Amanda McIllmurray’s fight for fair housing is personal and sits at the center of her City Council run in 2023
The co-founder of Reclaim Philadelphia is one of many at-Large Democratic candidates vying for a seat on the legislative body this year.
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These days, Amanda McIllmurray’s house in South Philly is more than just a home for the longtime progressive political organizer, now 2023 Democratic at-Large City Council candidate.
It’s a hangout spot for her and her friends, hosted many-a dinner parties and organizer meetings, and the couch has doubled as a bed for plenty of people in between housing and work.
“Everyone has a key,” McIllmurray said in an interview earlier this year with AL DÍA.
Bouncing around the Northeast
She’s had it for six years now, but it took almost four years of living there — and a pandemic — for McIllmurray to finally paint and decorate.
In the process, she realized it was the first time she’d ever done something to make a place where she lived feel like her home.
“We never had the opportunity to decorate or paint or make things our own because we were renting,” McIllmurray said of her family’s housing experience while she was growing up. “It was: ‘We’re gonna have to pack up and move.’”
Those moves saw McIllmurrary and her four younger siblings live all across Northeast Philly — from Fishtown to Frankford, Port Richmond, Kensington, Mayfair, Wissinoming and more.
“We bounced around a lot like many working families do,” she said. “It was hard to feel like I had a place that was home.”
Fishtown was the first neighborhood McIllmurray remembers and the one she still calls home — with her grandpa across the street and aunts living around the corner. In middle school, as the neighborhood’s gentrification shifted into high gear, her family was an early casualty to the rising rent and got evicted. They took their landlord to court with the help of Community Legal Services, but lost the case and moved to Frankford.
“Kids got to grow up together on a block. Me and my siblings didn’t,” said McIllmurray. “We always were living around new people.”
Showing up in a union household
That was made even more apparent as her mom sent her to a charter school in South Philly while the family lived in Frankford. She was a cafeteria worker at the school McIllmurray would have attended in the neighborhood and once she saw its conditions, found an alternative for her daughter.
“An overarching thing of my family and my upbringing was that we just show up for each other,” she said. “My parents always taught me, if someone’s struggling, show up for them.”
It’s a perspective shaped by the family’s experience as part of the working class, but McIllmurray also credited her dad’s involvement in the labor movement as a major early educator in her own life. He was a longtime truck driver for Coca-Cola and a member of the teamsters.
It’s what would eventually get McIllmurray herself involved in organizing and activism as she navigated her early life beyond her college experience.
Bernie to Reclaim
In 2015, McIllmurray first volunteered as an organizer for the Bernie Sanders campaign in Philly and was part of what she called a “really beautiful infrastructure” built among progressive circles in the city.
The only problem? Once Hillary Clinton was announced as the Democratic nominee, the citywide networks created to support Bernie and his progressive ideas began to wane.
With the goal of maintaining those networks and continuing outreach around the issues, McIllmurray and a handful of organizers and friends built the foundations of what would become Reclaim Philadelphia in her living room.
“We really wanted to create an organization that was rooted in building relationships with our neighbors year-round and training up people and building up their understanding of the world that we live in,” said McIllmurray.
What started as a group of likeminded progressive friends soon transformed into one of Philadelphia’s most powerful up-and-coming coalitions on the political scene. The election victories also quickly followed, and over the span of just five years (2015-2020), Reclaim’s support scored major progressive wins in races for Philly District Attorney (Larry Krasner), City Controller (Rebecca Rhynhart), PA State Representative (Elizabeth Fiedler, Chris Raab, Daniel Friel Otten, Rick Krajewski), PA State Senator (Nikil Saval), and Philadelphia City Council (Helen Gym  and Isaiah Thomas).
“It’s really surreal sometimes,” McIllmurray said of Reclaim’s trajectory since its founding.
Stepping out from behind the scenes
That growth has also continued into this decade, as the organization has continued to put support behind candidates in local, statewide and national races, and spawned some of their own.
In 2023, after working behind the scenes on a number of Reclaim’s successful political campaigns, McIllmurrary finally threw her own name into the at-Large race for City Council.
Despite organizing her fair share of political campaigns in Reclaim’s life, McIllmurray still said running a campaign based around her own experiences was a scary endeavor. However, as she had more conversations with community leaders about running and and their issues, she saw the further impact she could have in fulfilling Reclaim’s ultimate mission from a City Council seat.
“I realized that this is one of the next steps that I can personally take to continue my work to make Philly work better for us,” McIllmurray said.
Housing is “personal”
At the top of her issue list as a candidate in 2023 is housing, not only because it is “deeply personal” to McIllmurray, but also for its capacity to address some other issues central to the campaign in 2023.
“Housing is the thing that really stabilizes our entire lives,” she told AL DÍA. “It stabilizes our communities. It is a form of healthcare in many ways.”
Philly, while still home to a 10-year tax abatement to encourage developers to build, has also long struggled to provide enough affordable housing for residents.
An example of that struggle played out earlier this year, as the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) reopened its waitlist for affordable housing after 12 years. The demand crashed the application form on its first day as more than 37,000 people applied. Only 10,000 made it to the final selection round.
For McIllmurray, the overarching, long-term housing solution will come from massive investment by the federal government. But without that, she pushed for some local approaches like more incentives for developers to build affordable housing or enforcing requirements for the construction of affordable housing instead of allowing developers to contribute to the housing trust fund.
“Ideally, every house in the city of Philadelphia would be deeply affordable for its residents,” she said.
Another idea of McIllmurray’s that’s also gained steam this election season is rent control.
Her idea there is to protect renters from “exorbitant” rent increases from year to year, but also emphasized the importance of pairing it with a Just Cause Eviction policy and right-to-counsel for those facing eviction.
Currently, Philadelphia lacks a Just Cause Eviction policy and it’s right-to-counsel effort is only in four zip codes across the city (19139 [West Philly], 19121 [Brewerytown, Strawberry Mansion], 19144 [Germantown], 19134 [Kensington]). McIllmurray wants both and to expand right-to-counsel to be a citywide program.
“For me, it’s a multi-faceted issue of how are we showing up?” she told AL DÍA. “That I think really stabilizes people’s lives. It makes it so that people can stay in their homes and neighborhoods.”
Supporting workers from City Council
A second big part of McIllmurray’s campaign that’s close to her heart is continued efforts around supporting labor movements and workers in the city. That would start in her office, as she said she’d hire a labor liaison to develop relationships and offer resources to movements across the city.
On City Council itself, McIllmurray promised to continue pushing for expanded funding for the Mayor’s Office of Labor, which was first established under Mayor Jim Kenney.
“They’re one of the most valuable resources for workers in the city,” she said of the office.
In the vein of building on past victories, McIllmurray also called the 2019’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights “one of the biggest wins of the last five years,” but mentioned the need to improve communication to the workforce about their rights and actually enforcing them.
On public safety, McIllmurray pitched an all-encompassing approach to tackling the root causes of gun violence in the city. The root causes identified by McIllmurray included poverty and long-term disinvestment by the city.
To solve them, she pitched ideas like stable housing and jobs, revamped parks and recreation centers, and overall neighborhoods that were “taken care of.”
“I think it’s going to take citywide collaboration, and people who often don’t talk to each other to sit down and talk with each other,” she said. “The most immediate way to have communities be safer is to meet their needs so that people aren’t forced to do things out of desperation.”
As for what role the police play in that solution, McIllmurray called it “complicated” because of the distrust that’s been “earned” in communities of color.
“I think we need to do everyone a favor and acknowledge that the system is not working for anybody right now,” she said.
Breaking it down, McIllmurray said the police should have more specialized units to deal with instances of domestic violence, when more medical care is needed or addiction services. She is also in favor of expanding the city’s piloted mobile crisis response units.
Branching off that, the opioid crisis is also one that hits close to home for McIllmurray.
“Addiction is a health issue,” she said, before calling the attitude the necessary “foundation” for any further talk of solutions to the issue of opioids.
Housing was at the top of her solutions along with wound care and holding more pharmaceutical companies accountable for the crisis that’s been created.
“I think we need to address the safety concern, but from a place of compassion,” said McIllmurray.
She is also in favor of “overdose prevention sites.”
“I will make sure that it’s not just a place to use drugs, but a community resource,” said McIllmurray.
The primary election is right around the corner, on May 16, 2023.
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