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Judge orders encampment at University City Townhomes to be dismantled Monday

"The encampment is trespassing on private property," the judge said.

Signs erected outside of the University City Townhomes in Phila., Pa. where an encampment and protest has been ordered to end.
Signs erected outside of the University City Townhomes in Phila., Pa. where an encampment and protest has been ordered to end.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

A judge has ordered that the protest encampment at University City Townhomes in West Philadelphia be cleared out by 9 a.m. Monday.

“The encampment is trespassing on private property and I have ordered it to be dismantled” by the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office, Common Pleas Court Judge Joshua Roberts said during a hearing held via Zoom on Thursday afternoon.

The encampment, a mix of tenants and supporters, was formed with around 15 tents and a border of wooden pallets on the sidewalk nearly a month ago in response to the efforts by IBID Associates, owners of the townhomes, to sell the property for redevelopment.

Calling the judge’s ruling “absurd b.s.,” townhomes resident Krystal Young, 28, said Thursday night that people of the encampment have decided they will resist any attempt to break it up.

“We are gonna stand up and defend ourselves,” she said, without elaborating.

Darlene Foreman, 60, a member of the People’s Townhomes Residents Council, an encampment leadership group, concurred with Young.

“We are gonna do what we need to do, the best way we can,” she said. Asked to explain, Foreman said: “I can’t give you all the secrets.”

The 2.7-acre affordable-housing complex sits at 40th and Market Streets. As many as 69 primarily Black and Hispanic families are set to be displaced.

On July 22, Roberts issued the original order saying the encampment would have to be disbanded.

News of the Monday clear-out didn’t surprise people at the encampment, who had expected this outcome.

That didn’t make the judge’s order any easier to accept.

“This process is turning us upside down,” said Foreman, one of two townhomes residents who spoke during the court proceeding. “We feel disrespected. We could wind up living in some of the tents.”

A statement from IBID last month called the encampment “an unfortunate and ill-advised decision.” Those who gathered there had “no legal right to assemble,” it said.

In an unusual back-and-forth during the hearing between Roberts and attorney Daniel McElhatton, who represents IBID, McElhatton referenced the clear-out, and strongly suggested to the judge that anyone refusing the order to vacate should be “taken into custody.”

“I’m not going to do that,” Roberts responded.

“How about putting them on a bus and sending them to Baltimore?” McElhatton said.

Roberts didn’t respond directly to the remark. But he said: “Everyone is going to be asked to leave. No one will be detained.”

McElhatton didn’t respond to requests for comment.

IBID has owned and operated the townhomes for 40 years.

In 1982, the federal government agreed to make housing-assistance payments to IBID in exchange for IBID’s development and leasing of dwelling units on the property at subsidized rents, according to court records.

Once the 20-year term expired in July, IBID had a choice to renew its contract with HUD or opt out of the housing-assistance program.

In statements and conversations, people participating in the protest encampment have said that they wish to remain in the fast-gentrifying neighborhood, and that they’d be uncomfortable if compelled to relocate to areas outside West Philadelphia.

Tenants will be given housing vouchers, but they fear landlords won’t take the vouchers and they won’t be able to find affordable housing because of an ongoing shortage.

The townhomes are in the Black Bottom neighborhood, a historically Black neighborhood.

The property has long been zoned for commercial mixed use, which allows for high-density commercial office, research and development, and residential uses, court records show.

“Unfortunately, the owners are entitled to sell the property or do with it as they wish,” said Dennis Culhane, professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and a national expert on homelessness.

“However, it’ll mean a net decline in low-income units.”

The program that the federal government used to offer favorable terms to IBID in exchange for making affordable housing available doesn’t exist in the same form that it did decades ago, Culhane said.

Because the government no longer makes these deals, there isn’t a pipeline of low-cost housing for people who need it.

“We have an affordable-housing shortage in this city,” Culhane noted.