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Housing activists in Philadelphia declared victory on Saturday, announcing a “tentative agreement” in their fight to have vacant houses provided for people living at the persistent tent encampments on the Ben Franklin Parkway and Ridge Avenue.
Perhaps as a symbol of the progress in negotiations, organizers at the James Talib Dean encampment yesterday removed their weeks long blockade of 22nd Street, CBS3 reports, replacing it instead with a handwritten sign declaring a 25 mph speed limit.
According to the advocacy coalition Philadelphia Housing Action, the city has agreed to transfer into a community land trust 50 vacant houses, including the 15 that had already been taken over by families.
“This will be a landmark agreement,” said OccupyPHA organizer Jennifer Bennetch in a statement. “[A] group of poor and homeless organizers managed through direct action to win an agreement that will set a precedent for the entire country.”
City officials did not immediately respond to Billy Penn’s request for comment, but indicated in news reports that deal is not final, and depends on organizers committing to a firm date for the encampments to disperse.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority on Monday called the victory announcement “premature,” according to CBS3, and said it puts the potential deal in jeopardy.
“The city remains in negotiation with the representatives of the protest camps, but many details remain to be worked out,” a city spokesperson told NBC10 over the weekend. “Any agreement will require a date certain by which the protest camps will be resolved.”
As recently two weeks ago, the city had said a condition of starting the community land trust would be for people currently squatting in homes to vacate them. “What’s the point of putting them out as available if there’s people living in them,” said Evan Gladstein, Philly’s deputy managing director for health and human services, on Sept. 10. “They refused to commit not to taking over those properties.”
Over the past four months, people experiencing homelessness and housing rights advocates refused to disband the encampments, and instead dug in, creating self-contained communities that offered food and medical and sanitary services. Some nearby neighbors and tourism boosters have complained that the camps are dangerous or detrimental to the economy, citing especially the one on the Parkway, the city’s main museum district.
Three shutdown deadlines have already come and gone, with Mayor Jim Kenney and various members of City Council intervening personally to discuss the situation with activist leaders.
Since the camps first appeared in June, the city’s Office of Homeless Services has worked with leaders there to get more than 125 people into various shelters or treatment services.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority, a city agency funded mostly by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, had maintained it coudn’t jump over an existing waiting list of thousands of low-income families to hand over some properties to the encampment organizers.
On Saturday, camp organizers stressed that the pending cold weather brought urgency to the situation — along with the potential expiration of eviction moratoriums enacted during the height of the pandemic.
“There was already a major housing crisis in Philadelphia and we anticipate a wave of mass evictions on top of that due to COVID-19,” said Black and Brown Workers Cooperative organizer Sterling Johnson in a statement. “We feel that with this agreement we can at least get started moving people off the street and into homes before winter.”