In June 2019, the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) auctioned off 144 vacant properties. The sale of these properties gave PHA $8.4 million. This wasn’t the first time the public housing giant auctioned off a large number of vacant properties. PHA’s first auction was in 2011, where 341 properties were sold for $6.1 million. Since then, every year has had large auctions of publicly-owned properties to private owners. Meanwhile, applicants wait almost 10 years for housing assistance if they can even get on the waitlist!
With 14,000 units and 80,000 tenants, PHA is the largest landlord in Pennsylvania. It’s average annual budget is $400 million. Part of its budget goes to capital projects like their brand new headquarters, its own police force (including a unit that “investigates complaints against tenants who violate the provisions of their contract”), and the salary of CEO Kelvin Jeremiah.
PHA was formed in 1937 in the wake of the Housing Act, one of the three major acts put forward by New Deal reformer Robert Wagner. The Act contains two parts: funding of “low-rent housing” as defined in the Act, and the “elimination” of substandard housing, “stimulation of business activity,” and “eradication of slums”. Part of the Act’s definition for “low-rent housing” was that a family’s income had to be less than five times combined rent and utilities.
Today, it would be a miracle for housing costs to be even close to that. Philadelphia is one of the poorest big cities in the country, with a steady poverty rate of 25%. In 2019, the median income was $46,000 while the median rent was nearly $20,000 annually. That’s nearly half of a family’s income on rent alone. In 2018, Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services counted over 16,000 unhoused people in the city (a low estimate). Someone who still has faith in HUD might think that public housing would increase in Philly. They’d be wrong. Since 1998, Philly’s public housing has declined by almost 40% — that’s about 5,600 units lost. This is partially due to gradually changes to HUD and local scandals. The move to Section 8 vouchers in the 1970’s and the implementation of HOPE VI in 1992 both led to an easing of public housing projects and an increase in private ownership. In other words, it led to less public housing and more aggressive displacement.
This is not new. This is the intended function of the Philadelphia Housing Authority and its partners in the city, state, federal governments. PHA works in close coordination with groups like the city-appointed Redevelopment Authority and City Planning Commission, financial institutions like Wells Fargo and Santander banks, and large business owners and private universities.
A History of Displacement
The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (RDA) was created in 1945. In 2000, its mission was stated as “to arrange for the elimination of blighted areas which are beyond the control of normal regulatory processes by acquiring such properties through the power of eminent domain granted it, planning redevelopment projects for them in conjunction with private firms, and aiding in financing them through the issuance of its own bonds.” After its merger into the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC) it softened its mission statement, but it functions the same as it always did.
This is a direct result of Pennsylvania Act 385 (“Urban Redevelopment Law”). Under the Act, counties can form agencies to seize private property through eminent domain if they’re deemed as “blighted” by the agency. The determination is based on seven broad criteria:
- Unsafe, unsanitary, inadequate, or overcrowded conditions
- Inadequate planning
- Excessive land coverage
- Lack of proper light, air, and open space
- Faulty street and lot layout
- Defective design and arrangement of buildings
- Economically and socially undesirable land uses
It’s important to situate this Act in the historical moment. Just 10 years before the Urban Redevelopment Law, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) created so-called “residential security maps.” These maps rated neighborhoods for mortgage and credit approval, and were explicitly racist. This process became known as redlining, since the HOLC maps would draw red lines around excluded Black neighborhoods. Disinvestment in redlined neighborhoods led to worsening conditions that would later be used against them. Along with economic disinvestment, these neighborhoods were subject to some of the worst police and white terror.
One of the first significant developments by the RDA was the transformation of majority Black neighborhood Black Bottom into the current University City. This started in 1948 when the RDA designated Black Bottom as a “redevelopment zone” – in other words, a target. In the plan for redevelopment, the historic neighborhood was divided into urban renewal areas 3, 4, and 5.
In 1959, major universities and hospitals in the area like University of Penn and Drexel, combined forces under the name of the West Philadelphia Corporation (WPC). The development was spearheaded by the RDA which seized the land under eminent domain. RDA used “poor conditions” and “crime” as reasons for the land grabs. This was especially used along the neighborhood’s main corridor along Market Street, zoned as Area 3.
Area 3 became a main site of struggle. Market Street at the time was the heart of Black Bottom and the main dividing point between University of Penn and Drexel. The redevelopment plan slated 20 acres of land for the development of the University City Science Center (UCSC), a joint project of the WPC. The developments were given more federal funding with the addition of Section 112 (1966) of the Fair Housing Act which “made funds generously available to cities whose redevelopment authorities would clear land for hospitals and universities.” This was a massive project in the main commercial corridor of the neighborhood, so the narrative had to be on the side of the WPC. The stretch of land was described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “20 devastated acres of rundown bars and garages and warehouses.” The neighborhood would disagree with that assessment of their homes. By 1968, supportive students and faculty joined with the residents to fight against violent displacement. Community members, the Students for a Democratic Society, and sympathetic faculty members held large demonstrations over the next two years, putting forward demands calling for transparency and community control of the UCSC construction. The 1969 sit-in led to the creation of the Quadripartite Commission, a concession by UPenn trustees giving some community and student input into the UCSC. This small victory delayed the process of land grabs and construction and allotted 112 affordable housing units in Area 3. Just by looking at West Philly today, we see that these small victories were not enough.
Society Hill suffered a similar fate. The neighborhood was one of the most historic Black communities, reaching back to the late 18th century with the Free African Society and historic Mother Bethel Church. Due to its existing community, Society Hill was a main destination during the Great Migration. However, Black people were still excluded from the economy and forced into low-paying manual labor and domestic work. Because of the economic conditions and white violence, the neighborhood suffered from poor housing conditions and crime. This was thoroughly documented by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Philadelphia Negro. But like Black Bottom and many neighborhoods today, these conditions are used as justification for developers to “fix the problem.” Crime and poverty do not mean a neighborhood is broken — it indicates that capitalism-imperialism will never serve the needs of the people, especially oppressed nations.
In 1948, the RDA also designated the historic Black neighborhood as a “redevelopment zone.” Just like in Black Bottom, the RDA used eminent domain to seize land which had been redlined for over a decade. In the case of Society Hill, Greater Philadelphia Movement (GPM) and its spawn the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation (OPDC) were the main forces of development. These two “civic organizations” were composed of the most powerful local business owners, who sought to profit off of gentrification and displacement of Black people. One of the strategies of the GPM was to publicize the violent displacement as a “renaissance” and emphasize the “slum conditions” of Society Hill. The historic Black neighborhood was demonized as a crime-ridden slum that needed to be cleared, despite its still thriving community. Du Bois presents a sharp analysis of the social conditions over 50 years before this:
In Philadelphia, as elsewhere in the United States, the existence of certain peculiar social problems affecting the Negro people are plainly manifest. Here is a large group of people— perhaps forty-five thousand, a city within a city—who do not form an integral part of the larger social group. This in itself is not altogether unusual; there are other unassimilated groups: Jews, Italians, even Americans ; and yet in the case of the Negroes the segregation is more conspicuous, more patent to the eye, and so intertwined with a long historic evolution, with peculiarly pressing social problems of poverty, ignorance, crime and labor, that the Negro problem far surpasses in scientific interest and social gravity, most of the other race or class questions.
The student of these questions must first ask, What is the real condition of this group of human beings of whom is it composed, what sub-groups and classes exist, what sort of individuals are being considered? Further, the student must clearly recognize that a complete study must ‘ not confine itself to the group, but must specially notice the environment; the physical environment of city, sections and houses, the far mightier social environment—the surrounding world of custom, wish, whim, and thought which envelops this group and powerfully influences its social development.
A major obstacle for OPDC was the Dock Street Market, a large commercial presence in the way of the plan for a residential redevelopment. One of the main wholesale markets in the city, it was bought for $17 million under direction of city planner Edmund Bacon. Bacon was instrumental in the planning of redevelopment by the City Planning Commission. The Dock Street Market would be demolished and replaced by the Society Hill Towers. Banks also played a role by beginning investments in gentrification projects. By the mid-60s, the redlined neighborhood had been “green-lined” by the HOLC. This allowed for developers to receive more loans to increase development. Although land seizure was the purpose of the Redevelopment Authority, the actual development was carried out by mostly private firms. The OPDC gradually started receiving seized property, starting with an initial portfolio of 190 properties in 1967. By 1976, at the completion of the gentrification, the City had spent $38.6 million on the project.
In the 1990s, public housing found itself in a strikingly similar situation. After displacing people during the middle of the century, Philadelphia’s housing projects were heavily segregated, policed, and neglected by PHA. Decades of disinvestment and over 200 members of a heavy-handed private police force continued the social and economic problems. Their violence does not stop. Towers were infrequently repaired, if at all, which contributed to their poor conditions. Segregated neighborhoods and systematic racism led to continued exclusion from the economy. Poverty remained widespread. In response HUD launched a new program, HOPE VI. Though it was branded as making needed investments to under-maintained housing projects, HOPE VI made it clear that the real purpose is a “deconcentration” of the poor — in other words, displacement.
The first targets of HOPE VI were multi-tower complexes. This process started off as violent displacement by the state. One of the first notable examples was in Chicago, another large city with a history of segregation and racist violence. In 1995, Cabrini Green houses were slated for demolition. In the first wave of displacement, residents were evicted by armed police to make way for the Housing Authority to demolish their homes. When they were eventually built back up, it was under a “mixed income community” model, meaning that available units were decreased and many long-time residents could not return. For two decades, people fought against their displacement and spoke up about the community that was called “the most notorious project complex.” In 2011, the last tower was demolished. Then in 2013, CHA allowed a Target to be built, demolishing homes for people for 75 minimum wage jobs and corporate profits.
The Land Grabs Continue
As Black Bottom and Society Hill were being gentrified, the Philadelphia Housing Authority began constructing public housing projects. Historically, public housing was created to house families of workers during WWII and enforced segregation. For example, Bartram Village was reserved for whites, Richard Allen Homes were built for Black families. Out of the nearly 12,000 homes built during this period, only 2,000 were built for Black people. In the 1950s, there was opposition to Wilson Park being an inter-racial project. As white flight and suburban development started, public housing was built in exclusively Black neighborhoods. But in 1965, PHA began moving to a “scattered site” housing model, where they bought vacant properties. They hired developers to renovate 50-100 at a time and retained ownership. In 1967, HUD provided PHA with the funding to purchase 5,000 homes. At the same time, PHA began to designate projects as “troubled” to qualify for funding as part of HUD’s “modernization program.” As projects were deemed “troubled”, they also experienced high rates of unemployment (at least 40% in the 1960s.) As the federal budget gradually implemented more programs like Section 8 vouchers and HOPE VI, the budget available and used for maintenance of PHA’s housing projects dwindled. Combined with an increase in police violence, especially under fascist police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo, the conditions of Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia were dire. By this time PHA owned tens of thousands of units, allowed them to crumble after decades of neglect, and enforced their will through their private police force. Land seized during this time, like Logan Triangle, sat vacant for over 25 years. In the minds of PHA and the City, these properties were ripe to be designated “blighted” and flipped.
Fast forward to 2015: the Philadelphia Housing Authority seized over 1,200 parcels of land in North Philly’s Sharswood neighborhood through eminent domain.
Just like the previous cases, this land grab had been in motion for many years. In 2013, PHA received a $50,000 Choice Neighborhoods planning grant from HUD. The next year, PHA received a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant to turn the neighborhood into a “functioning, sustainable, mixed-income community.” In this case, they received tens of millions of dollars to steal homes. The Sharswood neighborhood is caught between two gentrifying giants: Temple University and private “student housing” to the East and private development of Brewerytown to the West. It is very clear that PHA intends to help fill the gap between two developers and make some money along the way.
In eminent domain, the public agency must pay a fair price even though the sale is compulsory. When their homes were forcibly taken, Sharswood residents received far lower than the appraised value of their homes. Some were not paid the full amount they were told, others had to wait years before a payment was even made. Only 10% of the 800 parcels seized were paid for. Instead of paying for the rest of properties they seized, PHA put $3.8 million in escrow for future settlements. Meanwhile, seized properties sit vacant and 5 years later the neighborhood is more vacant. The long-standing Blumfield Towers were demolished in 2016. The only one remaining is the 97 unit senior tower, hardly renovated but back open in mid-2019. By that point, PHA had spent $150 million on the redevelopment project. That number includes their $45 million headquarters that was built on seized land. The lower floor of their headquarters has commercial space for private businesses to use. Across the street from their headquarters is the seized lot slated for a 200 car parking garage. That lot is the current site of Camp Teddy.
North Philadelphia is one of the most aggressively segregated and disinvested neighborhoods. In recent years, it’s also been the target of aggressive development from private developers building “student housing” and Temple University. However, it has also been a site of active struggle against development, including the fight against Temple’s notorious football stadium since 2015 and #OccupyPHA in 2019.
In October 2019, West Park Apartments were put up for sale. PHA claims that they cannot afford $50 million in repairs. But just a few months before, they sold 144 vacant properties for $8.4 million and opened their $45 million new headquarters. In her last days in office, Jannie Blackwell rezoned West Park to allow for denser, mixed-use development and increase profitability to the buyer. This comes as “student housing” and development from nearby universities creeps further west every year. The history of Black Bottom echoes into the present.
The City uses eminent domain so frequently, it seems like it can be used for anything. One of the key components of eminent domain is using seized property for public use. Since the Hahnemann University Hospital closed in July 2019. Since then, the building’s owner, Joel Freedman, has left the building sitting empty. In the middle of a pandemic, former Managing Director Brian Abernathy refused to consider seizing the property under eminent domain. Seizing and reopening a shuttered hospital may be one of the most genuine examples of public use. Especially when compared to seizing entire neighborhoods for private development.
In 2013, Kelvin Jeremiah was appointed President and CEO of PHA by the city after “flawed genius” Carl R. Greene was fired for sexual harassment cover-ups. After a weak attempt to distance themselves from scandals of “the Tiger Woods of public housing,” the same system is in place. They even kept all the familiar names. Asia Coney is Resident Commissioner despite the various scandals she was involved in. The new PHA headquarters has named its new boardroom in honor of former Councilwoman and PHA board member Jannie Blackwell, the lone vote of support for Greene. Blackwell is known for her liberal use of councilmanic prerogative. A leadership change has not and will not change the nature of PHA.
PHA claims that they can’t afford permanent housing. If the Housing Authority needs some more money, Kelvin Jeremiah can pitch in. In 2019, Jeremiah’s salary was over $300,000. He has been receiving a $20,000 raise every year since appointed President and CEO. This is well above the $166,500 federal salary cap. PHA also has the money for a $45 million brand new headquarters. They opened the new headquarters in January 2019 — the same year they made $8.4 million selling vacant properties to developers. If they couldn’t afford to maintain these properties, why were they seized? Why is PHA receiving grants to take housing from people? Meanwhile, PHA receives yet another $30 million Choice Housing grant for Sharswood in 2020. PHA cannot move beyond scandals because they’re a money-making racket enforced by their own corrupt private police force. Their very existence meant to displace people!
This graphic from PHDC Land Management (retrieved July 2020) marks vacant, city-owned properties for sale to private developers. Most, if not all of these properties were obtained by the RDA through eminent domain. The PHDC is the same agency whose board includes executives of private development companies like Francis Vargas of the Altman Group.
Compare this to the below graphic from the Reinvestment Fund’s 2019 study on eviction in Philadelphia. The eviction rate for Black tenants is 4 times greater than white tenants. It’s no surprise that again Black and Brown people are being displaced as their historically segregated and disinvested neighborhoods become “revitalized.” It’s no surprise that again the city is a key actor in displacement. It’s no surprise that again the “publicly-owned” properties are being sold to private developers so both PHA and developers profit.
PHA, PHDC, Project HOME, Habitat for Humanity – these groups form broad coalitions for projects to destroy neighborhoods, but in the next breath claim that they provide housing. They don’t. Just like Black Bottom and Society Hill, the city invests money in taking land, primarily from Black people, and selling it to the highest bidder. The partners in the destruction of Sharswood are the same historical coalition of city, police, private development, and finance capital. The cycle of disinvestment-displacement will continue like it always has unless we stop it!
The city’s gross negligence in providing safe and affordable housing leads to only one solution: people’s democratic control of housing and development. Philadelphia Housing Action puts forward a concrete solution. Two demands get to the heart of the issue.
1. The City must transfer ownership of Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (RDA), and Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC) vacant property to a permanent community land trust for permanent low income housing administered by local community control committees.
2. The City must put a moratorium against PHA, RDA or PHDC buying, acquiring, obtaining, trading, auctioning or selling off properties to private entities until all PHA waiting lists applicants have been housed and pending an independent study on the effects of mass sales and trade offs on communities and community members.
The Housing Authority did not negotiate; they only sent a 6-point response. They make their stance clear by starting their response with “PHA will follow an ejectment process for squatters.” They have no desire to house people! They would rather sell their properties and see people die on a 10-year waiting list. The closest they get to responding directly to the demands are these two points:
“PHA has agreed, where possible, to create affordable homeownership opportunities for some of the illegal squatters (working with appropriate City and community activists).” – PHA already sells their vacant properties, this is not a concession.
“PHA has agreed that we will work to transfer some of our vacant scattered sites to local CDCs or 501(c)(3)s who can turn these units into affordable housing opportunities (rental or homeowners) ie.[sic] a community land trust for some number of units.” – The organizations that PHA gives land to are the OPDCs of the 21st century.
In other words, PHA says they intend to continue doing the same thing they’ve been doing since their creation. The Philadelphia Housing Authority steals land, destroys neighborhoods, displaces people, and rakes in hundreds of of millions of tax dollars to do it. PHA must be defunded and disbanded!
The people will keep fighting against displacement. In Philly, unhoused people formed two large encampments and liberated a dozen vacant PHA buildings. These are not the actions of isolated individuals; it is a political struggle with a clear goal: permanent housing now. The City and PHA are attempting to violently evict residents every step of the way. We must defend the encampments and liberated homes at all costs! And we can’t stop there. All PHA property must be placed under direct community control!
Fight for genuine housing reform!