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Why the University City Townhomes are really vanishing — and why it could happen again

A failed compromise plan offers a look at a looming problem that experts say will exacerbate the city’s affordable housing crisis and displace Black and brown residents.

Signs outside of the University City Townhomes, where an encampment and protests began because of the planned sale and redevelopment of the property, on July 21.
Signs outside of the University City Townhomes, where an encampment and protests began because of the planned sale and redevelopment of the property, on July 21.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

By the time Philadelphia sheriff’s officers arrived in the sweltering heat to dismantle the protest encampment outside University City Townhomes on Monday, it was already too late to save the families facing eviction.

IBID Associates, the partnership that owns the complex, announced plans last year to end its federal affordable housing contract and sell the property it bought four decades ago.

Although tenants received a year’s notice to move out, blowback was swift and fierce. City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier tried to intervene to save the complex — and was ultimately sued. A protest encampment erupted on the lawn in July. But in the end, the owner still plans to sell, and it’s not clear if tenants will be welcomed back to any future development on site.

» READ MORE: How thousands of affordable homes in Philly are threatened by expiring government subsidies

The saga is just one example of an issue that could play out at other longstanding affordable housing complexes in the next few years, as hundreds of other apartment units in Philadelphia also face expiring contracts. In the case of UC Townhomes, a failed compromise plan offers a look at a looming problem that experts say will exacerbate the city’s affordable housing crisis and displace Black and brown residents.

The owners approached Gauthier last year with a proposal for the building buyer to effectively replace some of the existing units and offer them back to current residents who wish to return to the neighborhood after construction, according to court documents, public statements, and people familiar with the situation.

Experts said such a deal would have been the best outcome of the myriad bad options for tenants.

“It’s not the same thing as having their homes saved, but having access to those same neighborhood amenities would really benefit them,” said Emily Dowdall, policy director for the Reinvestment Fund’s policy solutions group. “It’s going to be very difficult for anybody to find affordable units in that neighborhood now.”

But a deal was never reached — and the details remain hushed due to an ongoing lawsuit.

After negotiations fizzled, Gauthier introduced a controversial bill in March that would bar demolition on the land — a move that would effectively halt the sale to any buyer looking to build. IBID immediately sued the West Philly lawmaker and the city in federal court for “violating its constitutional right” to sell the property.

“The owners’ vision for 3900 Market has always included treating the residents with fairness and respect,” the owners wrote in a public statement after the lawsuit was filed in March, “and ownership has tried repeatedly to negotiate a compromise with the Councilmember that addresses her concerns about affordable housing — concerns that we share.”

Gauthier and the Townhomes ownership declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

» READ MORE: At University City Townhomes, officers dismantle encampment as residents protest

Consuela Astillero, who has lived in the UC Townhomes since they opened in 1982, said she hopes other building owners learn from the saga in University City if they plan to end their federal contracts and sell the building.

Some recommendations: Give more notice than a year’s notice. Provide compensation to residents. And welcome tenants back to the new homes at guaranteed affordable rates.

“You’re selling it for millions, so let’s be fair,” said Astillero, 61. “You’ve made millions on us.”

Thousands of other units could vanish in coming years

Some tenants blame IBID for trying to reap a profit at the expense of longtime tenants. Some blame Gauthier and the city for not doing more to save the site. But decades-old federal housing policy sealed the complex’s fate for good.

Section 8 project-based housing like the University City Townhomes was not designed to necessarily last forever.

In the 1960s, instead of investing in government-owned affordable housing, American policymakers began experimenting with public-private partnerships that would use time-restricted subsidies. By the 1980s, the vast majority of publicly backed housing was through programs like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and, as in the University City Townhomes case, project-based Section 8.

While the programs worked well in Philadelphia for many years, fixed-term contracts meant that large swaths of affordable housing stock could vanish every two or three decades, especially if real estate markets heated up and tempted owners to sell — which is exactly what happened in University City.

Tenants there likely won’t be the last Philadelphians who lose their homes because long ago federal policymakers decided against ensuring permanently affordable housing programs.

More than 3,400 units — roughly 10% of all federally subsidized housing units in Philadelphia — operate under similar contracts that are set to expire over the next decade, WHYY News reported last year.

“A lot of them still get renewed, but increasingly in Philadelphia and other cities they are located in areas that have really changed a lot in 30 years,” said Dowdall, from the Reinvestment Fund. “There are more to come.”

‘You can’t be afraid to take a stand’

The breakup process did not go well between IBID and University City Townhomes tenants.

When conversations began years ago, tenants and city officials asked IBID principal Brett Altman to extend the contract for another term, with no success.

Advocates later asked the city to buy the site from IBID. Officials said the city did not have the resources, according to court records.

Providing ample move-out notice and relocation for current tenants also became a flashpoint at the Townhomes, amplified by the protest encampment this summer.

While the owners are covering the costs of relocation, many residents said landlords who accept Section 8 housing vouchers are in short supply. Others said the replacements being offered were in unsafe, blighted neighborhoods — a far cry from the booming, relatively low-crime college hub where they live now.

“The places are horrible and look abandoned,” said Amirah Brown, a longtime resident.

» READ MORE: Opinion | I’m being evicted from University City Townhomes

For many, the loss of UC Townhomes is yet another attempt to displace Black and Latino residents to make room for a whiter, wealthier population. The neighborhood around the Townhomes was once known as the Black Bottom, a historically Black enclave that was subsumed as the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University expanded their reach.

With the ongoing lawsuit, the status of the sale and the proposed project remains unclear. But even if the buyer offers replacement housing at an affordable rate, some expect few will come back after several years.

“The owner and his associates know that a lot of people were not really interested in leaving for a couple years and then coming back, because that’s a lot of work,” said Astillero, the 40-year tenant.

IBID maintains that it has gone “well beyond its legal obligations.” The first meetings with lawmakers to discuss ending the contract occurred in 2019, according to the lawsuit. IBID said it also sought a buyer that would agree to community input, and preserve some affordable housing — though residents doubted that commitment from the get-go.

“None of that was going to be affordable for us,” said Melvin Hairston, a 29-year resident at the Townhomes. “Their terms of ‘affordable’ are way different.”

It’s also unclear why Gauthier refused the initial offers for replacement housing on the site.

“Now, no one is winning here,” said Mo Rushdy, a developer with RiverWards Group who isn’t involved in the Townhomes deal but argued that stalled development holds back the city’s economic growth. “If the intent here were to find a solution, we could have found one a while back.”

As tenants at University City Townhomes look for new housing options, they hope others in federally subsidized housing units can begin lobbying their landlords well before the contracts expire.

“You can’t be afraid to take a stand before it actually hits,” said Hairston. “Don’t be blindsided like we were.”