UC Townhomes residents and organizers held a rally on Friday, April 21 to discuss their new demands following a settlement between property owner Brett Altman and the City of Philadelphia announced on Wednesday, April 19.
On the lawn in front of the “People’s Townhomes”, residents took turns speaking about the progress of their fight and addressing what still needs to be accomplished following the recent settlement.
A resident named Sheldon took the mic to explain “what the settlement is and what it is not.” The agreement includes 19% of partial preservation of the site for affordable housing, compensation for the residents, and affordable housing at 80% average median income (AMI).
The redeveloped property will have 75 units with a mix of one, two, and three-bedroom units allocated to affordable housing. “100% of the units in the new project must be affordable at an average of 60% AMI but can go up to 80% AMI,” Sheldon said.
Sheldon explained how these conditions fall short of the residents’ expectations. “Our goal was to preserve the entire property. Less than a fifth is not nearly enough to meet the great need for affordable housing in our community.”
In addition, residents have continuously fought for housing at 30% of their average median income, citing that “the way the city and other stakeholders define affordability is not the way we define it.” Sheldon explained that “80% AMI means residents, seniors, and people living on fixed incomes will be left behind.”
Furthermore, residents are not satisfied with the conditions of their compensation. According to Sheldon, the settlement includes a $3.5 million tenant fund or roughly $50,000 per family. Tenants must sign a release form with conditions, including taking a financial consultancy class before they can receive the money.
The settlement will also be taxed, significantly reducing the amount of money for each family. Sheldon claims this is not enough, stating that it won’t cover relocation costs for housing and schools, transportation, and “seek[ing] out support for the trauma of this experience.”
Meanwhile, Brett Altman, the current owner of the UC Townhomes site, could “earn up to $100 million from the sale of this property.”
While residents have emphasized that the fight’s not over, they consider the settlement a victory. “Had we not fought back, we would likely have received zero percent of this site for affordable housing,” Sheldon claimed. To the residents, this is “just another beginning.”
Mel, another resident of the Townhomes, then took the mic to list the people’s current demands: That the UC Townhomes residents are involved in any discussion regarding the new development, that residents are guaranteed a “Right to Return” to the new development for all current residents in writing, and there is prioritization of housing for families on fixed incomes at 30% average median income or lower.
Mel also expressed frustration with the role of Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania’s gentrification in West Philadelphia, saying, “Drexel and Penn are abusing us… y’all owe this community.”
Mel and residents demand that Drexel President John Fry and Liz McGill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, “commit to this community like y’all haven’t done for the last seven decades.”
While those are their main demands, residents would also like to see “tenant control and governance of the new development,” according to Mel’s speech. “This is all about the people. And whether we get through it or die trying, we will continue to stand for the people.”
As for the next steps, the City Council must pass two ordinances before Brett Altman can start redeveloping his share of the property. According to Sheldon, the ordinances were introduced on April 27 and must be passed by July 1, 2023.
On the one hand, if these ordinances pass, it will allow Altman to “build up to 400 units,” and “only 15% of those units would have to be affordable.” The residents fear Altman will replace the community “with yet another lab or mega-development.”
If these ordinances do not pass, “or if there is an appeal or lawsuit, the settlement agreement is void,” said Sheldon. Either way, they “are still being forcibly displaced with no clear relocation plan or written right to return.”
Despite the unclear future of their presence at the UC Townhomes, resident Miss Lyles explained the resident’s vision for the redeveloped site. “Our vision has been to preserve our community and create a model for resident-centered development without displacement.”
Their plan includes making the site permanently affordable for low-income seniors and families, adding accommodations for seniors and residents with disabilities, multiple-room units to accommodate families, a community center, and access to “green space for healthy living.”
Furthermore, they envision that residents will benefit from the redevelopment, including access to jobs and resources and “residents’ inclusion in the design and control of this site.”
When residents finished their speeches, they took to the streets, chanting, “When we fight, we win.”
Residents and supporters marched down 40th Street, turning left onto Chestnut Street. They chanted numerous phrases, such as “housing is a human right, housing is a people’s fight.”
Police cars followed the crowd, blocking off intersections to control traffic flow. They didn’t interfere with the march.
Residents and supporters marched up 38th Street and Market Street, circling back to the UC Townhomes, where residents concluded by thanking the crowd for supporting them.
A resident addressed the crowd, saying, “Don’t disappear, because it’s not over.”