Craig R. Carnaroli | University response to sale of UC Townhomes

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The Department of Housing and Urban Development headquarters in Washington, DC (Photo by HUD)

It is heartbreaking to see long-time residents being evicted from their affordable rental homes in the University Town townhouses.

Townhouse residents who have, for decades, lived in their homes are now being forced to move and find new residences. Some residents, as well as some Penn faculty, students, and staff, are disillusioned with these events and have demonstrated this through numerous protests to raise awareness of the plight of people living in townhouses. And on a few occasions, these protests have been directed against the University. As a bordering neighbor of the Townhomes, we share these sentiments. Indeed, the current circumstances evoke great frustration and sympathy.

Yet, while open expressions on the Penn campus are praised, such expressions must ensure that they are truthfully informed and are not carried out at the expense of other members of the community. The administration believes that the Penn community should have transparency about the situation and Penn’s role in it — starting with some clarification.

Penn does not own the UC Townhomes property and has no influence over its redevelopment

IBID Associates, a private real estate development partnership not affiliated with Penn, owns UC Townhomes. Altman Management Company operates the townhouses.

In 1982, IBID purchased the land from the City of Philadelphia for the purpose of building affordable housing, eventually building the UC townhouses we know today. IBID has contracted with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to accept Section 8 vouchers, a government program to help low-income families obtain housing in the private market.

In 2021, IBID announced that it would exercise its legal right not to renew its contract with HUD – giving townhouse residents a year’s notice to move out. Following IBID’s announcement of the sale and redevelopment of the Townhomes site, which included the replacement of existing units, the Philadelphia City Council passed an ordinance in the spring of 2022, rezoning the property to allow only one low-density residential use, with some modest retail. Previous zoning allowed for a dense mix of commercial and residential uses, consistent with the Citywide Vision 2035 of the City of Philadelphia.

In response, IBID filed a federal lawsuit claiming the rezoning violated their property rights. Continuing legal proceedings create ongoing uncertainty about the future use of the land, which is a significant deterrent to purchase or redevelopment.

No Townhome resident engaged in the relocation process will be evicted

The move is reasonably causing a great deal of pain and anxiety to many Townhome residents. Beyond the stress of moving and the disruption of one’s life, there are the worries of leaving a community that has been their home. Following IBID’s announcement to sell the property, Penn took action to defend the residents with IBID and the city.

Penn representatives met directly with Townhomes residents. After hearing concerns about lack of communication and information, Penn spoke directly to IBID about the importance of treating Townhomes residents with respect. IBID shared that they have engaged a third-party service to work directly with residents to help identify alternative housing choices and pay for residents’ relocation expenses, including security deposits, packing and transportation.

IBID also shared with us that to date, 65 of the current 67 Townhome households have accepted a voucher for alternative housing and resettlement assistance. As of September 20, 2022, more than 30 of 65 households are in the process of moving out, and IBID, in conjunction with the Philadelphia Housing Authority and HUD, has continued to extend its deadline for residents to vacate Townhomes so that every willing resident is relocated. at another affordable housing site in Philadelphia before its new Dec. 27 deadline.

IBID has assured us that no resident will be evicted, provided they actively engage resettlement assistance and use their housing voucher.

Affordable housing is a complex and much larger issue

What is happening in the Townhomes is emblematic of a long and tangled history that is a microcosm of city, state, and federal action and inaction on affordable housing. What is the role of a university in the current situation? While we recognize the complexity of the issue and know that progress requires government and private market players, we will also be among the parties working to increase the supply of quality affordable housing in West Philadelphia.

Currently, there is a shortage of quality affordable housing in Philadelphia. Housing experts report that Philadelphia could lose an additional 1,700 affordable homes by 2027, including several hundred units in West Philadelphia. This situation requires innovative partnerships between local, state, and federal government entities and an array of stakeholders, including Penn and other anchor institutions.

Penn’s Affordable Housing Efforts in West Philadelphia

This brings us to Penn’s ongoing housing-related efforts in West Philadelphia. Penn, through community partnerships and collaborations with federal and local governments, private and nonprofit developers, and affordable housing organizations, is helping to solve the problem in the following innovative ways.

We are pleased to announce that Penn is partnering with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, which revitalizes communities by bringing together volunteers, community partners and communities to transform vulnerable owner-occupied homes into safe, healthy and energy-efficient homes. It is important to help people, especially the elderly, with modest financial resources to stay in their homes in West Philadelphia. People with limited incomes are even more vulnerable to displacement when maintaining their homes becomes too expensive. We are in the process of finalizing an agreement with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia to provide four-year funding to help approximately 75 low-income homeowners in West Philadelphia.

We are also exploring other steps we can take to address this issue, including increasing the supply of affordable housing. Our faculty specializing in affordable housing and community development has a lot to contribute to this conversation. With that in mind, we asked the Penn Institute for Urban Research to convene them for an in-depth study that recommends actionable strategies on how Penn can support increased affordable housing using market-based solutions. One possibility is to work with others to attract and work with experienced developers who are in the business of creating affordable housing. We would be among the players – along with government agencies and others – to enable such projects by helping to fund these developments through low interest loans or long-term equity that could enable affordable projects in West Philadelphia to move forward.

PIUR would also explore best practices for university-community partnerships, including outreach to our West Philadelphia neighbors.

West Philadelphia is our home and we care deeply about the health and well-being of its residents. We want to engage with our neighbors and community partners to address current crises, effectively fulfilling the functions of a world-class university and locally anchored institution. As we have communicated directly to students and faculty activists, the administration remains open and engaged in productive dialogue on these important and complex issues.

Craig Carnaroli is the Senior Executive Vice President of the University of Pennsylvania.

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