Faculty call on Penn to take action to save the UC Townhomes

Penn faculty express frustration with lack of University action against imminent eviction scheduled for this July.
Credit: Oscar Vasquez

Penn faculty members voiced frustration with a lack of University action to prevent the imminent eviction of residents from the University City Townhomes, a housing development primarily occupied by Black and low-income Philadelphians.

The eviction, which is scheduled to take place this July, has garnered significant attention and backlash from the Penn community. Hundreds of Penn community members gathered on March 20 to protest the sale of the townhomes. UC Townhomes developer IBID Associates plans to file a lawsuit against Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, following the passage of legislation preventing the townhomes from being sold. 

The Daily Pennsylvanian interviewed four Penn faculty members — Walter Palmer, Elaine Simon, Vincent Reina, and Akira Drake Rodriguez — with relevant backgrounds in real estate, urban policy, and housing law. The professors stressed their support for the residents of the UC Townhomes and expressed concerns regarding the status of affordable housing in Philadelphia.  

Palmer is a community organizer, activist, lecturer at the Graduate School of Social Policy and Practice, and the founder of The Palmer Foundation. He was raised in the Black Bottom, a predominantly Black community in West Philadelphia that is now University City. 

Palmer shared his knowledge of the Black Bottom’s history and Penn’s role in urban development and gentrification. He discussed his research relating to the UC Townhomes evictions and emphasized that the housing crisis is not unique to West Philadelphia.

“I’m here and pushing for Penn to pay reparations for the damage that they caused to the Black Bottom, first of all, and trying to get the Black Bottom model as a way of examining how to push for reparations in other communities, both locally here, around the state and around the country,” Palmer said. 

Affordable housing remains a significant concern throughout the United States. According to a study published by the PEW Research Center, approximately half of Americans feel that the availability of affordable housing in their local community is at risk due to price surges and supply plummets. 

Simon, a long-term West Philadelphia resident who serves as Director of the Urban Studies Program, academically focuses on issues concerning equitable urban development. She has worked on projects related to University City High School, which was built on the site of the Black Bottom, and the creation of a memorial marker for the Black Bottom.

“The University should do something that would acknowledge that at least some space in this area that’s being redeveloped could be retained for low-income, African American residents,” Simon said.

Reina, a professor of City and Regional Planning at the Weitzman School of Design, works in the field of affordable housing, housing finance, and the preservation of subsidized housing. He shared his thoughts about the UC Townhomes from a macro perspective by discussing a broad set of affordable housing programs and Tenant Protection Vouchers, or vouchers that are used to find another housing unit.

“It’s absolutely critical to think about this property, to think about the welfare of the residents, and to think about what the loss of the affordability of this property means for access to a neighborhood that is rapidly changing and becoming completely unaffordable,” Reina said. 

The DP previously reported that West Philadelphia’s median market value has increased significantly from 2015 to 2021, which has made it increasingly difficult for current residents in the area to remain in their homes. Experts in city planning partly attributed the rise in property value to actions of the University, including increased security surrounding Penn’s campus and building new residential buildings. 

“It’s also really critical to think that this isn’t the only property where this risk exists,” Palmer added. 

Rodriguez, an assistant professor of City and Regional Planning at the Weitzman School of Design, has worked with the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes, Penn for PILOTs, and general research in the planning practices of public housing and public schools.

Rodriguez discussed the possible long-term effects of the UC Townhomes eviction, including health impacts and trauma, and the implications of failure to plan for affordable housing from the government.

“Eviction is such a violent, trauma-producing process that is not just the sole act of being displaced from your home,” Rodriguez said.

Eviction is linked to significant mental health concerns, including mental health hospitalizations, mortality, and an increased spread of COVID-19, according to Health Affairs.

Interim Penn President Wendell Pritchett previously told the DP that Penn is “in conversations with” city leaders about how to help deal with the scarcity of affordable housing throughout University City, although he did not explicitly mention the townhomes. 

“Penn should really make a commitment to be a better neighbor if they are going to continue to engage in the real estate development of West Philadelphia,” Rodriguez said. “Knowing the implications that come after development, there need to be robust protections to minimize some of the displacement and harmful impacts.” 

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