” and “Housing is a human right!” from hundreds of tenants and supporters, the cops dismantled it.

The community responded by holding a rally in the streets, carrying signs salvaged from the encampment as well as new ones they had made. Foreman led chants on a bullhorn. Their message, which they blasted over social media: “We ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Within a day, they had set up more tables.

UC Townhomes tenants have more time before they’re evicted—but not much more. As it currently stands, IBID has set a September 7 move-out deadline. The residents have been receiving enhanced Section 8 vouchers to help them find new subsidized housing, but it’s notoriously difficult to find landlords who accept them, and the general waitlist for public housing in Philadelphia has been closed for nearly a decade.

And whatever the case, residents do not wish to leave their community and see it demolished. They’d much rather see the city or federal government step in—like in Los Angeles, where, in May, residents of a privately owned complex whose affordable housing contract had expired convinced the city to place a bid to buy their building.

With the housing crisis so dire, more government entities are putting that kind of direct intervention on the table. Rhode Island, Colorado, and Maryland’s Montgomery County have used budget dollars to establish funds and financing schemes to develop publicly owned mixed-income and affordable housing.

The Philadelphia City Council has taken limited action to ameliorate the loss of UC Townhomes. In March, it passed legislation that would issue a 12-month moratorium on the demolition of the complex and rezone the block so developers would be required to build some affordable housing on it. (IBID sued to nullify the legislation; last month, a federal judge struck down part of the lawsuit, but left the door open for IBID to pursue other claims against the city.) Residents and organizers assert that the legislation is too little too late.

Sterling Johnson, a housing lawyer and Philadelphia Housing Action organizer, told me that the government has both a legal and ethical duty to preserve complexes like UC Townhomes. He pointed to a provision in the federal Fair Housing Act that mandates that recipients of federal financial assistance “affirmatively further fair housing” and combat practices that foster racial segregation—like kicking low-income Black residents out of a gentrifying West Philly neighborhood.

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, “HUD has been monitoring the situation at the property closely.” The spokesperson confirmed that the department had been in contact with UC Townhome residents and said it has been trying to help with the voucher process.

When asked about the issue of expiring contracts and the future of affordable housing, the spokesperson asserted that “preservation of existing affordable housing is a top priority for HUD.” The department “uses a variety of tools to…encourage renewal of affordability commitments,” the spokesperson said. But “a major limitation is the resources available.”

More fundamentally, according to Johnson, both government and private businesses have a duty to abandon their deference to the housing market—especially when it comes to homes that operate with public funds—and do everything they can to expand affordability.

“People in the real estate business need to understand that they are public stewards,” Johnson said. “This belongs to the people.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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