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Jennifer Bennetch was the founder of the Philadelphia Community Land Trust, a local leader, and organizer of Occupy PHA. Photo: Jennifer Bennetch
Jennifer Bennetch was the founder of the Philadelphia Community Land Trust, a local leader, and organizer of Occupy PHA. Photo: Jennifer Bennetch

Jennifer Bennetch, Occupy PHA organizer, Philadelphia Community Land Trust founder and local leader dies at 36

The community leader and activist made major progress in her interactions with the Philadelphia Housing Authority. A GoFundMe for Bennetch’s family is now live.

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Jennifer Bennetch was the founder of the Philadelphia Community Land Trust, a local leader, and organizer of Occupy PHA (Philadelphia Housing Authority).

Last Thursday, Feb. 17, Bennetch died at 36 of COVID-19 complications.

Bennetch’s advocacy work made major progress amid rising tensions between the PHA, City of Philadelphia and homeless citizens. 

She first learned of the PHA police in 2016, quickly gaining an interest in law and affordable housing issues in the city thereafter. Bennetch attended the Community College of Philadelphia, and studied to be a paralegal.

Her first interaction with the PHA took place when PHA police appeared at her residence, which neighbored three PHA properties.

Bennetch reported that PHA police escalated a dispute that led to the near-fatal stabbing of an individual on her property. The PHA then petitioned for a lawsuit from Bennetch to be dropped, but were denied.

Soonafter, Bennetch fought for justice, fair practice, transparency, and accountability within the PHA and the police. She would regularly attend PHA board meetings and voice the concerns of tenants and the community at large. 

Addressing the PHA, Bennetch called for more distinguishable PHA police uniforms and vehicles as well as the abolition of housing police. Her protest led to a deal with the PHA to alter their vehicles and a formal online police complaint form.

The pandemic’s effect on the capacity and admittance of homeless shelters brought Bennetch to assist more than ten homeless families moving into vacant, City and PHA-owned houses as a form of protest.

In 2020, Bennetch was part of forming three homeless protest encampments in Philly which demanded immediate housing and an expansion of homeless services.  The encampment protests lasted over 5 months.

When the encampments were ordered to vacate by the city, Bennetch and the residents refused holding out through several evictions until a deal was struck. 

The PHA and City of Philadelphia would ultimately reach a deal with Occupy PHA and encampment residents, committing to the transfer of dozens of vacant properties to the newly formed Philadelphia Community Land Trust.  In addition reforms to the PHA Police, protections for PHA squatters, 9 fully rehabbed properties and an expansion of homeless services were agreed to

In late 2021, the PHA was still working with Bennetch to transfer the properties, while some observers expressed concern over the City not delivering its share of the deal. 

After her passing, PHA president and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah expressed his condolences in a statement:

“She has left the city a great legacy. Know that her fight and her commitment will remain within PHA,” said Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was often a target of Bennetch’s PHA protests. At the time of her passing, Jeremiah had been collaborating with Bennetch, according to those close to the organizer.

Activists, city councilmembers, and other community members shared their condolences for Bennetch’s family. 

Bennetch’s efforts addressed ongoing issues such as family separation in Philly due to homelessness.  The city has the highest rate of family separation in large cities.   

As a strong advocate for parental rights, Bennetch herself pursued a precedent-setting case to the state Supreme Court allowing parents the right to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses in family court as well as the right to refuse entry to DHS workers into the home without first showing probable cause.

Outside her activism, Bennetch was an avid gardener, host of arts and crafts activities, and heavily involved with her friends and family.

She is survived by her brother, two sons, and a daughter.

A GoFundMe page for Bennetch’s family is now live.

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This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org
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