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Photo: Brittany Valentine/Al Día News
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier speaks at a press conference at University City Townhomes on Thursday, Oct. 14. Photo: Brittany Valentine/AL DÍA News

Residents, public officials battle for the future of University City Townhomes in West Philly

Management at the longtime affordable housing complex recently announced to tenants that it would not be renewing its contract with HUD.

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On Thursday, Oct. 14, longtime residents of the University City Townhomes in West Philadelphia joined with City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier and other elected officials to protest the sale of the rental complex at 39th and Market Streets.

The tenants, many of them senior citizens, were recently notified that Altman Management Company will not be renewing its annual affordable housing contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

This will force tenants to find a new place to live by next July, and it will also likely be the end of affordable housing at the site, which is located in a rapidly gentrifying section of the city. 

“Considering the history of this site, and the scarcity of affordable housing here in the 3rd district, it’s hard to fully capture in words what an injustice this is. The reason why these 70 homes even exist in the first place is because of the bold advocacy of devoted  West Philadelphia residents and student activists more than 50 years ago,” Gauthier said. 

University City Townhomes opened in 1982 as hard-won compensation for the destruction of the historic Black Bottom neighborhood during the 1970s to make space for the expansion of the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and the construction of the University City Science Center.

Neighborhood residents and activists with the help of some Penn students won control of the area along Market Street between 39th and 40th Streets and the city rezoned it for residential use, offering it to HUD for affordable housing.

“This block was supposed to be a part of [the science center] but neighbors and University of Penn students banded together to fight. They demanded that this site be set aside for affordable housing, so that people displaced by urban renewal had options to return. These demands were met, and a commitment was made to West Philly residents that this site would be dedicated to low-income housing,” Gauthier said.

Forty years later, this promise is being broken, and current tenants are worried that they will lose a sense of safety and security if they are forced to leave.

One of these tenants, Karen Mouzone, who has lived in the complex since the late 1980s, spoke at the rally, saying that she is hoping and praying that everyone will be able to stay.

Mouzone has asked some of the children in the community to help out by picking up trash and keeping the site clean. Many of them have told her they are scared to leave because of the gun violence.

“I feel so safe here, miss Karen, I don’t wanna go outside,” they told her.

Gauthier announced that she has introduced legislation to halt demolition at the site for at least 12 months, as well as a zoning change, with a requirement that apartments be built at 20% of average median income for the region, to uphold the affordable housing commitment that was made on the site more than half a century ago.

A committee hearing on the bill is scheduled to take place on Oct. 26. 

“The goal of this legislation is to help affordable housing developers to more readily maintain units, and to help long-term residents who have built this community, to be able to stay here and avoid significant displacement that will impact them for the rest of their lives,” said Rasheeda Phillips, Esq. artist, activist and lawyer. 

“This city cannot withstand further loss of affordable housing units in the midst of an affordable housing crisis and ongoing global pandemic,” said State Rep. Rick Krajewski.

Ewan Johnson, a housing justice organizer from Reclaim Philadelphia, shared a personal story of being raised by a single mother and understanding the struggles of finding affordable housing. 

“I know she worried constantly about us becoming houseless, and I watched her work endlessly to provide for us. It’s an understatement to say that there is a housing crisis occurring across the country,” Johnson said.

Through research done through Reclaim Philadelphia’s rental assistance program, it was learned that Black single moms are at the forefront of the housing crisis in the city. 

“Time and time again we see that the most affected are the most vulnerable. Housing should be a frontburner issue, yet we are falling further and further behind. Why are we seeing a push to decrease affordable housing when we need more?” Johnson said.

Johnson said they are taking a stand against forced displacement and the violent nature of evictions. 

“Evictions are violence,” he repeated twice. 

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