Dozens of people living at the University City Townhomes now have until the end of the year to search for new homes. Two weeks before the West Philly development’s affordable housing subsidies were set to expire, the landlord reached an agreement with the federal government to extend the contract again.
The extra few months reprieve could be critical, as about 58 of the 70 or so families living at the complex have not yet found new places to live, according to Rasheeda Alexander, a UC Townhomes resident and organizer.
“For a lot of residents, the new contract expiration date being Dec. 27 was like a sigh of relief,” Alexander told Billy Penn. But, she added, it’s just another postponement — not a real solution.
“I feel as though it should have lasted until next year. Because a lot of people still have not found housing,” Alexander said, “so I really wasn’t impressed. And the fact that the extension has happened three times since the original … it’s very traumatizing. And it’s frustrating.”
The block-long development at 39th and Market streets was intentionally created to provide affordable housing in the neighborhood once known as Black Bottom. For the past 40 years, property owner IBID Associates maintained a contract with the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, which pays the balance of rent that exceeds 30% of a tenants’ income.
Property values in what’s now known as University City have continued to rise, in part thanks to Penn, Drexel, and other developers, who’ve been turning the area into a center for innovation and biotech.
Last year, IBID announced it was looking to sell the property (some estimates put its potential sale price at $100 million) and would end its HUD contract. Negotiations with district Councilmember Jamie Gauthier to rehome the residents stalled — it’s unclear exactly why — and she introduced legislation to temporarily ban demolition at the site, essentially making it unattractive to potential buyers. In March of this year, IBID sued, saying the ordinance infringed on its constitutional rights. The case is still pending in court.
Meanwhile, the affordable housing subsidies were still set to expire.
Housing activists organized as the Save the UC Townhomes Coalition. Over the summer, they set up a protest encampment on the lawn outside the complex, and have held several rallies and marches since then.
“They tell us we’ll get you a voucher, we’ll find you somewhere to go. Where will we go?” Alexander said at the time. The Philadelphia Housing Authority has a 40,000-household long waiting list, and many other landlords in the city will not accept housing vouchers.
As the original HUD contract expiration date of July 8 approached, IBID got the first of three extensions. Its end was pushed to Sept. 7, then Oct. 7, and now is the end of the calendar year, two days after Christmas.
The Dec. 27 date should not be thought of as a “deadline,” IBID spokesperson Kevin Feeley insisted.
“We’re telling people they have to relocate. But the idea that there is a deadline… I mean, somebody asked me the other day, ‘So when are you going to start evicting people?’ We’re not evicting people, we haven’t evicted anyone,” Feeley said.
He described efforts to work with people to find alternative housing, whether through PHA or other avenues. “If they have to make appointments, we help make that happen,” Feeley said. “We pay for the cost of transportation there and that sort of thing. And then we also will cover all moving costs.”
Many UC Townhome residents have lived their whole lives at the complex and raised families there, with kids at nearby schools. Several of them are elderly, and the situation is causing them heightened anxiety that has even led to more doctor’s visits, according to coalition organizer Alexander.
Her hope is that instead of destroying the existing building, someone will buy it and keep it going.
“I just think that they should just allow the property to stay as is,” Alexander said. “Just switch the contract over to another developer who’s willing to keep the low-income to moderate-income rate.”