PENN'S BROKEN PROMISES
To the Black Residents of "University City"
By Anne Berg, Jake Nussbaum, and Chi- ming Yang
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already endemic housing crisis in Philadelphia, killing neighbors and destroying communities. The recent devastating fire in Fairmount took the lives of 12 people–including 8 children–all members of a low-income, extended family squeezed into a four-bedroom apartment in a neglected building owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.1 The fire is the latest evidence of a systemic assault on Black residents, of which housing inequity is just one of many forms of violence. As Penn watches its endowment grow to over 20 billion dollars and develops real estate across the city, tens of thousands of Philadelphians struggle to find housing, turning to friends for shelter or living on the street.2 Penn is not just complicit in this inequity; it is one of its foremost perpetrators.
“Although the UC Townhomes were meant to house families displaced by the creation of University City, they never came close to compensating for that devastation. Today, those very same homes are targeted for destruction.”
As we write, 69 homes in “University City” and hundreds of Black and working-class residents are Penn-trification’s next target. Just blocks off campus, the University City Townhomes at 3900-3999 Market Street are a private development of federally subsidized units, offering below-market rates to residents, some of whom have lived there a lifetime. In 2021 the Altman Group announced plans to sell the Townhomes, refusing to renew its affordable-housing subsidies.
University City’s insatiable expansion has ensured that the site now constitutes “prime real estate.” Developers contemplate demolishing the Townhomes in favor of yet another mixed-use building boasting luxury condominiums, commercial space, or science labs.
The eviction is scheduled for July 2022, and residents will confront Philadelphia’s extreme shortage of low-income housing. Those who hold federal Section 8 vouchers face a closed waiting list 40,000 households long. Neither “natural” nor “inevitable,” such forced displacements are the result of concrete choices made by city and Penn administrators past and present. However, a closer look at the local history reveals that Penn community members also have a vital role to play in resisting this violence. Indeed, the struggle to stop Penn-trification led to the creation of the University City Townhomes in the first place.
In 1959 the West Philadelphia Corporation – with Penn the majority shareholder – formed to redevelop West Philly 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 “renewal.” This was the Black Bottom, a vibrant Black working-class community that took care of its own. “I come from a place where I had no love...my whole community showed me love,” says long-time activist Gerald Bolling, who grew up in the Black Bottom and has insisted on reparations for over 30 years. Love didn’t faze the Redevelopment Authority, which labeled the Black Bottom “blighted” to invoke the right of “eminent domain” in 1966. Residents had no choice but to accept small payouts and leave. Those who remained faced bulldozers and arrest. A total of 2,653 people were displaced. Roughly 78% of them were Black.
But anti-Black violence in Philadelphia has always been met with Black-led resistance.3 In the late 1960s, as the Black Bottom organized to defend itself, Penn students refused to sit on the sidelines. In 1967, reporters of the Daily Pennsylvanian explained the insidious term “urban renewal” as shorthand for “giant impersonal institutions like the University of Pennsylvania...devouring small homeowners, spreading segregation and prolonging social inequalities.” Two years later, some 800 Penn and Philadelphia-area students and local Black activists occupied College Hall for six days. They demanded affordable housing within the core of University City, specifically for displaced Black Bottom residents. They forced Penn’s trustees to the negotiation table, who on February 23, 1969 resolved “a policy of accountability and responsibility that accepts the concerns and aspirations of the surrounding communities as its own concerns and aspirations.”4
Subsequently, the University proposed the creation of three affordable housing complexes for displaced residents. One eventually became the UC Townhomes, but only after a prolonged struggle between community groups and trustees that ended when a private developer, the Altman Group, bought the property at 3900 Market for $1 and committed to building affordable housing there. The other two were never built.
Although the UC Townhomes were meant to house families displaced by the creation of University City, they never came close to compensating for that devastation. Today, those very same homes are targeted for destruction.
Philly politicians have recognized this injustice but fail to provide a viable solution.5 The legislation amended by the city council on November 4, 2021 extends the time to eviction beyond the currently projected 6 months, but offers little beyond that. In fact, it stipulates that only 20 percent of the current units must be preserved as “affordable” – itself an amorphous term measured against median income, which the continuing displacement of low-income residents will only adjust upward. If ratified, the legislation would reinforce the violent logic of the market, leaving most residents to fend for themselves.
What Altman purchased for $1 is now worth over $100 million. By its sheer presence, Penn increases property value around its perimeter, or more bluntly, within its police patrol zone, incentivizing the sale of any and all land to the highest bidder while professing benevolence.
On December 14, 2021 the Coalition to Save UC Townhomes, comprised of Penn faculty and students, the Black Bottom Tribe, housing justice organizers, and West Philly community members working alongside Townhomes residents, held a teach-in on campus calling on Penn to honor the Trustees’ 1969 commitment to a “policy of accountability.”6 After decades of broken promises it is time for innovative solutions to the racialized inequalities that rip through our city. An extension for residents to stay in their homes, considered by current legislation, is only the bare minimum. Residents also need access to Section 8 vouchers right away, without which they can’t even apply for subsidized housing. But residents deserve justice. Penn should use its wealth and brain power to support a tenant-owned cooperative or a Community Land Trust that would enable home ownership and guarantee permanent affordability as an immediate down payment on its debt owed to the community.7
This is a moment of reckoning for the University and its incoming President, M. Elizabeth Magill; a chance to begin the process of repairing the violence of Penn-trification. Penn created University City by displacing Black working-class residents, now it must take responsibility and ensure that Black working-class people, who are here now, can stay.