“I want you to fight, I want you to organize, I want you to talk to your neighbors, I want you to have a meeting, I want you to get a spreadsheet and just the same way that we can organize a barbecue, we can all figure out what it means to actually take control of some of these housing units,” says organizer Sterling Johnson. In this episode, host Kelly Hayes talks with Johnson and UC Townhome resident Rasheda Alexander about gentrification, organized abandonment and an ongoing struggle in West Philadelphia, where dozens of families are resisting the demolition of a 70-unit housing development.
Music by Son Monarcas and Amaranth Cove
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity, and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Countless struggles over land and housing are unfolding around the country, as people are continuously displaced, and municipalities become increasingly hostile to unhoused people. Prior to the pandemic, about 2.7 million people per year faced eviction in the U.S. While the federal eviction moratorium temporarily lowered those numbers, evictions are now at, or in some places, above pre-pandemic levels. Tenant unions have grown in popularity in Chicago, New York, and other cities where tenants are banding together to fight evictions, utility shut-offs, and rising rents, while demanding better conditions, or even rent cancellations. The struggle of unhoused people, fighting for tent space cannot be separated from the struggle of tenants facing displacement, or workers who face exposure to COVID without mitigations or financial relief. Because these crises, which are all created by the demands of capitalism, are part of the same cycle of abandonment and disposal.
Whether it’s the mass production of premature death via the prison system, mass evictions, or the continuous forced relocation of unhoused people, we are talking about the consequences of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls organized abandonment. As Gilmore explained in an episode of Intercepted, over the last 40 years, as opportunities have dissipated and safety nets have been slashed, large numbers of people “have lost the ability to keep their individual selves, their households, and their communities together with adequate income, clean water, reasonable air, reliable shelter, and transportation and communication infrastructure.” Gilmore tells us that “as those things have gone away, what’s risen up in the crevices of this cracked foundation of security has been policing and prison.”
Contact with the criminal system is also used to disqualify people from public housing, so we have to understand how the carceral state and what geographer Samuel Stein calls the “real estate state” work in concert to displace, contain and eliminate people who are considered surplus. Organized abandonment legitimizes itself by delegitimizing the abandoned.
Today, we are talking about gentrification, organized abandonment and an ongoing struggle in West Philadelphia, where dozens of families are resisting the demolition of a 70-unit housing development. We are going to hear from two people involved with that struggle today — Rasheda Alexander and Sterling Johnson. Rasheda is a resident of the UC Townhomes and a leader in this struggle. Sterling Johnson is an organizer with Philadelphia Housing Action and a PhD student at Temple University.
The story of the UC Townhomes embodies the concept of organized abandonment, and I think anyone who is concerned with gentrification, displacement, or resisting the destruction of communities and the disposal of human beings, would really benefit from hearing what these organizers have to say. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how we can build from below in this era of apocalyptic capitalism, I found Rasheda’s breakdown of what the Townhomes community is up against moving, insightful and instructive.
Rasheda Alexander: So I came here, I filled out an application in 2008. Prior to me coming here, I was homeless for about 11 months with my daughter. I’ve been here for 14 years. When I first moved around here, it was “The Bottom.” Nobody really wanted to come to The Bottom. A lot of the houses were in bad condition. I lived always on Market Street, so I didn’t really get to experience how rough it was until I walked past Lancaster Avenue. Nobody wanted to go past Lancaster Avenue at one point. Nobody even wanted to really go across Haverford Avenue because [laughs] it was like, “No, it’s bad over there.” It was definitely The Bottom name. The Black Bottom or 33rd Street was known as the Underworld.
So I want to say I noticed the change, I noticed the first house that was put up across Lancaster Avenue closer to Aspen Street. It was a nice little town home, but it was probably only two of them that were built. And that was in 2015, I want to say between 2014 and 2015 because my cousin ended up moving in one of them and he was telling me that house cost him about a quarter million. And I was like, “What? A quarter million? Down there?”
So that was the first time that I really started paying attention to how they were developing around the area. And it just came rapidly after that. Those first two houses was like the breakthrough, like “we in here.” And they just started building and building and building. Then you started seeing, I want to say over the last what, five or six years you started seeing people from New York migrate down here in this area. They tore down the apartments on Baron Street that was low income. They tore those down off of 41st and Baron. They moved those people out. They shut down this bank. It used to be United Way or something right there on Lancaster Avenue — that was sold. And they just redeveloped all of that. But when they redeveloped it was for students. It wasn’t for the people in the community.
And then you start seeing them buy the churches up all along Lancaster Avenue, they started buying all the property up around there. They started building and it just went on and on and on. And then one year after another, more buildings went up. The transformation of the neighborhood went from us not feeling safe to you seeing Caucasian people walking with their dogs. And I’m like, when I seen that, I’m not even going to lie. When I seen that, I’m telling you, [laughs slightly] it was like 2017. Because usually we see the college kids, but they might hit 40th Street, but it was far and few. When I started seeing them walk through the townhouses, when I started seeing them walk on Lancaster Avenue with their dogs and they created the dog shop right here on Lancaster Avenue. I was like, “they in,” because if you see one or two, you know it’s a whole line of them coming.
And then you just started seeing the bagel stores and stuff like that. They bought the laundromat. It was just like everything that we used and everything that was an amenity to us no longer was an amenity to us.
To hear the stories of senior citizens in the building across the street from me, when we went over and had a presentation, we were telling them that the HUD contract was expiring. But just to hear their stories and them telling me, “I remember when University of Penn came and they b ought up my mom’s house or my cousin’s house and they offered them pennies and then ended up selling the property or operating the property and it’s like a million dollar property now.” You know what I mean?
Those are the stories that I hear. Where they came in, they probably bought three houses on the block, they built in that particular area and then raised the property taxes on our elders. So now they can’t even afford to pay the taxes, which puts their homes in foreclosure. Which gives the university a chance to buy it at close to nothing. So they’re getting the property either way, we’re either going to pay you out in pennies or we’re going to take it from you and then buy it in pennies. Either way, we’re going to get this property for the low. We’re going to redevelop this whole entire area and we’re going to put you out of it.
KH: Rasheda emphasizes the role universities have played in gentrifying the area. Organizers fighting to save the UC Townhomes point to the creation of “University City,” [in the 1950s and 60’s], as “perhaps the earliest functional template for university led gentrification/displacement in what is currently known as the United States.”
RA: Drexel and University of Penn hold a great responsibility, and I want to almost say a little higher than the city because they’re the main ones that’s displacing everyone. They’re buying up these properties. They do not pay taxes. These are operating as non-profit organizations. You are constantly investing into your university, whether it’s the comfortability of living for your students or your employees or just because you want to expand your institution, but you’re expanding at the expense of other people and people’s livelihoods. I guess the bottom of the barrel people who they consider at the bottom of the totem pole, which would be working class citizens. And as I say, money talk and BS walking because the amount of money that they hold and the prestige, the city just lets them do whatever they want. I really hold them at a higher regard than I do the city.
But I feel like on some levels the city has say so on how they move in our neighborhoods and in our communities. And the fact that all of them are working together and the city is allowing it. That’s where the problem comes into play at. They’re expanding their universities but they’re not expanding or investing into the communities. And you can always tell when they’re about to rain havoc on your community because they tend to take out the programs that were once invested in the community. They slowly but surely start to die down and nobody really pays attention to it because people are just going about their activities of daily living. So it’s like, no, well this program stopped. I knew from the very beginning that it was about to dwindle and they were about to come in here and just have they way in this community.
From the schools being shut down, they displaced the children from their learning institutions. And then like the after school program, we had Powel, which was right here on 41st and Ludlow and Drexel and Penn basically invested in these after school programs. And then slowly but surely it was like we snatching that. Powel ended up moving. So the kids had nowhere to go and do recreational activities anymore. The after school programs stopped. And then it was like, we bought your school, we knocking it down, we just made a parking lot for Penn. We just knocked your Early Childhood Learning Education Center down. Guess what? We just built student housing and luxury apartments for Penn.
And it’s just like, no, how do you do that? If you’re going to do that and you’re going to displace people’s institutions for their children and their homes, at least replace it. Don’t just come in here and steal and take from us and then not replace it and say, okay, deal with it the best way you know how. That’s not right. But as America works, thievery is how they operate. So they’ve been stealing all their lives. So that’s the first nature for white collar people, corporate America. You have to get the money off from somewhere. You have to get the profit from somewhere and someone. So why not get it off the backs of the poor?
KH: Residents of West Philadelphia have struggled to hold onto their homes as the sprawl of “University City” has pushed out Black businesses, tenants and homeowners.
RA: So everyone in West Philly that has been whether a tenant or a homeowner have been resisting the flipping of the properties and the building of the properties because they’re not for us. They will not invest a dollar into our area until they’re ready to buy it and purchase it and redevelop. And then you want to invest in stores, and then you want to invest in safety and it’s just not right. They will let our community run down to the ground, will not assist us with anything, would not assist homeowners with anything. And then when they start assisting the homeowners, it’s like, we’re assisting you because we are coming in and building up in your community and we don’t want us to look bad.
It’s always to compliment them. It’s always something to profit them on the back end. But we have been resisting for a long time and we’ve been fighting against it. Even when I talked to the business owner over here at Crown, Muhammad, he actually asked me to write him a letter saying how he was in the community because he was being pushed out. They told him that he could no longer have his store here and he is a business owner and been here for as long as I’ve been here, if not longer. And when I say this man will do anything for you, he has fed people who didn’t have enough money to eat and then you’re telling him that he’s not good enough to be in this community. You pushing him out and saying, “Oh no, you can’t be here.” So he said okay because he loves West Philly and it is close to his home. So he seen a spot on 39th and Lancaster.
Now, these are people that never lived the real here. They just moved around here because Penn built up around here. But they came together and did a whole meeting, like a community and a town hall and wrote a petition for him not to be able to build another store, another Crown Fried Chicken. You know what they told him? They didn’t want the riff raff from 40th Street over there on that side. But that was outside before you even got there. We was there before you came. And now that y’all live over there with your houses, dogs and your kids, now we are not allowed to… Oh, is it a whites only?
I’m lost because this was known as the Black Bottom and still is known as the Black Bottom but y’all done white washed it. And now we not allowed in the area that we built them. We’re not allowed in the same area that our grandmothers had houses in. Now it’s a problem. And that’s how he feel. He’s like, “where am I to go?” So he had me write a letter or whatever to tell about my experience, who he was as a person. And it’s pretty sad because they basically gave him a date like, “okay, in the next year or two you got to go.”
I should have known something was wrong when they put an elevator at 40th and Market. Because I was here for years before they put an elevator here at 40th and Market. I’ve been living around here long enough and I’ve been living in Philly long enough to know when they come and they start building and making stuff disabled accessible, it is not for us. I can guarantee you that, it’s not for us. We may use it while we here, but we won’t be here long. Believe that. You see what they doing to us now, they pushing us out.
KH: While gentrification’s outcomes are concrete and familiar — with poor families forced out and beloved neighborhood businesses ground under — the process of gentrification is often misunderstood. While the appearance of students, artists and dog groomers may serve as markers of its progress, they are not its drivers. As Rasheda indicated, local universities and government officials forcibly reshaped the terrain of West Philly. Capital flows opportunistically, and at present, it is flowing back into land that has been rendered cheap or easy to steal by previous years of disinvestment. This influx of capital to a space, to enable the extraction of increased profits, is just one phase in a larger process.
In his book Capital City, geographer and urban planner Samuel Stein writes:
By definition, gentrification cannot happen everywhere. It is the third stage in a long-term process of capital flow in and out of space: first comes investment in a built environment; second, neighborhood disinvestment and property abandonment; and third, reinvestment in that same space for greater profits.
Stein argues that gentrification occurs in the context of what he calls the “real estate state,” which is “a political formation in which real estate capital has inordinate influence over the shape of our cities, the parameters of our politics and the lives we lead.” Stein explains that with the decline of industry in urban centers, demands for lower land values primarily come from organized renters, who face an uphill battle, as many nonprofits, unions and community-based organizations have found ways to align themselves with factions of real estate. Such groups may win a small number of affordable housing units, or guaranteed union contracts for a luxury development, but these concessions generally occur in concert with the process of raising property values, so that more profit can be extracted, and more taxes can be collected. “In the absence of manufacturing,” Stein writes, “real estate holds something approaching monopoly power to shape the narrative around urban planning and urban futures.”
This concept of the real estate state can help us understand gentrification as one stage of a much longer and larger project of abandonment, repossession and extraction. As Stein says, “Through the real estate state, the city becomes gentrified. Through gentrification, the city becomes neoliberal.”
In a neoliberal city, there is only one solution offered in response to all major social ills: policing. Rather than funding housing, food, or clean air and water for community members, neoliberal cities make massive investments in policing, to ensure that the impacts of organized abandonment are absorbed in an orderly fashion. When a neighborhood gentrifies, longtime residents who refuse to relocate, or who cannot adapt to changing conditions, can be disposed of through criminalization and incarceration.
Organizers at Philadelphia Housing Action are no strangers to this process, or to the role of police. In the winter of 2019 and 2020, the group formed a coalition to halt the ongoing eviction of homeless encampments. With an approach that centered direct action, organizers squared off with police, reclaimed homes, and defended multiple encampments. Ultimately, Philadelphia Housing Action successfully pressured the city to provide 50 homes for people in need, in September of 2020. Upon hearing about the crisis that UC Townhomes residents were facing, members of the coalition were determined to help.
Sterling Johnson: I’m Sterling Johnson, I’m an organizer with Philadelphia Housing Action, we are with the coalition, it’s a coalition of several organizations, Police Free Penn, Black Lives Matter Philadelphia, Fossil Free Penn, Penn Housing for All. We’re the main non-Penn organization, but Philadelphia Housing Action has been doing work around housing and homelessness and harm reduction in an intersectional way, being focused around abolition of the police and prisons, as well as property, and focused on finding ways to house everybody in the city.
We were brought to this campaign through a friend of ours that mentioned that they were terminating this Section 8 contract because it had ended, and the owner wanted to sell the property to a luxury developer, wanted to get about $100 million for this, and instead of talking to individuals, figuring out what they wanted, they were just going to sell it out from under them. So I think once the organizers from Police Free Penn, and especially in our organizing Philadelphia Housing Action, we wanted a different solution. We just started going out and talking to people and from there, we found that a lot of people hadn’t been organized, didn’t know each other, and that’s where we got together and had some of those initial conversations about what are we going to do.
The first thing that we wanted to do was stop any demolition. One of the requirements for selling the property to this other developer was that they were going to demolish the property, so that would be a destruction of this community. As the organizing has to communicate with each other, we had these other, the main demand of stopping the demolition, but also for people that wanted to leave, just compensation for them depending on their place. More time for some of the elders and disabled people to actually find places that were suitable for them and appropriate for them, that can’t be done in a short period of time.
Then also, we wanted to maintain the property. Through these actions and campaigns, it’s essential that we are making sure that the quality of life of each of the residents is maintained at the same level as it was previously. One of the ways that there’s a real oppression against people is the steady devolution of services that happens. So we’ve always been very, very, very clear about the need to report every single repair, report it publicly and report it privately, report it to HUD, and then fix that immediately so people’s quality of life remains as it was.
So being mostly direct action organizers, people that reject this, I guess depending on politicians for doing the work that we need to be doing, at least that’s in our experience, usually they are willing to make deals that we aren’t.
KH: Some politicians suggested a deal that would provide some residents of the UC Townhomes with affordable housing units in a luxury apartment complex. The offer included five units, even though 70 families were faced with displacement. I have seen this kind of tactic many times, when organizers are negotiating with city officials. Politicians will often try to poke holes in the solidarity of groups by offering potentially large gains for a select few. Unimpressed with the deals officials suggested, organizers fighting to save the UC Townhomes decided it was time to escalate.
SJ: For us, we then decided to draw out this map of targets of people that could get us to where we wanted to be. One of them was the University of Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania has a relationship with the current owner of this property, so we wanted them to put pressure on the owner Altman to then stop the demolition, kill the deals, give just compensation. We did direct actions at Penn, a few events that University of Penn was holding and interrupted those, we went to the Fort Washington office of Altman, we went to his office in West Philly to demand that they actually stopped the demolition and gave just compensation and more time. Through these events, we also actually didn’t get where we needed to be. They did not answer us, we did not really get as much attention as we needed, so then we had to keep ramping it up.
That was when we led an actual occupation of the site, with I would say around maybe 50 campers that would come up, people rotated throughout the time, but we just had an ongoing occupation of the site at 40th and Market in West Philadelphia. Having events, having educational events, having movie nights, using the space to deliver food, in general just be with each other. We set up tables and banners letting people know what was happening, connecting with people around West Philadelphia in the Penn area, around what we call “Penntrification,” which is the expansion of the University of Penn and displacement of the mostly Black working class people in the neighborhood.
Of course, they took us to court and they said, “You can’t be here.” I went with one of the main organizers, Melvin Hurston, and he was one of the main plaintiffs, because as a resident it was really important for them to say that, “We have invited these people to be on our property. They are with us and we are doing this together. As the residents and outside organizers, we want to make this encampment with visible tents to show what is the possible future of us if you do not do what you need to do.” Here we went to court, were able to delay the proceedings for a few weeks. What happened was the judge ruled against us and said that the tents, the banners, the tables, the canopies all needed to be taken down.
We appealed to the sheriff and said that, “You don’t have to do this.” She said that she was just doing her job, just like any oppressive force, they were just doing their job, they say. So we had quite a violent removal of our encampment on August 9th, 2022. There were no arrests, but one person was taken into a paddy wagon and taken around the block. Thank goodness, there weren’t any lasting injuries, but it was a very violent time for not only the residents, but also some of the children that were in the space to see these heavily armed men and women come and grab the tents and trash them and cut down banners and just show the full violence of the state.
I think one of the things we did was we wanted to have this space as a space that was safe, and we called it the people’s townhomes to just be an expression of changing the narrative around the property. In general, even when we were talking to people, even when we talked to the councilperson’s staff, they would say, “This is private property.” Our goal was to show that it was not just private property for some man or woman or anybody, in this case it happened to be a white man from Montgomery County, which is outside the city, that gets to decide the lives of 70 families, 70 Black families, 70 mostly Black woman-headed families that are not only just caring for their children, but often caring for their grandchildren and also parents.
So it was a real, the racial dynamics have to be talked about here, because it was a real exercise in Black autonomy and self determination to say that, “This is the people’s townhomes, this is public property. There’s a public interest here that has to be taken. It’s not just property to be traded on some site.” So here, even amongst our declaration, the state had come and said that, “No, you can not be here.” From there, we really had to move our strategy around what was going to happen. Because we wanted to just say that the city could stop the demolition, they do not have to give the permits, they can say that there’s a reason to stop this process of removing people from their houses, an eviction or ejectment, and then also doing a demolition of the site. They can stop that, right?
That was where we were at, and we really had to transition to what are we going to imagine on this site? So we now have, our main demand is we want to preserve the property. We have reached out to national developers and local consultants that can help a national developer get through Pennsylvania’s tax credit schemes to preserve the property. We know that the other properties around the neighborhood have been preserved using different financing. In fact, across the street there is this other property called University Square that were 400 units of mostly senior housing that people know very well where we are at University City Townhomes, they know those people in University Square. They know that that building was sold for $90-million dollars and then each apartment was rehabbed, so they know it’s possible that the building can be preserved, their units can be renovated and rehabbed as they are.
We are going to find those individuals that are going to do that, those entities, those national entities that can mobilize the millions of dollars needed to do that. So currently, that’s where we’re at. We’re still doing direct actions, we’re still going to … We have some of our allies at Penn, University of Penn students ruin the convocation, the opening session of the new President [M.] Elizabeth Magill, and they were able to disrupt it and she walked off and said she’s not having this conversation and they really just stopped the whole thing, which is really important that when our people say, “Shut it down,” they mean shut it down. If you’re going to have a convocation and you’re going to ignore us and not talk to us, then we’re going to make sure that you don’t get to finish that program.
Another group went to a fundraiser at this construction lobbyist called the BIA, the Building Industry Association, they went to their gathering where there were several City Council people shaking hands and having lobster with their friends, with their lobbyist friends, and they shut that down as well. So what we’ve found is that we’re able to talk to people, a lot of different representatives, a lot of different state and city level representatives and we’re able to get their support for our deal, which we appreciate, but we still have to do the extra work so that they are coming out with public statements supporting the preservation of the UC Townhomes.
So we were able to get one of the mayoral candidates who has done a lot of work in housing, Helen Gym, to make a supportive statement, Kendra Brooks, who was the one person on the Working Families Party on City Council, they were able to make a public statement, and they were the first people that we needed, that will lead to other people on City Council that will then be able to make sure that we get the city money that we need to complete this transaction. So right now, we’re at the planning stage, we need people to assent to our deal. We want those state, city and definitely some federal funds from the Housing Authority, Philadelphia Housing Authority, which we have a relationship with as well, we need those entities to support our deal that will preserve the UC Townhomes as they are.
KH: As the struggle has worn on, residents of the UC Townhomes have developed new skills and relationships, as a result of waging their campaign.
RA: We have done everything from facilitate meetings with residents to facilitating meetings and going in the meetings with politicians, with HUD regional offices, trying to resolve the issue of the displacement that we were facing here. When we seen it, we weren’t able to get through, that’s when the actions were brought about. And the actions feel pretty liberating if you ask me. It feels good to create a crisis. And because I’ve realized being in this organizing and dealing with this, people do not want to hear, they don’t care. And they’ll turn a blind eye and let everything fall on deaf ears until a crisis is created.
The escalations [involved] us coming to their place of business, reaching out to their office, going to their residential neighborhoods, letting your neighbors know that they’re displacing low income families, basically exposing them, that’s definitely how we escalated. The encampment, it was really a last resort. And a lot of people just think that activists just go from zero to a thousand. No, it’s actually, I guess I can say it’s protocol to give people a chance to respond because you just don’t go to the extreme without trying to reconcile first. I just feel like that was just the art of war right there because if we’re trying to communicate with you in a civilized manner, and we’re coming to you in a professional manner, we weren’t being derogatory. We just wanted answers.
We just wanted to have conversations with these individuals who were all in conspiracy with displacing us. And they were not willing to come to the table and speak to us. They just disregarded us like we didn’t matter or we didn’t have a voice.
So the protesting, the rallying really empowered me. It made me feel heard and it brought us up into this point of even the encampment, doing the encampment. That was something I had never experienced before. I had never participated in the encampment ever. All of this is very much new to me. It was me filling my way through with the guidance of professional organizers and advocates. But I feel like it was definitely a learning experience. It’s still a learning experience, but I feel like this is worth my while. I feel like this is something that I was called to do.
Because at the end of the day, you are going to hear our voice, you’re going to hear our complaints, and you’re going to address our concerns, whether it’s voluntarily or involuntarily. And the thing is, a lot of these people, white collar corporate people, politicians, they feel like they don’t have to be accountable and give answers to the misconduct of their business and the mismanaging and playing around with people’s livelihoods, they feel like they don’t have to answer. So for me to be able to say, “No, it stops here. You’re going to give me an answer,” it definitely changes the game because it puts them, it brings them back to reality.
When actions are being brought against them, when we’re reaching out to them and when we have to go to the next level, it brings these politicians and other people that hold these high positions into reality. You are human, you’re not invincible and you will be accountable. I don’t know why when people reach a certain level, they feel like accountability does not apply to them, but it very much so does. And I think some people need to be reminded of that. So I come as a remembrance.
KH: When we talk about remembrance, we should also recognize that the fight to save the UC Townhomes is an extension of a struggle that has been going on since the 1960’s.
SJ: So the site of the UC Townhomes has historical significance as well. During the early 1900s, there was a development of a Black community called the Black Bottom, which existed with businesses on that area of West Philadelphia. So we’re talking from basically the 30th Street Station to 40th Street and then south, that area was targeted for redevelopment during the Urban Renewal period, which in collaboration, when the University of Penn and Drexel, they were able to by eminent domain take the property of many Black homeowners and Black business owners.
There was pushback from the Black community throughout that time, throughout the ’60s. They were joined by young University of Penn students, there was a sit-in in 1969 to assert that there needed to be affordable housing that was built as a part of this new plan. Through that process and what came out of the protest was what they called Quadripartite Commission, which was a collection of local community leaders, Black community leaders and students to decide how they could equitably build on this site. Nothing really came of that though.
What we had over the years, 1969 to the early ’80s, was still zero affordable housing in that site, and the construction of many buildings that still are a part of the University of Pennsylvania. Finally, as there was a real fight around where affordable housing would be built in the city, there was leadership at the top, Frank Rizzo was the mayor, Frank Rizzo is a noted racist and a tough-on-crime old police commissioner in Philadelphia. He was known for being really tough on the Panthers and on MOVE during the ’70s. He had a statement that public housing really meant housing for Black people, so therefore his planning department was not going to build it, and especially in the White parts of the city.
In reaction to that, the Rental Advisory Board and Community Legal Services sued him to have that housing built in southern South Philly and also in parts of West Philly. The result was them winning, there was additional political pressure that was put on the federal government HUD, Housing and Urban Development, and with their help, with them refusing to actually give the city development money, plus the lawsuit that was against the city for being segregationists, finally they were able to put land aside at 40th and Market, use federal money to build the land, this company called IVID, I-V-I-D, which is owned by Brett Altman and his family, they were able to acquire the property for $70,000 and then able to run the site for, what the deal was, was 40 years.
That was 1982. That’s why we’re at the current site that we’re at, when we’re talking about, “Why now? Why now is this happening?” It’s because a 40-year deal was created to sunset the Section-8 program in the early ’80s. So when we’re here and we’re talking about how should we be moving, for me, it is about maintaining Section-8 properties and rehabbing them and making sure they stand as is. Oftentimes, with expiration of these properties, people are fighting for vouchers, they’re fighting for Section-8 vouchers to be used around the city so they can be integrated into the site, because there is a stigma against low income people living together in these types of units.
In this specific case, they’re actually spread out and quite low density. There are 70 two and three-story units with two, three and four bedrooms available for the residents. There is a play street where the kids of the neighborhood, where there’s about 50 or 60 children that all know each other, go to the same school, come home, play together. There’s a parking lot, it’s quite small, it is not there for everybody, but it is available for people to use so they don’t have to be on the street. There are trees and courtyards, there’s about four courtyards in the space, so people have a place where they can put up a canopy and have a barbecue quite easily there as well.
This is beautiful housing, beautifully designed housing meant for communities to flourish and be together. In fact, to add a little density, some people say that this is why it must be demolished, because the financing doesn’t work here. That’s not the point that we’re at, we don’t care about the financing, we’re talking about what works for our community. Our community requires that there be a play street for 10 and 11 year olds to find the space to play soccer or to play football with their friends. That’s what is necessary for the community. We really see that, see ourselves and see our advocacy as an extension of this history, where in the past they destroyed a neighborhood called the Black Bottom, we still call it the Black Bottom over here, in the past they fought against the construction of this housing saying that it was just for Black poor people and there’s no way that these people should be able to live together as a community.
So fast forward to where we were at, we assert that this community is necessary and is a huge part of the fabric of West Philly. We have people that are workers, people that are retired, people that were teachers, people that cared for children in their jobs, people that were retail workers, we still have people that take care of their own grandchildren as well, as I mentioned before. These people are our community, and when we’re talking about just giving people vouchers and telling them to move far away, three miles away in some other neighborhood, it means that we’re destroying their community.
It becomes, things start to crystallize about what it is that we’re up to. It is about making sure that this community stays together, so it becomes about the people. From Mrs. Lyle, who has a piece in the Inquirer about why she’s close to the University of Penn’s hospital, which is doing a lot for her daughter, she’s back and forth to the hospital. To Miss Charmaine who is taking care of her husband, he’s been on hospice a few times. I say a few times, because thank goodness he’s alive and thank goodness that they live close to the hospital so that Miss Charmaine can take care of him. So there are people’s situations here that require them to be together with their neighbors to help care for their families. When it comes to that work, it becomes quite clear of why, at this point in history, we fight for people to remain in their homes and to stay, for the community to stay as it is.
The fight around Philadelphia, especially in North and West Philly where there has been historic redlining, is fierce. Ruth Birchett, we have people in North Philly, what they call the Stage Stompers, there’s a collection of North Philly elders that fought against the building of a stadium by Temple University, the place that I go to school, wanted to build that stadium in North Philly and the people said no.
So those same faces of resistance are in West Philly, they’re of course as every bit related to the MOVE organization that are still fighting, there are lots of people in Black Lives Matter Philadelphia, other organizations have been fighting against specifically gentrification in West Philly as well. So there is always this crescent of resistance around Black Philadelphia that has been here. However, still we have seen a series of mass evictions in our city, and every time one of those happens we come together, we have come together over the last at least I would say five years around figuring out how to support those people.
I have been in the city and connected to several organizations that have been in that fight. Most of the situations have been where an owner of a large building wanted to sell it for a gross amount of money. One of them was named Penn Wynne in 2017, the Admiral and Dorsett Courts, which were these large apartment buildings where they did a mass eviction telling everybody, hundreds of people, that they had to leave within 30 days. They would turn off the water every morning, and then we’d have to have somebody go over there and turn back on the water. This was an organizing effort that was being led by the Philadelphia Tenants Union at the time.
Other situations, one of them was called the Arvilla, as well where that building was a subsidized housing program that was terminated and then sold for about $2 million to a developer and now it’s student housing. So there are these situations that continue to happen in our city, and we have seen different ways of attempting to organize them. So from my standpoint, it’s been a learning [process] with each situation. Early on, we were just trying to either just stop the sale, or we were trying to help the people land on their feet. Now, we are at this place where we are going to preserve every property that comes up.
There are other properties over the next five years that will expire, just like the UC Townhomes, and we need to be able to raise that money and preserve those properties. Either through debt financing, there was the ability for the state to actually eminent domain those properties and take them over and transfer them over to a preservation organization that actually wants to hold those properties. But the thing that we won’t have is you evicting dozens of, hundreds of elderly Black people and putting them on the street and possibly leading to their early deaths. That’s what happened in other situations.
Why do we say this? Because we know those people, those people died. Having your housing taken from you, the heartbreak of it and also the physical-ness of having to actually figure out what your life will be, even though you’re already in your 80s, that is the pain and the harshness of our current society. This of course is not just happening here, it is happening in Chicago and San Francisco and New York, L.A., we see these other large buildings being targeted by global international capital for them to be turned over into condos. When you talk about a place like New York or D.C. or San Francisco, you’re talking about empty condos that are just meant to be held. Because it really doesn’t matter whether someone actually lives in them or not, you’re still able to gain some sort of profit from it.
So that’s where we stand here, and we understand that this is not just a Philadelphia situation, a Philadelphia issue, it is about us joining with especially some of our friends in San Francisco and New York, where international capital, foreign capital comes into your city and just buys up large properties or builds large properties that are left empty and vacant. We just won’t have it anymore. I’ve been really pressuring HUD to do something about this, and figure out a solution that is not just about giving people vouchers. Fixing vouchers is not the issue, you should be funding public housing.
There’s a bill called the Build Back Better Bill, which did not pass in the Senate, but it was supposed to help us fix up the housing that exists, and then also preserve some of these expiring HUD and low income housing tax credit properties, so that they’re maintained. We see that there’s still no serious efforts towards that, so we’re going to keep fighting, because it doesn’t just relate to us, it’s everybody in the country that’s fighting to preserve this housing. A lot of times we talk about homelessness and the need to produce more housing, but we don’t fight for the housing that actually exists right now, so I’m not sure what people are talking about sometimes, especially when it comes to the East Coast where there is a lot of housing that’s available, it’s just lying vacant.
KH: While the answers may seem clear, the real estate state is maintained by powerful forces. When the government and the wealthy align to destroy a community, fighting back can be painful and exhausting. Rasheda shared that, while she is deeply committed to the struggle to save the UC Townhomes, the effort has taken a toll on residents.
RA: It feels heavy. It’s definitely with a heavy heart that I advocate and lead in the community because all the odds are against you. Sometimes it’s discouraging. I’ve cried many nights. My heart is actually broken because you see people who have known this community to be their only home basically displaced and see it be stripped away from them. And it’s painful because you got to tell your nana that’s 80 years old who’ve been in this community her whole life, who done raised her kids, her grandkids and her great grans that you got to go. And we don’t know where you going to go. Or here go a voucher, find somewhere to go. Even though it’s people out here and there’s a lot of landlords that don’t accept a voucher, but figure it out without a resource. And it is painful. It’s painful.
I get enjoyment out of victory. I get enjoyment out of making everyone who has made my people uncomfortable, uncomfortable. Because I want you to feel what we feel. It’s not fun if your friend can’t have none. I want you to feel how we feel. And I feel like if everybody can feel the pain that we feel, maybe they can redirect their ways. And so yeah, definitely leadership is extremely hard, especially in cases like this. But I don’t believe that it’s impossible. He said, “I created you for such a time as this.” [Laughs] We all have a purpose and a plan for our life. And maybe this is, well obviously it’s my purpose and the plan that he had for my life. I didn’t have it, but he had it and I’m just doing what I was called to do.
KH: While Rasheda talked about feeling called to do the work of organizing, Sterling shared his hope that others will likewise feel compelled to step up.
SJ: I want everyone to fight. That is what I want this message to be. I want you to fight, I want you to organize, I want you to talk to your neighbors, I want you to have a meeting, I want you to get a spreadsheet and just the same way that we can organize a barbecue, we can organize to fix up our units. We can all figure out what it means to actually take control of some of these housing units. Without everybody fighting, I’m not sure where we’re at.
And I think lastly, I just want to throw out that a lot of our leaders are mothers, are grandmothers, are people that have experienced violence, are people that have experienced homelessness, are people that are disabled, and those are some of the things that people don’t find exciting often. They’re often looking for some hero or something, but we are just regular people. We’re disabled people. A lot of the people that have come and helped are queer and trans people too, and I think that is one of my favorite things, it is about people learning about each other, having those questions, being able to say, “Well, what is non-binary? What is transgender?” Some of those questions that we have around meeting new people and learning about them.
I think also, the various religions that we have, everything is just so, we’re just so diverse, it’s just really exciting to learn about new people and a new place and every single person has a history and has experiences and has something to share. So I think that is one of the exciting parts of this work and I just want to share that it is fun to lean into that and to lean into the messiness above all else. Because even sometimes when it gets a little tense, coming out on the other side together is why we’re here. It’s coming out of this messiness of learning about each other, and sometimes making mistakes, but always supporting each other is some of the fun of it.
I just wanted to share that, hopefully people were thinking of that as the strength of the movement, rather than the liability. That’s what makes us stronger together, having such diverse people together, building structures that are lasting together.
KH: As residents continue to hold their ground at the UC Townhomes, Rasheda is dreaming of a larger, national convergence of housing struggles in our time.
RA: See, I be thinking big. I want to take this to, and I’ve been saying this from the very beginning, this has to go national. I want us and the organizers to connect on a national level because it does not stop here. It doesn’t stop here. As I said before, it did not start with us, but it’s definitely going to end with us because when you pick a fight with the right one, you going to know they name, you’ll never forget them. And we will never be forgotten. This is legendary. We will never be forgotten. And we’re going to keep fighting and keep connecting and keep networking and keep building, not only within our community but with other states. Because people are crying for help. People are looking for a blueprint, they’re looking for some type of leverage to give them the strength that they need to move forward. Because the odds are a lot bigger than them. So we can be David and they can continue being Goliath, but you know who won? [Laughs] So this is the hopes I have for us. I’m a fighter. I’m not going to give up no matter how tired I am, and nobody on my team is going to give up until we see victory.
KH: According to The Eviction Tracking System, over 8,000 people were evicted in the United States last week. Tenants are only represented by legal counsel in eviction court about 3% of the time, whereas building owners have lawyers about 80% of the time. Across all age groups, unhoused people are three times as likely to die of treatable illnesses as their housed counterparts, and are far more vulnerable to COVID. Homeless shelters around the country have reported a surge in need, with some waitlists doubling and tripling within a matter of months. So the deck is stacked against tenants who are struggling to keep their homes in a time of financial uncertainty, when hundreds of people a day are still being lost to COVID and while the government deliberately engineers mass unemployment to lower inflation. With no safety nets to catch us as we fall, we are going to need solidarity to survive. The real estate state and the escalating stakes of the COVID era make it more important than ever for residents to band together and build power from below. As of now 50 families are still holding their ground in the UC Townhomes. They have been given a new final deadline of October 7 to vacate the property. If you would like to learn more about how to support these residents, you can check out their website savetheuctownhomes.com. Please, follow them on social media, sign their petition, check out their demands, and think about how you can mobilize in your own community. For more resources on tenant organizing, be sure to check out the show notes of this episode on our website at truthout.org.
I want to thank Rasheda Alexander and Sterling Johnson for talking to me for this episode. I hope others have found their words as helpful and inspiring as I have. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
- The Autonomous Tenants Union Network is hosting a virtual training on September 25 for people who want to learn how to start a tenant’s union. Learn more here.
- You can find more educational resources from the Autonomous Tenants Union Network here.
- Philadelphia Housing Action is a coalition formed over the winter of 2019-2020 between #OccupyPHA and long-time housing and homeless activists. You can learn more about their work here.
- The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is a data-visualization, critical cartography, and multimedia storytelling collective documenting dispossession and resistance upon gentrifying landscapes. Primarily working in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York City, volunteers produce digital maps, software and tools, narrative multimedia work, murals, reports, and community events.
- The Eviction Lab has published the first ever dataset of evictions in the U.S., going back to 2000. These tools can be used to discover new facts about how eviction is shaping your community, raising awareness and working toward new solutions.
- “The Only Way We Win Is With Each Other” – The Struggle to Defend the UC Townhomes with Rasheda Alexander and Sterling Johnson (Millenials Are Killing Capitalism)
- Occupy, Takeover: How Philadelphia Housing Action Turned Vacant Buildings Into Homes (It’s Going Down)
- Amid Eviction Crisis, Organizers Win Right to Legal Representation for Tenants by Tyler Walicek
- Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition with Chenjerai Kumanyika
- Estimating eviction prevalence across the United States by Ashley Gromis, Ian Fellows, James R. Hendrickso, Lavar Edmonds, Lillian Leung, Adam Porton, and Matthew Desmond
- Inflation is making homelessness worse by Abha Bhattarai and Rachel Siegel
- U.S. may need 7.5% unemployment to curb inflation -research by Howard Schneider
- Homeless People Are Among the Most Vulnerable to the Coronavirus. Yale Psychiatry’s Lo is Making Sure They Still Receive Care Amid the Pandemic. by Jordan Sisson
- About the Deaths of Homeless People – Information from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council
- Tent encampment at University City Townhomes dismantled amid protest by Michael Tanenbaum
- ‘Where are we supposed to go?’ UC Townhomes residents speak out against property’s sale by Sarah Gantz