UC Townhome residents rally at City Hall, interrupt affordable housing networking event for Philly execs
Residents of UC Townhomes in the historic Black Bottom neighborhood sent a clear message: Whatever the outcome, they won’t acquiesce.
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Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect comments from the City Controller's office. Corrections in the article regarding City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart's limited involvement in the matter have also been issued.
A rainy forecast on Wednesday, Sept. 7, didn’t deter the University City Townhomes coalition from gathering at Philadelphia’s City Hall to lay out new demands in the wake of a sale that would render hundreds of families displaced.
Tensions rose for residents at the low-income housing units after the Philly Sheriff’s Department forcibly disbanded an encampment at the behest of IBID Group, following a year of little to no communications with residents about the sale of the apartment complexes along Market and 40th streets.
At the time, residents told AL DÍA they would regroup and figure out their next steps, saying the fight to preserve the low-income housing was far from finished.
This week, the coalition working to halt the sale organized Northside of City Hall premises to lay out a list of demands for investors and developers involved in the sale, following months of radio silence from city officials.
“This is a problem we can solve in the city and state. Stand up to developers and stand in with our communities. There is money through the state, federal, and local governments to preserve affordable housing that is being lost at a historical pace in Philly,” one resident said during her speech.
“Our demand and our fight is to create community control of the townhomes, the people’s townhomes, by purchasing the property. We are also calling on the city to create a fund that would make preserving existing affordable housing a reality for our families at the UC people’s townhomes and across Philly,” she continued.
Residents designed a plan for Altman and IBID to sell the UC Townhomes to a third party that would commit to maintaining the low-income units for seniors and residents. They also called for the city to contribute funds to create a viable path to affordable housing across districts, emphasizing the urgent need for seniors and the disabled community.
Residents also cited University Square Plaza as an example of government intervention — the units were bought out by the city after the contract with Housing and Urban Development expired.
Altman’s spokesperson previously told AL DÍA in August they secured “help in securing Tenant Protection Vouchers that can be used to pay for alternative housing anywhere in the city,” but sources close to the matter say some vouchers arrived as recently as August of 2022, a month from the deadline to vacate.
The original deadline set forth by Altman and IBID was July 2022, but was subject to delays due to ongoing litigation, following a measure pushed by Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier that spooked developers, ensuing in legal action.
As the rally came to a close, residents and activists marched peacefully through the surrounding avenues with minimal police presence. After circling City Hall, protesters walked up Broad Street as helicopters whirred over the march, though no intervention from local authorities was reported.
The march concluded at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts where, according to a march organizer, the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia held a networking event for local building companies to discuss affordable housing on the 11th floor.
Building staff tried to block residents from entering the elevator, residents made their way up eleven floors by using the stairwell. AL DÍA news observed as one staff member allowed residents through after learning a majority were already upstairs.
At the event, attendees could be seen leaving the premises, many of whom avoided any interaction with protesters.
Attendees declined press interviews.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Art’s eleventh floor became overflowed with UC Townhomes activists, and an exchange began between residents and Gary Jonas, president of BIA, where Bret Altman was also president and currently holds a “Life Director” appointment.
“The offer was that the people would be staying in homes that are appraised at $300,000 without a downpayment and they would be paying their monthly current payments and the houses would be subsidized using the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative,” the BIA executive said, referring to a plan to relocate residents to the city’s scattered sites.
However, activists were quick to note that BIA’s approach to placing residents in said units would result in untenable payments since many, deeply low-income tenants could fall under the 50% Area Median Income.
At the height of the exchange, Councilwoman at-Large Kendra Brooks was seen by activists on the balcony, but she did not immediately address protesters. When prompted, Brooks said, “she had put out a statement in support of the UC Townhomes.”
“We must not accept the displacement of dozens of Black families as a foregone conclusion without exhausting every possible outlet,” Brooks said in a statement.
Read the full remarks here.
“We’re past statements. This is war now. We’re in the trenches,” one resident said.
Sources close to the coalition tell AL DÍA that the target is and continues to be Altman, and they hope for Brooks' support, as well as that of other Councilmembers, to bring residents to the negotiating table.
The BIA executive concurred, during the exchange, that behind-the-scenes meetings between City Officials and Bret Altman regarding the future of the UC Townhomes, without resident input, was wrong. Although the City Controller was seen exiting the premises, a spokesperson for Controller Rhynhart's office confirmed that her involvement, along with that of other local government officials, was previously arranged and confirmed a 1-hour attendance period.
"Controller Rhynhart was invited to attend the event as were several other elected officials. The Controller believes you have to have conversations with all different types of people (...) she attended the event just like she attends events for different constituency and community groups," the spokesperson noted.
While Controller Rhynharts could be seen exiting the building as protesters gathered at the networking event, her office confirms she left at her scheduled time. Activists did not engage with Controller Rhynhart, her office confirms. "We were already scheduled to leave at that time and continued to leave. As we walked out the building, we walked through the gathering protest in the atrium, but at no point did we hear anyone call the Controller's name. If someone had asked she would've absolutely stopped and spoken to them, but in the moment we didn't hear anything," the spokesperson added.
At the onset of the UC Townhomes protest, the City Controller had no involvement, but as she got wind of the news, her office reached out to several parties to evaluate the state of the overall state of affairs. "Her position is to try to build bridges, try to come up with solutions that would work for all parties. We will continue to have our door open to meet with the residents to try to build a bridge between all of the parties in the best way we can," the spokesperson said, while also emphasizing the Controller's continued willingness to find solutions that will ultimately avoid displacement for UC Townhomes residents.
Following the evening’s activity, sources say that the steps taken by Councilmembers are not explicit enough.