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The conversation in Philadelphia about affordable housing goes beyond market forces and zoning restrictions.
Housing has been the focus of recent mayoral candidate forums and City Council campaigns, but advocates have been talking about it for years, examining how policies to address shifts in climate, population, and subsidization might make the landscape more equitable for all.
A group of local activists, organizers, attorneys, and nonprofit workers convened in mid-April at the Asian Arts Initiative in Chinatown to discuss progress, challenges, and new ideas in the field.
The meeting was part of Housing Futures Month, a month-long campaign by racial and economic equity research nonprofit PolicyLink to commemorate the Fair Housing Act, signed into law as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Housing is “one issue that touches everything,” per Rasheedah Phillips, PolicyLink’s director of housing, who said the issue needs to be examined as part of a systemic societal analysis, not solely figured into questions of wealth accumulation.
“Often, when we’re talking about housing we’re talking about closing the racial wealth gap, and doing these things that really don’t tie back to the structural issues that give us the system that we have today,” Phillips told Billy Penn.
Talk about “generational wealth,” particularly in Black communities, could be replaced with discussion of “intergenerational health and stability,” some at the event said. Others asserted that the essential American promise of homeownership as a safe pathway to social mobility deserves questioning.
For example, low-income homebuyers face a series of unforeseen expenses that can make it a “scam,” according to some attendees. And some trendy futurist development views don’t take everyone into account.
“YIMBYism … often leaves out that race-class narrative and focuses on production without thinking about things like housing discrimination,” Phillips said. “I’m sure it works for some people in terms of a solution to think about. But there’s so many other things that go into being able to have access to safe, healthy housing for yourself, for your family, in the long term.”
For those in the room, it was a welcome change of focus away from housing as something that bends to market forces, and towards imagining shelter as a right.
For Phillips, a longtime housing attorney, artist, and organizer, Housing Futures Month is the outgrowth of a prior experience — the creation of Community Futures Lab in North Philly. The space was formed in 2016, when the Brewerytown and Sharswood neighborhoods were facing “a lot of displacement and redevelopment,” per Phillips.
“We opened up a year-long space that was a hub for the community to come in and think about housing, talk about housing, talk about the futures of the community,” she said.
Conversations on homelessness, rent control, and transformative justice
Sitting, talking, and imagining is a goal of Housing Futures Month, and the campaign comes complete with a multimedia syllabus full of readings, film, and music to work through. This year’s gathering was the commemoration’s first official in-person event, and it was full of varied ideas, hopes, and visions.
Topics covered through the day included:
- Restorative and transformative justice, brought into the mix by Ras Stanford, of mental health co-op Deep Space Mind 215, and Jessie Keel, Project Coordinator of Philly Homes 4 Youth, which serves housing insecure youth.
The duo discussed youth homelessness, institutionalization, and disinvestment, relaying their own experience of these issues and their belief that a focus on neighborhood-wide wellness — of having mental health and material needs attended to whenever possible — and communication were key for better outcomes.
- What migrant, immigrant, and refugee communities in Philadelphia want to see in the affordable housing landscape, as recounted by Sarah Yeung of Sojourner Consulting, who twice gathered extensive feedback from these residents as part of Philly’s crafting of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule.
Yeung highlighted the “Latino homelessness paradox” — a phrase denoting how the city’s resources for the homeless consistently fail to reach housing insecure Latinos — and the importance of disaggregating data concerning racial groups by ethnicity, to capture housing-related and other disparities that exist within the broader categories.
- The activism surrounding the UC Townhomes, and the coming actions in response to the city’s settlement in a case involving the property’s owners. Organizer Sterling Johnson and UC Townhomes resident-organizers Rasheda Alexander and Crystal Young shared their thoughts on the matter just hours after the legal agreement was announced.
An agreement giving current residents a “right to return” to the site, once new affordable units are built, is among the ongoing demands of tenants.
- The history of and prospects for rent control in Philadelphia, which was raised by Karen Harvey and Michelle Crouch of the Philadelphia Rent Control Coalition.
Crouch and Harvey shared their personal experience and knowledge of housing insecurity and the WWII-era history of rent control in Philly, spoke about the three-year process that led up to the recent City Council hearing on rent control, and briefed attendees on the ongoing campaign for the policy measure.
- How fair housing has been pursued (or not) throughout Philly’s history, as discussed by Jenna Collins, a local housing lawyer with Community Legal Services.
Collins took the audience from the Great Migration and that era’s discriminatory housing policies through the establishment of non-discrimination measures in the 1951 Home Rule Charter, and on to the promises and failures of urban renewal, Hope VI’s increased privatization of public housing, and displacement in 21st century Philly.
‘Questions to ask on your way back to the future’
The event also centered art. Moor Mother, Phillips’s partner and an interdisciplinary artist, performed a 20-minute poem.
Accompanied by a Don Cherry-esque mix of trumpet and hand percussion, she shouted out Strawberry Mansion, examining the past’s imprint on the present, and envisioning the future.
“The future is a glacier melting, the future is a black hole, the future is coming home,” she invoked.
Phillips also produces Afrofuturist art with Moor Mother as Black Quantum Futurism, and their shared background produced some of the questions that grounded the Housing Futures event and syllabus, including:
- How can we decentralize wealth accumulation as one of the primary goals of housing policy?
- How do we decommodify housing as the foundation on which health is built and center it as a platform of health, culture, and community?
- How do we invoke Black, Brown, and Indigenous spatial and temporal imaginaries in envisioning and creating these new worlds and new futures?
That last question, about the “spatial and temporal imaginaries” of marginalized groups, could be read as buzzwords best kept in graduate seminars. But Phillips’s prior work as an attorney informs her writing on “weaponized time,” where she applies what might seem like abstract concepts to material realities throughout U.S. history.
As presenters at the event shared their day-to-day work, ruthlessly grounded in the reality of how housing is currently produced and consumed, new imaginings — not utopian, but not conventional — managed to seep through.
Attendees hope they help inform Philadelphia’s future, and plan to incorporate their neighbors and allies across the city to work to make it so.