University City Townhomes protesters interrupt Penn president’s speech
Rodrigo Torrejon & Susan Snyder - Philly Inquirer
Penn doesn't own the townhomes and has no plans to purchase them, but housing activists believe the university should step in to help because it has contributed to gentrification.
Dozens of protesters representing residents of University City Townhomes who are facing imminent eviction interrupted the University of Pennsylvania’s convocation ceremony Monday, calling out the Ivy League university for “Penntrification” — what they see as the school’s role in pushing low-income Black and Hispanic families out of the area.
Around 70 residents and supporters of the Save the UC Townhomes coalition, a group formed to represent the approximately 69 families facing displacement from the affordable housing complex, interrupted Penn president Liz Magill’s convocation speech Monday night.
The protesters converged on the convocation for around 2,500 Penn freshmen, shouting down Magill and calling out the university for its part in gentrifying the neighborhood. The primarily Black and Hispanic families, some of whom have lived in the townhomes for decades, are now facing an Oct. 8 deadline to leave their homes.
The townhomes’ neighborhood was once known as Black Bottom, a historically Black community that was displaced as Penn and Drexel University expanded their footprints. Penn does not own the townhomes and has no plans to purchase them or redevelop the site, but housing activists believe the university should step in to help because it has taken up more real estate in the neighborhood over time, and its presence has spurred development and gentrification.
The deadline for residents to leave their homes, originally July 8, was pushed to Sept. 7 to accommodate the arrival of federal housing vouchers for displaced tenants. But the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a request from the townhomes’ owners, IBID Associates, to extend the affordable housing agreement. Residents now have until Oct. 8 to leave their homes, an IBID spokesperson said in an email Tuesday. HUD will continue to provide rental assistance payments for the residents until that date, the spokesperson said.
For months, residents had been trying to speak with Magill about how Penn could help residents, to no avail, said Rasheda Alexander, a 14-year townhome resident and organizer at the coalition. The protest was the culmination of mounting frustrations from residents who felt ignored by the university, which they feel has failed to respond to their calls for help and to purchase the property so residents could stay.
“Nothing was returned,” said Alexander. “They put a statement out and it was pretty much ‘I hope they find what’s going on.’ No, you all have been displacing Black people for the last 40, 50, 60 years. No. You have an obligation to this community. We don’t mind you developing in the community. But invest in the community. And they’re taking away from the community, but they’re not investing.”
At the convocation Monday, protesters held signs that read, “Penn is displacing Black families,” and chanted, “Housing is a human right,” “From the dorms to the streets,” and “Liz Magill, stop the eviction.” A university spokesperson did not address the displacement of townhome residents specifically but expressed the university’s disappointment with the protest.
“It was unfortunate that protesters disrupted convocation last night,” said Ron Ozio, a university spokesperson. “Ironically, president Magill’s remarks were about productive disagreement and the value of learning across differences. She delivered the core message last night, and her full speech has been distributed to members of the new class and published for the broader University community to see. Penn is a place where productive debate and dialogue flourishes among people with different views, and our community is stronger for it.”
Ozio also said that students were still able to enjoy a dessert reception with Magill, who was tapped in January to replace former president Amy Gutmann.
Last year, IBID Associates, the family partnership that owns the townhomes, announced plans to end its federal affordable housing contract and sell the property. As of Tuesday, the property had not been sold, a spokesperson for IBID said.
The residents, along with other West Philadelphians and housing activists, have been fervently protesting the plan. Some residents have said that they have yet to receive federal housing vouchers and that the vouchers are essentially useless, with a limited inventory of affordable housing in the city and many landlords refusing to accept them.
Moving to another neighborhood where affordable housing is available would mean
uprooting families’ lives, residents have said.
In early July, an encampment of supporters set up on the townhomes’ lawn, a symbolic action meant to show what residents might face if they were displaced. Earlier this month, sheriff’s officers dismantled the encampment as residents and supporters shouted, “Shame on you!” and, “Housing is a human right!”
After the encampment was dismantled, residents and supporters marched down Market Street and at one point stopped in front of the Penn president’s house.
“This is also about the University of Pennsylvania, which has been displacing Black people from so-called University City for decades, and it stops today!” one protester shouted through a megaphone during the march.
Penn has faced criticism about its impact on the neighborhood before, with many city residents claiming the university does not reinvest enough money back into the community.
After calls for Penn to make payments in lieu of taxes to support Philadelphia public schools, the university in 2020 announced it would donate $100 millionover 10 years to the School District of Philadelphia to address environmental hazards, including asbestos and lead.
Some Penn students participated in Monday’s protest, supporting the residents’ calls for help.
“I believe that housing is a human right,” said Janna Goliff, 22, a 2022 Penn graduate. “When we have the chance to advocate for people, especially for people who are neighbors and people who we know are being displaced by such a large institution, I think everyone should do what they can to stand with them and advocate for them.”
Goliff, who double-majored in design and computer science and is living in Philadelphia, said she was involved in the protest encampment over the summer, too. As a former Penn student, she said she has been concerned about displacement of Black residents over time as Penn expanded.
Kenny Chiu, a Penn sophomore, South Philadelphia resident, and Central High graduate, also joined the protest. Chiu, 19, said it’s up to Penn to step up and help.
“Penn has the money and Penn has the resources and connections to do something about preserving affordable housing in West Philadelphia,” the urban studies major said. “This fight is Philadelphia’s fight. It should be a fight for every Penn student as well.”
He said he expects that Monday’s protest will force Magill to address the concerns.
“That’s a victory for us,” he said.
Meanwhile, for townhome residents, there has been no direct communication from the townhome owners, Alexander said, and they face a dismal outlook. Some units have already been boarded up and appliances have been removed, she said.
Alexander said being forced out has already caused her stress, declining health, and fear.
“It’s not my desire to stay here in this townhomes,” said Alexander. “But you’re not going to kill me trying to get me out of the townhomes because you done raised my blood pressure.”