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At University City Townhomes, officers dismantle encampment as residents protest

As officers dismantled tents that had been set up on the lawn of the affordable housing complex at 40th and Market Streets, demonstrators chanted: “Housing is a human right.”

Sheriff’s officers cleared out an encampment at University City Townhomes on Monday morning, as West Philadelphia residents and supporters protested the displacement of 69 households from the complex, which is being sold.

As the officers dismantled tents that had been set up on the lawn of the affordable housing complex at 40th and Market Streets, up to 100 demonstrators chanted: “Housing is a human right.”

The encampment of about 15 tents, set up in early July, was a demonstration against the residents’ loss of housing. IBID Associates LP, the owner of the townhomes, announced plans last year to end its federal affordable housing contract and sell the property it purchased more than 40 years ago.

The sale means displacement for its predominantly Black and Latino residents, who received one year’s notice and have until Sept. 7 to move using housing vouchers. Some are still trying to find a place to live.

The residents, along with other West Philadelphians and housing activists, have vehemently protested the plan, calling on the city to purchase the complex. The property is for sale but has not yet been sold; a spokesperson for IBID said he could not provide any updates.

The tenants and supporters forming the encampment were ordered by a judge to leave by Monday morning. About 20 sheriff’s officers and other law enforcement personnel arrived at 9 a.m. — as the crowd shouted, “Shame on you!” — and took down the tents in a little more than 15 minutes.

Longtime UC Townhomes resident Sheldon Davids shook his head at the empty lawn after the clearing was complete.

“They have torn down a powerful expression of solidarity,” he said.

» READ MORE: Owner of West Philly subsidized townhouses plans to sell, displacing dozens of families. It’s an example of the vulnerability of affordable housing.

During the clearing, two altercations took place between police, who appeared to push demonstrators, and the protesters. Philadelphia Police Department officers did not make any arrests or issue any citations, a department spokesperson said.

Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Teresa Lundy confirmed one person who got into a “physical brush” with officers was issued a citation for disorderly conduct.

Residents said they were protesting to protect their quality of life.

“We’re going to stand in solidarity. This is our home,” said Maria Lyles, who has lived at the townhomes for 25 years.

The townhomes were built after mostly Black residents were displaced from the area that is now University City in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the city razed the neighborhood known as Black Bottom. The development was meant to be part of a city commitment to low-income housing in West Philadelphia, and its demise highlights issues of affordable housing, racial justice, and gentrification — displacing low-income residents of color who say it’s difficult to find comparable housing elsewhere.

Residents also don’t want to leave their neighborhood, where their lives are rooted. Moving can mean changing jobs, schools, services, and commutes, and losing support or professional networks.

At a Friday court hearing, a lawyer for IBID, the property owners, said the people in the encampment were trespassing. After the ruling by Common Pleas Court Judge Joshua Roberts, the property owners said in a statement that they “respect people’s right to protest” but that those in the encampment have “no legal right” to be on the private property.

After the clearing, a spokesperson for IBID said in a statement: “The owners appreciate the work of the Sheriff’s personnel and the Philadelphia Police Department who completed this task under difficult conditions.”

The owners are covering the costs of relocation for residents who seek assistance. But many residents worry landlords won’t accept their Section 8 housing vouchers, which the federal government provides for affordable housing and began being distributed to the townhomes’ residents in June.

Rasheda Alexander, who has lived in the townhomes since 2008, said residents felt set up for failure because so little adequate affordable housing is available. Amirah Brown, 59, agreed: The apartments she was shown as replacements, she said, sat on run-down blocks that felt unsafe.

“The places are horrible and look abandoned,” Brown said.

As the sheriff’s department came to carry out the judge’s order, Darlene Foreman, a member of the People’s Townhomes Residents Council, an encampment leadership group, led a chant calling on the city to purchase the property: “Stop the sale! Buy the block!”

Some residents also criticized City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who introduced a bill last fall to temporarily halt the demolition of the 70-unit property and rezone the block-sized tract of land to preserve affordable housing in the future. IBID sued in federal court, accusing Gauthier and the city of violating the company’s “constitutional right to sell the property.” Court records indicate Gauthier is no longer a defendant, but the West Philadelphia lawmaker said she could not discuss UC Townhomes because the lawsuit against the city remains ongoing.

An altercation occurred around 9:45 a.m. as officers were dismantling a fence made of wooden pallets that circled the encampment. As protesters tried to hold onto the last length of the fence they had built, a scuffle broke out.

As protesters shouted at the officers, “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?,” a couple of officers appeared to push a few demonstrators. An officer pulled one man back by the waist; a few moments later, an officer could be seen throwing the same man to the ground before handcuffing him. Officers led him away in handcuffs.

Lundy, the sheriff’s office spokesperson, said the single person who was cited for disorderly conduct allegedly assaulted a sheriff’s deputy.

Another altercation happened earlier, when a protester was pushed back by a bicycle police officer. Another demonstrator then locked bikes with the officer. They separated their bikes, and the officer then used his to push at the crowd.

» READ MORE: Judge orders University City Townhomes encampment to vacate property

Philadelphia Sheriff Rochelle Bilal said that her officers were simply doing their jobs in dismantling the protesters’ encampment.

“They should understand they’re all trespassing. And our job as the arm of the courts is to enforce that court order. And that’s all we’re doing,” Bilal said. “We are not judging them. We feel for them as far as what’s going on. But we have to do our job.”

In a statement on behalf of Bilal’s office later, Lundy said the lack of affordable houses was “an important issue that needs to be addressed by the legislative and executive branches,” saying Bilal was sympathetic to displacement issues and “keeping people in their homes.”

The crowd marched on Market Street before heading back to the townhomes.

“What do we want?” shouted a woman with a megaphone as they marched. “Housing!” the residents shouted back.

Wearing T-shirts that read “Stop displacing Black communities,” the protesters also stopped in front of the president’s house of the University of Pennsylvania, which had a role in forcing out Black residents when the university expanded more than 50 years ago. Some Penn students and staff had previously called on the university to try to help stop the sale.

By noon, the protest over, some people returned to UC Townhomes to play music and string their protest signs back up between the trees.

With the Sept. 7 move-out deadline looming and many tenants still searching for housing, they said they would continue organizing and lobbying.

“They came and they got the tents, but the tents were symbolic,” said Alexander. “We are not the tents, and it doesn’t stop our voices. And we’re going to continue to fight.”

Staff videographer Jenna Miller contributed to this article.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at