PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 30: Protestors march over the death of Freddie Gray on April 30, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

On Sept. 29, just minutes into freshman convocation, Liz Magill’s first major speech as University of Pennsylvania president was disrupted by about 100 protesters. The protesters, including students, chanted “Save UC Townhomes” and “stop Penn-trification.” After sitting briefly, Magill attempted to continue, making the disrespectful suggestion to the protesters, among whom were local residents facing eviction, that “Democracy cannot work unless people can live together, learn from one another and, paradoxically, disagree.” Amid continuous chants, Magill was unable to finish her remarks. 

The movement that disrupted this event has become one of the most dynamic forces in Philadelphia in recent months. Galvanized around a struggle to defend the University City Townhomes, a 70-unit housing complex that has operated under a Section 8 project-based subsidy program for the last 40 years. 

Residents say Magill has ducked meeting requests for months. While she might be new to her role, her institution’s legacy is inescapable—local NPR/PBS affiliate WHYY has noted that Penn has undertaken “policies that produced some of the most acute gentrification Philadelphia has ever seen.” 

In July 2021, the owner, IBID Associates LP, announced they would allow their contract with HUD to expire and their intent to sell the property. The resident-led struggle to defend these homes has galvanized people in Philadelphia around the defense of housing for Black, Brown, working-class, poor, elderly, and disabled residents. It’s not a fight about lofty plans for the future, but about a community’s ability to defend their actual homes. 

In describing why the residents have fought so vigorously to defend their homes, UC Townhomes resident Sheldon Davids offered the following remarks at a recent Ruth Wilson Gilmore book talk at the Philadelphia Public Library. “It’s one of the few places where folks who are on public housing vouchers can still access” things like public transportation, a public library, medical care, markets, local stores, and other essential amenities “with relative ease,” said Davids. He described how he was able to “find his way” as a young immigrant from Jamaica decades ago thanks to the ease of access, and painted a picture of the “organic security.” Townhomes residents have been able to provide for the community’s children. 

“There’s a magic in that. That doesn’t happen a lot. So that is worth fighting for. The community is worth fighting for.” Davids added.

Gaining trust 

The name “University City” is the result of a University of Pennsylvania-supported marketing campaign. The area where the UC Townhomes sit used to be known as Black Bottom, “a neighborhood of largely working class and working poor African American residents, who were displaced through eminent domain to create UCSC and University City High School,” as John L. Puckett, professor emeritus of education at the University of Pennsylvania, writes. Residents resisted these displacement efforts as well, although ultimately the universities—Penn, Drexel, and University of the Sciences, which is now part of Saint Joseph’s University—won out with the federal government’s backing, and thousands of Black residents were dispersed to other parts of the city. After those initial displacements, the UC Townhomes were built on real estate that at the time was not desirable to middle and upper-class white residents. However, gentrification and racialized displacement have intensified in recent years as Penn has continued targeted investments. For example, when the university partnered with the school district to fund Penn Alexander Elementary in 2001, 57% of the students in its catchment area were African American; as of 2021, Black students represented less than 17% of the student body.

The struggle to preserve the UC Townhomes had humble beginnings. Sterling Johnson, an organizer with Philadelphia Housing Action, recalls a small meeting last fall with Gerald “Sid” Bolling from the Black Bottom Tribe that included some residents. Johnson attended the meeting along with his collaborator Wiley Cunningham, folks from Police Free Penn, a police abolitionist student organization from the University of Pennsylvania, and members of Penn Housing 4 All.

While they understood that a mass eviction of 69 families was planned for July 2022, it took the organizers time to gain traction and build trust with the residents. Johnson says one small breakthrough came when they helped defend a resident facing an immediate eviction and were able to stop that process. That demonstrated to other residents that fighting back could be effective.

Rasheda Alexander, a resident council member at the development, remembers seeing a few organizers tabling near the parking lot on weekends in the winter. She admits that initially she and most other residents were not involved. But as she saw how the situation impacted more vulnerable people in the Townhomes, Alexander decided to get involved.

“Nobody had gotten vouchers; nobody was really able to get in contact with the relocation specialist. We had a lot of senior citizens and a lot of people with disabilities who just don’t have anybody to advocate for them,” said Alexander.

While there are many other residents and organizers involved in the coalition at this point—including over 50 organizations listed as allies on their website—Alexander and Johnson represent a core aspect of the struggle: a tight relationship between militant housing activists and fiercely committed residents fighting for their community and for the ability to defend their homes from the profiteering motive of the property owner. 

Waging a struggle against the rights of property owners seems like an uphill fight in a capitalist society, but it is not the first time that some of the organizers have been involved in such a pitched battle.

In 2020, Philadelphia Housing Action was part of the core of another dynamic housing struggle in the city. They, along with others, led a direct action movement with a large group of the city’s homeless population that included squatting in vacant homes and multiple large encampments. These actions lasted for months and were eventually settled through an agreement by Philadelphia Housing Authority and the City of Philadelphia to hand over 50 vacant publicly owned houses to a community land trust. 

What these struggles make plain is the violence that is fundamentally intertwined with private property rights and the shadowy public-private partnerships often involved. Specifically, in the case of the UC Townhomes, the struggle exposes the purported and well-defended right of members of an elite property-owning class to make exorbitant profits (some have estimated a sale price of $100 million) from the sale of units that have stood as subsidized housing for 40 years.

Philadelphia Housing Action, for its part, has worked to decommodify housing by “experimenting with collective ownership,” Johnson said in an interview on the “Millennials Are Killing Capitalism” podcast, attempting to remove properties from the unrelenting throes of the housing market.

Gilmore’s definition of racism, “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” is also instructive in terms of what residents and organizers are fighting against. 

“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,” Johnson recently said in an interview on Kelly Hayes’ “Movement Memos” podcast.

Fighting Back

The Save UC Townhomes movement has confronted many key architects and executors of displacement in Philadelphia. Johnson notes that these actions started out small but were continuous and built up over time. There were teach-ins, rallies, marches, and protests at the property owner’s offices outside the city. It’s exhausting work. Both Alexander and Johnson attest that constant meetings and forcing the owner to extend the HUD contract multiple times has been stressful on the residents.

There have been spectacular moments, but also low points: While Johnson says he always believed it could be done, he acknowledged that in the beginning of July, “it didn’t seem like people were going to pay attention, but that’s why there was the encampment.”

The month-long encampment in the Townhomes’ courtyard by residents and supporters was one of the watershed moments in the fight. It garnered media attention, brought the community into the fight, and helped residents build greater connection with activists, students, and organized labor in the city. When a judge ordered the encampment evicted, the sheriff could dismantle the pallet barriers and tents but could not diffuse the energy and momentum the gathering had created.

Alexander also describes the struggle, and the encampment specifically, as having generated more unity, even providing space for the children in the Townhomes to have a movie night outside, paint, dance, learn to skateboard, and become more directly involved in defending the Townhomes.

The encampment also had symbolic importance according to Johnson: The tents were a projection of the real byproducts—homelessness—of mass evictions of poor residents. The encampment also received support from organizations like Labor for Black Lives, which pulled together several local union chapters to demand Mayor Jim Kenney and city leaders preserve the Townhomes.

Three weeks after the encampment was dismantled came the disruption of Penn’s freshman convocation, bringing even more Penn students into the movement. Students started another encampment at Penn, demanding the university divest from fossil fuels, stop the eviction of Townhomes’ residents, and make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) to the school district. The student solidarity work has drawn disciplinary proceedings by the administration.

Days after the protest at Penn, a large group of residents, organizers, and protesters caught the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia (BIA) by surprise. After rallying at City Hall, protesters stormed the BIA networking event at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, confronting developers and public officials.

National faith leader Bishop William J. Barber II led an interfaith rally at the Townhomes days later, offering to move into the Townhomes to put more pressure on the owner and the city if necessary.

The disruptions of convocation and the BIA meeting and Bishop Barber’s gathering all led to a response from a university representative deflecting and downplaying Penn’s involvement in the sale. But nobody could deny the effectiveness of the organizing, which has forced the property owner to extend its contract with HUD again, this time until the end of December.

At this point, organizers and residents both speak to a goal of preserving the Townhomes as housing for low-income residents. Alexander notes that even if some residents end up leaving, she and other resident council members want to ensure the Townhomes remain for future generations of low-income families. And while that goal might have seemed outlandish to many in the winter of 2021, it seems quite possible now.

Jared Ware is a freelance journalist primarily covering social movements and prisoner organizing. He is the co-host and producer of the podcast Millennials Are Killing Capitalism.