West Philly tenants’ struggle exposes affordable housing crisis
At left, sheriff's deputies move in to break up the encampment as demonstrators, left, rally against the sale and redevelopment of University City Town Homes. Holding the bullhorn, at center, is Pam Africa, who was in the MOVE house when police stormed it in the summer of 1978. | Ben Sears / People's World

PHILADELPHIA—“We have an affordable housing shortage in this city.” So said University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis Culhane to the local press. Residents of the University City Town Homes, threatened with eviction, used stronger language.

Melvin Hairster, resident and protest leader, told a crowd of supporters and residents, “This is a humanity issue. Housing is a human right. My message to the people at the top is, ‘If you all don’t make change, the people will make it for you.’”

The occasion was the removal by sheriff’s deputies of around 15 tents that tenants and supporters had set up on the property to highlight the threat of imminent eviction. A judge had ordered the site cleared by 9 a.m. Monday morning. The order was carried out at that time, even as protesters vigorously urged deputies to stop and leave the encampment.

The University City Town Homes complex is owned by IBID Associates LP, which has leased the units under a federal housing contract for over 40 years. IBID now intends to sell the property for redevelopment in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood adjacent to the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia.

Long-time residents have been offered vouchers with which to find alternative housing, but the search his is proving difficult or impossible for many. They have been given an early September date to vacate the property.

The spirited demonstration included residents and supporters from the community, among them university faculty and students. Some argue that the university bears a major share of responsibility for gentrification and the resulting lack of affordable housing in the area, once known as the “Black Bottom,” or simply “The Bottom,” by long-time residents.

Members of the Labor for Black Lives Coalition rally in support of the UCTH residents facing eviction. | Ben Sears / People’s World

One of the residents’ demands is that the city purchase the property, which has not yet found a buyer. Among the chants that reverberated across Market Street: “Stop the sale; buy the block” and “People over profit.”

Demonstrators targeted IBID principal owner Brett Altman, who announced the pending sale, which would probably mean the demolition of the Town Homes. Among the speakers was Pam Africa, who was present in the first MOVE house when police stormed it in the summer of 1978.

She said of those responsible for gentrification: “You, raped, you robbed, you stole from this community for years and years…. Let people know what is going on and what Altman has done here.”

The sale and demolition threatens 70 families and residents with eviction.

The tenants’ determined, persistent, and disciplined struggle has generated considerable coverage in the local media, as well as support from the community.

Among the supporters present on Monday were members of the Labor for Black Lives Coalition, who circulated a statement calling on city leaders “to block the sale of the UC Townhomes and commit to preserving affordable housing of low-income seniors and families.” The statement said, “Securing safe and affordable rental housing is a constant struggle for working class people

of color in the city. As a coalition representing our city’s Black union leadership and members, we believe unequivocally that housing is a human right.”

The statement was signed by SEIU 32BJ, SEIU PA State Council, Unite Here Local 274, APWU Local 89, AFSCME District Council 33, National Writers Union, Einstein Nurses United, and PASNAP, BMWED-IBT Local 3012, National Domestic Workers Alliance-PA Chapter, and others.


Ben Sears
Ben Sears

Ben Sears is a retired teacher and AFT member in Philadelphia. He is the author, as John Bennett Sears, of the book "The Electrical Unions and the Cold War" (International Publishers 2019).