As Philadelphia sheriff’s officers rose to the heat to break up a protest encampment outside University City townhomes on Monday, it was too late to save families facing eviction.
IBID Associates, which owns the complex, announced last year that it plans to end its federally affordable housing lease and sell the property it bought four decades ago.
Although tenants were given a year’s notice to vacate, repossession was swift and difficult. City Councilman Jamie Gauthier tried to intervene to save the complex — and was eventually sued. In July, a protest camp broke out on the lawn. But ultimately, the owner still plans to sell, and it’s unclear whether tenants would be welcome for any construction on the site.
» Read more: How thousands of affordable homes in Philly are at risk as state subsidies expire
The saga is an example of problems that could emerge in other long-standing affordable housing projects in the next few years, as hundreds of other apartments in Philadelphia face expiring contracts. In the case of UC Townhomes, the failed deal plan highlights a looming problem that experts say will exacerbate the city’s affordable housing crisis and displace black and brown residents.
The owners approached Gauthier last year, proposing that the building’s buyer effectively replace some of the existing units and offer them to current residents who want to return to the neighborhood after construction, according to court documents, public statements and people familiar with the situation.
According to experts, such an agreement will be the best outcome for tenants out of many bad options.
“It’s not the same thing as saving their home, but having access to those neighborhood amenities certainly benefits them,” said Emily Dowdall, policy director of the Regeneration Fund’s Policy Solutions Group. “Now it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to find affordable units in that neighborhood.”
But a deal was never reached — and the details are hush-hush because of the ongoing lawsuit.
After negotiations stalled, Gauthier introduced a controversial bill in March that would have banned demolition of the land — a move that would have effectively halted sales to any buyer who wanted to build. IBID promptly sued the West Philly legislature and the city in federal court for “violating his constitutional right” to sell the property.
“The owners’ vision for 3900 Market has always included treating residents with fairness and respect,” the owners wrote in a public statement after the lawsuit was filed in March.
Gauthier and ownership of Townhomes declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
» Read more: Officers demolish campus at University City townhomes as residents protest
Consuela Astillero, who has lived in UC Townhomes since they opened in 1982, said she hopes other building owners will learn from the saga in University City if they plan to cut their federal lease and sell the building.
Some tips: Give more than a year’s notice. Compensation to residents. And welcome tenants to the new homes at affordable prices.
“They sell for millions, so let’s be fair,” says Astillero, 61.
Some tenants accuse IBID of trying to make a profit at the expense of long-term tenants. Some blame Gauthier and the city for not doing more to save the site. But decades of federal housing policy sealed the complex’s fate for good.
Section 8 project-based homes like University City Townhomes aren’t necessarily designed to last forever.
In the 1960s, instead of investing in government-owned affordable housing, American policymakers began experimenting with public-private partnerships that used time-limited subsidies. In the year In the 1980s, most publicly funded housing was through programs such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and, in the case of University City Townhomes, project-based Section 8.
While the programs have worked well in Philadelphia for many years, the fixed-term contracts mean that every two or three decades a significant amount of affordable housing stock can be lost, especially if real estate markets heat up and owners are tempted to sell — which is exactly what happened. University City.
Renters there may not be the last Philadelphians to lose their homes, as federal policymakers decided long ago to ensure permanent affordable housing programs.
More than 3,400 units — about 10 percent of all federally subsidized housing in Philadelphia — operate under contracts set to expire in the next decade, WHYY News reported last year.
“A lot of them are still being renovated, but they’re in areas that have changed a lot in 30 years in Philadelphia and other cities,” said Dowdall of the Reinvestment Fund. “Others will come.”
The divorce proceedings did not go well between IBID and the tenants of University City Townhomes.
When talks began years ago, tenants and city officials asked IBID principal Brett Altman to extend the lease, to no avail.
Advocates later asked the city to buy the site from IBID. Officials say the city has no assets, according to court records.
Provide adequate eviction notice and eviction notice to current tenants There was a crackdown on townhomes, fueled by protests this summer.
While landlords are covering relocation costs, many residents say there is a shortage of landlords who accept Section 8 housing vouchers. Others say the proposed replacements are in unsafe and blighted neighborhoods — a far cry from the high- and relatively low-crime college center where they now live.
“The places look horrible and abandoned,” he said Longtime resident Amirah Brown.
» Read more: Opinion | I am being evicted from University City Townhomes.
For many, the loss of UC Townhomes is another attempt to displace black and Latino residents to make room for white and affluent residents. The neighborhood surrounding the Townhomes was once known as Black Bottom, which was invaded by the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University as they expanded their reach.
Due to the ongoing lawsuit, the status of the sale and the proposed project are not clear. But even if the buyer offers replacement housing at an affordable price, some expect few to return after many years.
“The owner and his partners know that most people don’t want to leave for two years and come back, because that’s a lot of work,” said Astillero, a 40-year-old tenant.
IBID waits. That he went “beyond legal obligations.” The first meetings with lawmakers to discuss finalizing the contract occurred in 2019, according to the lawsuit. IBID also wanted a buyer who would agree with community input and maintain some affordable housing — even if residents were skeptical of the process’ commitment.
“None of this is affordable for us,” said Melvin Hairston, a 29-year resident of the townhomes. Their “reasonable” terms are different.
It is also not clear Why Gauthier didn’t accept the first offers of housing to replace it on the site.
“Nobody’s winning here right now,” said Mo Rushdie, the developer of River Ward Group, which was not involved in the townhomes deal but argued that the stalled development would stifle the city’s economic growth. “If the goal here was to find a solution, we could have found one a while ago.”
As tenants in University City townhomes look for new housing options, others in federally subsidized housing are hoping they can start lobbying their landlords before their leases expire.
“You can’t be afraid to stand up before it hits,” Hairston said. “Don’t roll your eyes like we did.”