Philadelphia Activists on Verge of Historic Win for Public Housing

Protesters and Philadelphia city officials have reached a tentative agreement to turn 50 properties over to a community land trust.

Housing Activists rallied in front of the courthouse in support of the camps before marching back to JTD Camp at 22nd street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, PA on, August 20, 2020.
Housing activists rallied in front of the courthouse in support of the camps before marching back to JTD Camp at 22nd Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia on, Aug. 20, 2020. Photo: Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Ridge Avenue headquarters for the Philadelphia Housing Authority is hard to miss. The newly renovated $45 million building in North Philadelphia is the newest office on the block, with floor-to-ceiling windows and life-sized blue and green block letters spelling out its acronym. It sits just across the street from boarded-up buildings and a vacant lot lined with signs that feature messages like, “Why does PHA’s CEO make over $300,000 yearly?” Ever since protests against police brutality took off across the country in late May, around 100 people have encamped at that lot, which is the site of a new, $52 million development project, distributing free snacks and supplies, as part of a local demonstration calling for broader racial justice: permanent, immediate housing for the city’s more than 5,000 homeless residents. 

On Saturday, in a historic turn of events, organizers announced that they had reached a tentative agreement with the city and Philadelphia Housing Authority, the $371 million agency that manages the city’s public housing, to turn 50 properties over to a community land trust administered by groups leading the protest camps, including Philadelphia Housing Action, a housing advocacy group. If implemented, it would be a huge win for housing activists in a city with a long history of organizing for community-owned property.

PHA, for its part, said that protesters’ announcement of the tentative resolution is “premature and disappointing,” saying that it could threaten any agreement at all.

“Announcement of a deal is entirely premature,” PHA Executive Vice President of Communications Nichole Tillman said in a statement to The Intercept. “The encampment leaders continuing to negotiate in the media and in the realm of public opinion demonstrates their of lack of sincerity. Although, we remain hopeful about reaching an amicable resolution on the encampment, this puts any deal in serious jeopardy. PHA would only accept a deal that would include a date for the camps to be resolved. The encampment on Ridge Avenue continues to hold the community hostage and is jeopardizing a much-needed and long-awaited community development in the underserved Sharswood community.”

Activists and volunteers gather at a homeless encampment at Ridge Avenue and Jefferson Street in North Philadelphia on Aug. 18, 2020.

Activists and volunteers gather at a homeless encampment at Ridge Avenue and Jefferson Street in North Philadelphia on Aug. 18, 2020.

Photo: Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

The proposal would provide immediate housing for the 120 or so people who have been living at the encampment outside the PHA headquarters and another near the city’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway since early June. (Protesters are also occupying a loosely organized site near the Philadelphia Art Museum.) But, the organizers caution, it lacks a long-term solution for the city’s broader houseless population, and it also does little to address the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s waitlist, which currently has more than 40,000 people after closing in 2013 due to a major backlog

“The whole point was to make sure everybody had a house,” said Sterling Johnson, a camp organizer and local activist with the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative. “And we didn’t get that. So, it’s alright. But we’re going to continue to fight.” 

They demanded community ownership of properties, so people can live freely and safely without being pushed around by PHA police or facing violence while sleeping outside.

The protest camps had formed as a way to protect one another from violence individuals experience while living on the street, Johnson said, particularly queer and transgender people. “Talk about Black Lives Matter: We’re talking about Black disabled people, we’re talking about Black drug users, we’re talking about Black sex workers, and we’re talking about Black women.” 

“It’s the elderly, we have a lot that’s disabled — most of those who are in wheelchairs, who are mentally and severely physically disabled,” said Irvin Murray, a homeless resident and another organizer leading the encampments.

At the core of protesters’s concerns is the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which they say eats up properties, displaces families, and leaves homes to sit empty before selling them to developers to take over and transition units into the market. That’s why they demanded community ownership of properties, Johnson said, so people can live freely and safely without being pushed around by PHA police or facing violence while sleeping outside. “People are pushed around that are unhoused all the time,” they said. “We’re not looking for the most efficient way or the best way to save money. You need to spend money on people.” 


A protest sign at the perimeter of the Ridge Avenue encampment near the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s headquarters on Sept. 28, 2020.

Photo: Akela Lacy/The Intercept

Properties designed for low-income people and paid for with tax dollars are going to corporations across the country, and Philadelphia is no different, said Stephanie Sena, professor and Anti-Poverty Fellow at Villanova University Law School who helped organize a lawsuit by protesters seeking to block the city from evicting them last month. Sena is also the founder and executive director of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unity of Philadelphia, an initiative by local students to house people in the city. PHA “is one of the biggest gentrifiers in our city,” she said. 

PHA is currently undertaking a $52 million revitalization plan in the city’s Sharswood neighborhood, including 1,200 new mixed-income units, a sorely needed grocery store, a bank, and other shops, at the site of the Ridge Avenue encampment. PHA confirmed that some, but not all, units are classified as affordable or low-income. 

In order to create the new development, the city seized 1,300 parcels in North Philadelphia in 2015. That included 1,000 vacant lots, most of which had no owners, tenants, or businesses occupying them, Tillman said. “The parcels were acquired because PHA knew, as soon as the public housing high-rise towers came down, the community would feel the economic pressures from Fairmont, Francisville, North Central (Temple), and Brewerytown. Having the parcels owned by PHA guarantees preservation of affordable housing. This strategy was not executed in other areas upon demolition of high rises and the neighborhoods became quickly unaffordable.” 

Organizers say that PHA made decisions about the project without truly consulting the community and that many of the properties seized were privately owned or occupied by businesses, not vacant as PHA claims. They want the housing authority to release control of properties because they’ve let them fall into disrepair, said Jennifer Bennetch, an organizer with Philadelphia Housing Action who’s been leading the camps. “Some of the facts around PHA I think are important, and why we want the properties transferred and just not housing from them. … They leave their properties to just sit in blight and draw trash and rodents. And then they used that to seize 1,330 properties in North Philly back in 2015,” she said, referring to the units taken over for the Sharswood development. “And all those properties are all just sitting boarded up now after they moved the homeowners and business owners out.” 

“For poor Philadelphians who go to the auction … they can’t afford 25 properties, nor do they want 25 properties. So the people who make money off of those sales and auctions are big developers.”

PHA disputes protesters’ claim that the agency has allowed properties to deteriorate for the purpose of selling them to developers and said it’s in the business of providing affordable housing, not privatizing buildings. The agency operates almost entirely on federal funding “with no state or city dollars provided,” Tillman said. Nationwide, Tillman said, public housing agencies suffer from “a serious and ongoing underfunding by the federal government,” which the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates at about a $70 billion backlog in necessary funds for maintenance and repair of the nation’s public housing units. The agency has tried to pit the neighborhood’s residents against the people living in the camps, claiming that residents “are significantly impacted by the encampment.” Protesters say this is their second summer camping in Sharswood, and that PHA does not speak for the community, which they are a part of.

The agency provides housing for 80,000 low-income Philadelphians with an average income of $15,000, who pay an average monthly rent of $370, according to PHA. But PHA-administered properties are often still out of reach for the city’s poorest residents, Sena said, particularly because you often cannot buy an individual property at PHA auctions. The city agreed earlier this summer to a nine-month moratorium on PHA sales and auctions, part of protesters’ demands from the first iteration of camps last summer. “If PHA has like 25 units that it wants to sell, it’ll go up in auction. And PHA bundles them together so that you cannot buy a single property, you can only buy all 25 of them together. What that means is for poor Philadelphians who go to the auction — and there are many who do, who are looking to buy a property — they can’t, because they can’t afford 25 properties, nor do they want 25 properties. So the people who make money off of those sales and auctions are big developers,” she said. “It’s another way in which PHA housing is being sold to developers instead of the community and people who need it — which is why we’re paying taxes for it, to help those people.” 

Demonstrators block the entrance to the Municipal Court during a protest against evictions in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Sept. 3, 2020.

Demonstrators block the entrance to the Municipal Court during a protest against evictions in Philadelphia on Sept. 3, 2020.

Photo: Rachel Wisniewksi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The tentative agreement between Occupy PHA and Philadelphia Housing Action on one side, and the city and Philadelphia Housing Authority on the other, came after months of eviction threats by the PHA, with protesters refusing to vacate until the city provided them with immediate, permanent housing amid a looming national eviction crisis made worse by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

Organizers with Philadelphia Housing Action have moved more than 50 people, including 13 families, into vacant city properties since March, when shelters were at capacity amid the pandemic. City officials have said those people won’t be evicted, but pending contracts on some properties, some may have to eventually be relocated. Another local group, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, has been moving families into vacant and abandoned homes for more than 30 years, providing a blueprint for groups leading protest camps.

“No one would disagree that blighted, empty property is a problem not just throughout Philadelphia, but throughout Rust Belt cities,” Mayor Jim Kenney’s spokesperson Mike Dunn said in a statement to The Intercept. “In a City like Philadelphia, with a high poverty population, the resources for redevelopment or even demolition are unequal to the need. We hope that the protesters and advocates will join us in advocating to get the federal funds needed to provide a home for every Philadelphian — so we can end homelessness.” Dunn said the city’s Office of Planning and Development is working to find resources to repair and redevelop housing stock, and pointed to the development of Philadelphia’s first housing action plan in 2018. 

“We can’t work on housing and not talk about homelessness at the same time.”

Earlier this month, PHA agreed to make up to 300 properties available in the near future for acquisition by nonprofits and community land trusts, and after much back and forth, said they were willing to work with protesters to help establish their own trust. The city also said PHA and others would use newly available federal funds to create between 900 and 1,400 long-term housing units for people experiencing homelessness, and opened two Covid-19 prevention sites with 260 beds and on-site meals and services for those who are elderly and chronically ill. At least 142 campers so far have accepted emergency and temporary housing, and residential treatment, according to the mayor’s office, which includes development of an individualized housing plan. After negotiations with protesters, the city’s Office of Homeless Services also launched a rapid rehousing program that has enrolled 25 people so far and referred people over the age of 65 and or with chronic health conditions to hotel rooms with services and meals provided as part of the city’s Covid-19 Prevention Spaces. 

Protesters say the latest negotiations are a start, but that they need more than 50 units of permanent housing, with guarantees that it would be run by the community. They also say the city still needs a clear plan to provide housing for extremely low-income people in a city where a quarter of families live below the poverty line. 

“We don’t have any plan for low-income housing in the city,” said Philadelphia City Councilmember Kendra Brooks. “That’s not a thing. They keep doing mixed-used, mixed-rate properties. But none of it focuses on low-income housing. So when we start taking down low-income housing and we don’t replace it, where are people supposed to go? And that’s a reality that we have missed.” 

The action at the camps has shined a light on not just the homelessness crisis, but “the housing crisis that we have in the city,” Brooks said. “We can’t work on housing and not talk about homelessness at the same time. I think it’s part of the same conversation, and people try to separate it.” The city’s lack of low-income housing or a clear plan to improve it, she said, “is the problem that gets us to homelessness.”

Update: Oct. 6, 2020

On Monday, October 5, encampment leaders and PHA came to an official agreement to clear the camp across from agency headquarters, as well as to move forward with the creation of a community land trust for permanent low-income housing. Residents of the camp vacated the site Monday, according to a PHA press release, and the city says it will begin planned construction of the mixed-use Sharswood development. The agreement does not include plans to disband the Parkway camp, but Mayor Jim Kenney said he hoped it would lead to a resolution there too, according to PHA.

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