A lot of ink has been spilled over the past months about the housing protest encampments in Philadelphia, yet the main goals of the protest remain largely obscured.
Philadelphia Housing Action, the coalition that initiated the encampment protest with unhoused activists, is seeking immediate and emergency action from the city government to provide permanent housing options for Philadelphia’s extremely low-income residents. On Monday, following months-long negotiations and a recent court order, members of the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway received notice that they must officially vacate the area by 9 a.m. Sept. 9.
Long before starting the encampments, we quietly supported unhoused families moving into vacant Philadelphia Housing Authority and other city-owned properties. There are currently more than 50 people housed as a result of our efforts in more than a dozen houses. Apart from assisting these families, we wanted to prove that our idea of using publicly owned vacant property is realistic and actionable within a short time frame.
Our primary demand since the beginning of the encampment protests has been the transfer of these vacant publicly owned properties into a community land trust that would be used exclusively for extremely low-income housing. Philadelphia possesses thousands of vacant, boarded-up, publicly owned residential properties, the majority of which are owned by the PHA, but many of which are also owned under the City of Philadelphia, the Land Bank, the Redevelopment Authority, and the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation. These properties have sat empty for years and are ultimately destined to be sold off for market-rate development.
The PHA has an annual operating budget of approximately $400 million to provide low-income housing, among other things. It is Pennsylvania’s largest landlord, housing more than 89,000 tenants. However, there are currently more than 40,000 individuals and families who remain on a PHA waiting list that has been closed to applicants since April 15, 2013. The fact that thousands of vacant, boarded-up PHA properties can be found in every neighborhood across the city while the PHA engages in new market-rate construction is offensive. That it plans to ultimately sell these properties off at auction and contribute to gentrification and displacement of historically black and low-income neighborhoods is a slap in the face. Our proposal would be revenue-neutral to the city, ease a burden on the taxpayers, preserve Philadelphia’s low-income housing stock, and stabilize communities facing displacement by gentrification.
Under our proposal to transfer vacant city-owned properties to a community land trust, vacant properties would be disposed to a nonprofit entity that would repair them and then support the move-in of people who have extremely low ($25K or less) incomes. The community land trust model would preserve these properties to be used exclusively as low-income housing, forever. This type of housing has been vanishing at a rapid pace in Philadelphia, yet more than 1 in 4 of Philadelphia residents live at or below this income threshold. There are very few incentives for developers to build housing for poor people. As a result, many Philadelphians have been priced out of their historic neighborhoods with nowhere to go while luxury housing sprouts up everywhere. Our proposal would preserve the low-income housing stock and stabilize communities facing gentrification and displacement.
Our proposal would mark a serious investment by the city in alleviating the housing crisis as well as toward racial and economic justice. At a historic moment where we are likely headed into a long economic downturn and a looming mass eviction crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, we feel our proposal is timely and merits emergency action on the part of the Kenney administration.
We call on Philadelphia Housing Authority and the City of Philadelphia to immediately start the process to license these vacant, viable publicly owned properties to be used for low-income housing. This would resolve the issue of the protest encampments and allow the families occupying houses to remain in their homes. We ask that instead of unilaterally evicting the encampments by force, the city’s leaders work with us to safely transition people off the street and into stable permanent housing to the benefit of all Philadelphians.
Wiley Cunningham is a longtime Philadelphia resident, homeless advocate, and member of Philadelphia Housing Action. Jennifer Bennetch is a lifelong Philadelphia resident, founder of #OccupyPHA, and cofounder of Philadelphia Housing Action.