In Council News, Jamie Gauthier, News by admin

Without intervention, 70 affordable townhomes in prime section of West Philadelphia will be lost

The development is one among dozens in the 3rd District alone, and hundreds citywide, with HUD affordability contracts scheduled to expire in the next several years – potentially displacing thousands of low-income Philadelphians

PHILADELPHIA – City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier (3rd District) today stood with West Philadelphia residents, community leaders, and elected officials to demand justice for residents of the University City Townhomes at 40th and Market Streets, who have received notice that they will be displaced from their homes by July 8, 2022. The Councilmember shared details on legislation she introduced late last month that intends to preserve this location for affordable housing well into the future.

“When thousands of Black Bottom residents were displaced as part of the University City urban renewal project back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a commitment was made to the residents of West Philadelphia that the University City Townhomes site would be dedicated to low-income housing for generations to come,” said Councilmember Gauthier. “The legislation I’ve introduced aims to ensure that this promise is kept. Eradicating affordable housing on this site would be a grave injustice to the former residents of Black Bottom – who have already been displaced from this land once before – and to the 70 families who live here now.”

Earlier this year, the owner of the University City Townhomes notified the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that they would not be renewing their affordable housing contract, instead opting to sell the property by the end of the year. Councilmember Gauthier’s new bill proposes a ban on any demolition on the University City Townhomes site for 12 months, as well as a zoning change – to RMX-3, with a requirement that apartments be built at 20 percent of average median income for the region – that would uphold the affordable housing commitment that was first made on this site more than half a century ago.

Much of what is now known as University City was created during the nationwide urban renewal period of the late 1960s, when the City of Philadelphia razed a predominantly Black neighborhood once known as Black Bottom to make way for a science and technology research campus. To clear the land needed for this development, the City displaced thousands of Philadelphians – approximately 80 percent of whom were Black – from their homes in Black Bottom.

The land where the University City Townhomes are located was initially slated to be developed as part of the research campus, but neighbors and University of Pennsylvania students banded together to fight this plan. In 1969, they successfully lobbied to have multiple sites set aside as affordable housing, and to ensure that people displaced by urban renewal had options to return and would have access to housing in the neighborhood for generations to come. There was also an understanding that any plans in the future for redeveloping the neighborhood would necessarily include input from the community.

Forty years later, much has changed in West Philadelphia. Housing prices have tripled, the Black population east of 52nd Street has been cut in half, and, even during the most acute public health crisis in a century, demand for real estate has only increased. Over $5 billion has been spent on construction in University City over the last ten years alone, and there are billions more in the construction pipeline. Meanwhile, the University City Townhomes provides something unavailable anywhere else: dozens of three-bedroom apartments, in the middle of the hottest real estate in the city, that are priced at rents 90 percent less expensive than options available on the open market. On average, families occupying the Townhomes stay for more than a decade; many have lived there since the homes were first built more than 40 years ago.

The housing emergency at the University City Townhomes reflects a troubling trend unfolding in Philadelphia and across the country. This development is one of approximately 25 in the 3rd District, and hundreds citywide, with HUD affordable housing contracts scheduled to expire within the next five years. HUD contracts provide what is by far the most deeply affordable housing available in Philadelphia: residents only need to pay 30 percent of their annual income on rent and utility costs, no matter how low their income may be.

A large portion of government-funded housing sites are owned and operated by profit-motivated companies, who, when facing the option of renewing their HUD contracts or pursuing more lucrative purposes for their properties, may have little incentive to continue offering affordable housing. Councilmember Gauthier believes that it is incredibly urgent to address the continuing loss of these affordable units, which will be exceedingly difficult and costly to replace.

“Working class Black communities have been systematically displaced and pushed out of their neighborhoods in West Philadelphia for far too long,” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks (At-Large). “I have deep roots in this area. My family used to attend a church that for many years was located just around the corner and where my brother is the pastor. I’ve seen firsthand the neighborhood change and know the real-life impacts that the dire shortage of low-income housing has on residents. I commend the leadership of my colleague, Councilmember Gauthier, for standing up for her district and fighting for our constituents’ right to affordable housing.”

“With thousands of Philadelphians already facing housing insecurity, we cannot afford to lose any of our city’s affordable housing,” said Councilmember Helen Gym (At-Large). “I am grateful for Councilmember Gauthier’s advocacy for housing justice —the last thing a family should have to worry about right now is losing their home. Our commitment to fair housing means that we must do everything we can to preserve and expand access to housing in neighborhoods that would otherwise be out of reach for working families.”

“For too long, elected officials have stood as passive onlookers to the destruction of our city’s affordable housing stock,” said State Senator Nikil Saval. “Housing is a human right, and every Philadelphian deserves a safe, decent, and affordable place in which to live their lives. I’m proud to stand with Councilmember Gauthier as we fight to preserve these 77 units and, in the long-term, increase the number of quality, affordable housing units throughout Philadelphia.”

“It is a sad but true reality in this country that profit has always been prioritized over the livelihoods and stability of families and communities,” said State Representative Rick Krajewski. “Over the past few decades, UPenn’s continued Westward expansion has driven up prices and increased demand for profitable land. This city, this University, this neighborhood cannot, once again, profit off the destruction of a community. I stand here in support of Councilmember Gauthier’s legislation and the residents of the University City Townhomes who deserve to stay in their homes.”

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