Jennifer Bennetch, whose monthslong encampment protests garnered a landmark land trust deal with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, died Thursday of COVID-19 complications. She was 36.
“In a very real way, she created a movement,” said fellow housing activist Ruth Birchett, who mentored Ms. Bennetch.
A turning point in Ms. Bennetch’s life would come in 2016 when PHA police approached her North Philadelphia home regarding a dispute with neighbors who lived on PHA property. Ms. Bennetch was appalled to learn such a police force existed.
The experience got Ms. Bennetch learning more about PHA’s operations and talking with its tenants. She became a regular presence at PHA Board of Commissioners’ meetings and became engrossed by affordable housing issues, which further fueled a passion for law. She would go on to take classes at Community College of Philadelphia to become a paralegal.
Ms. Bennetch’s concerns would quickly extend beyond PHA police to transparency and accountability at the agency.
In April 2019, Ms. Bennetch asked good friend Fredo Trice if he would be open to camping out in front of PHA headquarters. She brought it up casually, he said, embodying a playfulness she often brought to her activism. They took a baby mattress to Ridge Avenue in Sharswood, tossed a football, and shared a meal. That day would kick off a monthslong protest that would become Occupy PHA.
“She was very supportive, very ambitious, very caring,” said Trice. “She never made a decision without talking to other people who are involved in that situation.”
Among her demands, Ms. Bennetch called for PHA police to have more distinguishable uniforms and vehicles. PHA would address the latter in December 2019, changing the signage to make the vehicles more distinct.
As the pandemic limited the number of people who could be admitted into homeless shelters, Ms. Bennetch told others she had to act. She helped move homeless families into more than 10 vacant homes owned by PHA.
She also helped lead three homeless encampments in 2020 — one encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway lasted months and hosted as many as 150 people.
Ignoring multiple eviction notices, Ms. Bennetch set out to find long-term housing options for all encampment residents, temporarily blocking the development of a $52 million housing complex slated for Sharswood in the process.
PHA and the city would strike a deal with activists, which included added protections to PHA residents and expansion of homeless services.
Bigger still was the creation of the Philadelphia Community Land Trust, which would be run by activists. PHA promised to transfer 50 properties — a part of the deal still in the works.
In December, formerly homeless families were able to move into two of several rehabilitated North Philadelphia homes, a separate transfer into the land trust.
“None of this would have been possible without the steadfast commitment of Ms. Bennetch and her team to establish an entity to serve others,” said PHA president and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah, who was often the target of Ms. Bennetch’s protests but would become a close collaborator, according to friends.
“She has left the city a great legacy,” he said in a statement. “Know that her fight and her commitment will remain within PHA.”
On Friday, Council members and activists shared their condolences online, thanking Ms. Bennetch for bringing attention to Philadelphia’s housing crisis.
Born Dec. 13, 1985, Ms. Bennetch grew up in Middletown, Del., with her brother, Joseph, and parents until she moved to Philadelphia in her late teens. Friends said Ms. Bennetch regaled them with stories about being the only girl on a football team and a love of playing baseball in her youth.
Her three children were her life, said Cole Bennetch, 18, the oldest. She would often include her children in her activism.
“She taught me more than anyone else could, from activism to being a human being, to living, she just taught me a lot,” Cole Bennetch said.
When she wasn’t organizing, Ms. Bennetch enjoyed gardening and hosting arts and craft activities in the lot next to her house.
According to family, Ms. Bennetch had been ill since the fall, experiencing gastrointestinal issues, which slowed her activism but didn’t stop her. Then COVID-19 hit.
In addition to her brother and son, Ms. Bennetch is survived by another son, Yusuf Williams-Bey, and a daughter, Nafisa Williams-Bey.
The family has not set a date for nondenominational services.