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Philly Residents Organize to Block Evictions in University City Townhomes & Preserve Affordable Housing

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Low-income Black and Brown housing activists in Philadelphia are fighting to stop the displacement of residents who live in an affordable housing complex in the largely gentrified neighborhood of University City. The complex, known as University City Townhomes, was built to provide affordable housing to low-income residents, many of whom are elderly and disabled, but the property owner has since announced plans to redevelop the property, which is near the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. We speak with University City Townhomes residents Rasheda Alexander and Sheldon Davids, who have held months of encampments and protests alongside William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “It was always about greed and money and racism,” says Barber, who notes the move to redevelop the complex is part of a larger assault on poor people and housing services in the United States.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to Philadelphia and a campaign to stop the displacement of people who live in affordable housing in a complex called University City Townhomes, that’s located in the now largely gentrified area of University City around the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. The neighborhood was once known as Black Bottom. The complex was built to provide affordable housing for the predominantly Black and Brown families and low-income seniors who lived there for years and were displaced by the university’s buildings.

For four decades, the property owner, IBID Associates, contracted with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to run University City Townhomes. It now plans to redevelop the property. The owner ordered all residents to leave by October 7th, but announced Monday that it reached an agreement with the company to extend — with HUD to extend its contract though the end of the year.

Residents want a commitment to keep the complex affordable, instead of being displaced. They’ve held months of encampments and protests, and Bishop Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, recently came to draw national attention to the crisis and may well go back. Many residents facing eviction from the University City Townhomes complex have lived there their whole lives.

We’re joined now by two residents, along with Bishop Barber, who says he may move in with them for a few days. In Philadelphia, Rasheda Alexander, resident leader and organizer with the UC Townhomes, who has lived there for 14 years, and Sheldon Davids, resident leader and organizer with the UC Townhomes, who has been a member of the UC Townhomes community for 13 years. His elderly mother-in-law has lived there for 40 years.

Rasheda Alexander, let’s begin with you. You have raised your children there. Talk about the neighborhood and what exactly has happened. You’ve won a victory, a slight extension from eviction, though you’re fighting to make that permanent.

RASHEDA ALEXANDER: Yes. So, I came out of homelessness and became a resident at University City Townhomes. I’ve raised my daughter, who’s now 17, in the University City Townhomes. The area, you know, is a really good area. They have really good schools there. The amenities that are there are very accommodating.

Over the years, I’ve seen what was invested into our community slowly stripped away from us. They took our children’s institutions away, learning institutions, a elementary school, a early childhood center and a high school. And then, years later, they are displacing the families here. But this community has been a close-knit community for over 40 years now, so everybody in the community are pretty close. We’re pretty much like family.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask Sheldon Davids — you also have lived in the community for many years, and you still have relatives there and friends. What about this whole issue of this Altman Management Company wanting to renovate these apartments from three and four bedrooms to studio and one-bedroom apartments? Who are they hoping to rent these to?

SHELDON DAVIDS: Well, I don’t want to speculate on who their target audience is. But what I am prepared to say with some certainty is that we need to preserve the living spaces, the kinds of living spaces for the persons who are there, because those spaces meet the needs of the persons that — whether because of multigenerational families or being elderly or being disabled, the space that they now occupy helps them to live their lives in as regular a way as possible, and it helps them to project, to realize their potential. And the idea of reducing the space that these folks occupy is anathema to the kind of development that folks claim that they want for the less enfranchised persons in our society.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask Reverend William Barber this. The national significance of what’s going on here? So many cities across the country, these giant so-called liberal universities, who always talk about racial justice and diversity, equity and inclusion, whether it’s the University of Chicago or Columbia University in New York, Temple University in North Philly, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, they are all gentrifying the neighborhoods around them and pushing out more Black and Brown residents.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: And poor people. Let’s be real. This is poor Black and Brown, poor white, poor low-income and working poor. These are persons who get a subsidy for their rent. But remember, this same community was displaced 40 years ago. Now they’re trying to displace them again.

And universities, I’ll say it, like UPenn and Drexel, any of those universities, need to be ashamed of themselves. They should shut down their departments of sociology and political science and law if they’re not going to stand by communities just like this. This should be a model community. They should be talking about how to make sure all of the children in these communities can go free to these schools, rather than how to displace them.

We know that in Pennsylvania, for instance, working at a minimum wage, you have to work 103 hours a week just to afford a basic two-bedroom apartment. We know 2.5 million workers make under $15 an hour.

What we know is that these tenants have been fighting, 11 months of tenant organizing. They had a 31-day protest encampment in July. Now 40-some faith leaders have signed on to a letter saying to the mayor, “Meet with them,” because the mayor said, “I’m not going to meet with you.” They are calling on their state senator to pledge the state money toward saving townhomes and other Section 8, because, see, the UC Townhomes is the first. It will be like a domino effect, if we’re not careful, and they’ll be removing all of them.

This is a place where poor and low-wealth folk have access to premier healthcare, premier jobs, premier education. It should be a model for the nation, and not a model for destruction. The tenants have also figured out a way with other advocates to create a way to save and to create a special fund. That’s what we should be talking about: how to preserve, for families with disabilities, for parents, for residents, for people who have been there for the longest time.

And it’s happening around the country, this kind of displacement and throwing people out on the street, in a situation where we already know that millions of people live on the brink of homelessness every night in America. We know that 40% of all Pennsylvanians are poor and low-income. You know, this should be a political issue. The people running for — candidates running for the Senate in Pennsylvania should be saying where they stand with these citizens.

But what we know is the citizens are not going to give up. Those of us that are coming are just joining what they’re doing. And I’ve had an invitation from some of the residents to come and stay, and we’re going to take them up on it. We are planning to go this weekend. Now we see a move maybe, extending the deadline. But I really don’t think they want to just throw the people out on the street. They want them to move. That’s what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to make them move out. And the citizens are saying, “No. Like a tree planted beside the water, we’re not going anywhere.”

And so, we’re going to keep working with these tenants. America needs to hear from these folk. These folk is us. This is who we are. They’re Black, they’re white, they’re Latino. They’re young, they’re old. They’re people of different races, different sexualities, different disabilities. And what you have is a city and two universities and a greedy developer trying to throw them out, when what they should be doing is lifting them up as a model community and what we should be building all around America.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you talked about, Bishop Barber, how they were displaced 40 years ago and being displaced again. And this is an absolutely key point, that the whole area, known as Black Bottom — between the '50s and ’70s, the federal government initiating a period of urban redevelopment, often referred to as “urban renewal,” across American cities. The city cleared many local neighborhoods to create space for university-affiliated commercial and residential buildings. So the people already had to move. They were told, “You have to move here,” and now once again, though many young people and the students in that area, of course, don't know this past history. Can you talk about the relationship between Altman Management Company as they also co-own student housing?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Yeah. Well, you know, isn’t that the irony? We have a company, on the one hand, it’s owning student housing, and, on the other hand, it’s trying to put a community out that was displaced years ago because of racism. Now they want to displace them now because of greed and because they think that the residents are poor and Black and Brown and white and disabled, and they can just roughshod over them and push them out. But what they didn’t expect was that these residents, these tenants, would say, “Uh-uh, we’re not moving. If you do this, you’re going to have to do it in the broad of daylight. And we’re going to keep fighting.”

The reality is, this group, they should extend the HUD contract for one to two years, and that could allow the people to stay in their homes, and then they could have time to plan and actually figure out a way to sell the property in a way that would preserve the housing. Preserve the housing. And the tenants want — they have a plan for that. They have people who are willing to do that.

What they’re trying to do is hurry up and rush. Amy, do you know they’ve even cut the lights off on the tenants now outside? They’ve refused to, stopped fixing the apartments up, as they’re trying to pressure them. They’re trying to do everything they can to make them move on their own, because what they don’t want to do is see them be thrown out.

And I want the students to hear what you just said. Students at Penn, students at Drexel, you all should be joining in massive action nonviolently with these tenants. Black Bottom, they were thrown there years ago to push them out of the way. Now people want to throw them out again to get them out of the way. It was always about greed and money and racism. It still is today. And there needs to be a major rising around this, because this is wrong. And Drexel, I say to you on camera, and Penn, the presidents, you ought to be standing right beside these residents and saying, “Take your hands off of them.” You should be doing everything you can to invest in this community, rather than divest this community and destroy them and push them out and gentrify this community. It’s not right, and everybody knows it’s not right that looks at it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sheldon Davids, I wanted to ask you — the developer and HUD, of course, are talking about that the residents would be offered Section 8 certificates. You’re familiar — housing vouchers. You’re familiar with Section 8 certificates. Why is that a terrible alternative?

SHELDON DAVIDS: It’s certainly not a viable one. I don’t know that I’d go as far as to say it’s a terrible one, but it certainly isn’t viable, primarily because increasingly we’re finding that property owners are not entertaining the idea of participating in the program. So, when potential renters, when the displaced persons from our community and others venture out into the spaces to try to find other places to live, they are hamstrung from jump, because when they present vouchers, that puts up a wall between themselves and potential renters, because they’re not particularly enamored with the program to begin with. And there’s also — it also means that their options become narrowed in terms of the kinds of neighborhoods that they can explore living in and the kind of structures that are available to them in terms of the quality of the housing that they have access to.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Rasheda Alexander, if you could talk about the student solidarity that has been shown by, for example, Penn students, and the fact that they feel they’re being retaliated against, as Altman also deals with student housing, as well as your housing?

RASHEDA ALEXANDER: Yes. So, the students that stand in solidarity with us actually asked for a meeting with Liz Magill, who’s the new president of University of Penn. They continued and — well, they started and continued the encampment that originally started at the University City Townhomes. And now they’re being harassed. The administration is coming there, harassing the students, asking them for their IDs. They also have board hearings for these students, for them to have disciplinary action, because of them protesting and standing in solidarity with us and telling Penn to, you know, keep their promise, because they have many broken promises to the neighborhood where University City resides.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank both of you for being with us, Rasheda Alexander and Sheldon Davids, residents of UC Townhomes, part of the campaign —

RASHEDA ALEXANDER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: — to save affordable housing in Philadelphia. And we’re going to continue to cover your story.

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