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Reverend William Barber.
Reverend William Barber speaks with activists and other interfaith leaders in support of UC Townhomes residents. Photo: Carlos Nogueras/AL DÍA News.

Philly interfaith community leaders stand behind UC Townhomes residents

Faith leaders across Philadelphia stood in support of the coalition in hopes the community will follow.

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Philly Sunday Service was delivered in the UC Townhomes courtyard today, Sept. 18, as interfaith leaders in Philadelphia delivered remarks in support of UC Townhome residents who face displacement following an expired HUD contract and subsequent sale of the apartment complexes. 

William Barber II, a famed American pastor known for his pioneering presence in the social justice sphere, gave an opening speech calling on public officials to act on the impending displacement of the townhome residents. 

The Reverend offered remarks on behalf of Repairers of the Breach, a non-partisan, nonprofit national advocacy organization whose agenda obeys a moral framework, also anchored by the Poor People’s Campaign. He currently serves as its founder and president. 

“After federal tax dollars were used to build up the community, and then vouchers were given so there could be affordable housing, now after [developers] used federal tax dollars and the city’s tax dollars, you now want to make money off of our money,” said Reverend Barber, 59, who also served as president of the NAACP and chair of its policy unit from 2006-2017. 

“University City Townhomes is the canary in the mine,” Barber said to folks at the rally in a speech that combined biblical testimony with social activism. “They feel like if they could to them, they could do it to thirty other properties in the city.” 

Between God and City Hall

Barber, surrounded by other faith leaders, also reprimanded City Hall officials for inaction during the aftermath of Bret Altman and the IBID group’s decision to sell UC Townhomes after the HUD contract expired, a move that was communicated to residents via a letter, the only form of communication sent from the building’s owners. 

Rabbi Leo Fornari
West Philadelphia Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari plays Calls of the Shofar in a ritualistic call for justice. Photo: Carlos Nogueras/AL DÍA News.

Bret Altman has not met with residents directly during the last 14 months.

“You’re a hypocrite if you’re a politician participating in throwing people out of their homes. You’re a hypocrite if say you’re a developer but then you [want to] tear down UC Townhomes. That’s not development,” Barber said as he evoked testimony extracted from the bible. 

A coalition bolstered by community

Several faith leaders stood behind the pastor as he gave his speech, readying messages of their own. In between the sermon-like speeches, UC Townhomes residents proffered their own testimonies. 

Among them was Darlene, a 29-year Townhome tenant at the frontlines of the battle to preserve the units as low-income residences. 

“Where are we supposed to go?” she said, adding the coalition’s changed demand, “We’re fighting to keep the Townhome.”

Darlene
Darlene has been at the forefront of the battle between Altman, the City and the coalition to preserve low-income housing in 40th & Market. She also stands to lose her residence. Photo: Carlos Nogueras/AL DÍA News.

Residents and organizers convened a rally in the first week of September, calling for City officials to sell the property to a third party, and commit to maintaining the units as low-income. Philadelphia’s City Council has not yet responded to said demands. 

The Townhome’s sale has been subject to media and public scrutiny since its inception in July of 2021. Altman’s spokesperson, Kevin Feeley, told AL DÍA vouchers were distributed by building management to support resident transition into new housing, but the distribution itself has been shrouded in controversy, given many residents received their coupons as late as August of 2022, according to sources close to the coalition. 

“If I don’t advocate for me and my daughter, who will?” said Krystal, another Townhomes resident who herself went through a multi-year application process and waitlist period before the government was able to proportion housing. “Because it was shown clearly to me that no one was able (...) to make sure that things in my house were secure,” she added. 

Krystal’s story is one of many in the low-income housing vacuum, an intricate and difficult design that subjects applicants to long waits for units that are not kept by their respective owners. 

Crystal
In the midst of a tumultuous sale, Krystal has not found housing for herself and her daughter, who goes to school near the Townhomes. Photo: Carlos Nogueras/AL DÍA News.

She has not been able to find adequate housing. 

Repairers of the Breach organizing canaries in the coal mines

New details surrounding Repairers of the Breach and the Poor People’s Campaign's involvement in the matter are yet to be announced, but the organization made a public pledge to residents in support of the coalition’s cause. 

“We’re [going to] make sure that everybody can stay,” said a campaign spokesperson during her speech. “We have faith leaders from this city who are here to say you are not alone, and we are continuing to organize,” the spokesperson continued. 

She echoed Barber’s Canaries in the Coal Mine sentiment, a reference to residents’ concerns that their situation is just the beginning of a citywide effort to replace low-income housing with new development projects. 

Residents remain vigilant

While the Townhome displacement matter began in July of 2021, UC Townhomes residents have been subject to increased pressure from IBID group and the City Sheriff’s Office to vacate the units. 

In early August, the Sheriff's Office summoned the force of police to disband the encampment setup in protest, forcing residents to vacate the area as officers tore down tents and canopies where supporters headquartered. 

A month later, the coalition reconvened at City Hall to disband an affordable housing event for building and construction execs in a similar fashion at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts, prompting a joint statement from Councilwomen Kendra Brooks, Helen Gym, and Jamie Gauthier. 

Gauthier herself is in the depths of a legal squabble with Philadelphia developers after she introduced legislation that heightened zoning requirements in the area. Her tricky position has resulted in limited exchanges with residents, though sources say a verbal commitment was made. 

Her Affordable Housing Preservation Overlay District legislation, which isn’t limited to the UC Townhomes site, says new properties built must include affordable housing with a minimum of 20% of the units installed. 

Full details on the legislation here.

Feeley called the Councilwoman’s measure “an ever-changing list of demands.”  

Rebecca Rhynhart, the City Controller, also met with residents to hear concerns about the Townhomes, but information on internal discussions has not been made public. A spokesperson told AL DÍA she will “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.” 

But residents say they feel like outsiders, given they have not been made privy to internal City conversations. Most recently, the coalition took their demands to the Mayor’s office himself, with a number and letter signed by faith leaders.

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