Since April 22, through the erratic sunshine and downpours of spring, Jennifer Bennetch and Fredo Trice have been sleeping outside the new Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters on Ridge Avenue in Sharswood.
To the right of PHA’s front doors, they have set up mattresses, lawn chairs, and blue tarps. Signs are tied to stakes planted in the small patches of soil around skinny trees: “PHA DISPLACES RESIDENTS,” one reads. “Please share your PHA horror stories!" reads another.
Throughout the day, a small group of others join the crew — PHA tenants, mothers living in shelters who are looking for permanent housing, supporters from the Philadelphia Tenants Union and the Philadelphia Democratic Socialist Feminist Working Group. Sometimes, Bennetch’s two young children are at her side.
This is #OccupyPHA.
Following the national #OccupyICE movement last summer, in which protesters called for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in 2011, Bennetch, 33, a North Philadelphia activist who owns a home near PHA housing and is known to some as Nadera Hood, says protesters won’t leave until their demands are met. It comes at a time of increased protest across the United States, as more people feel compelled to express discontent.
The occupation’s demands are sprawling, encompassing housing, PHA Police, and operations. Yet most important, the protesters say, is that PHA must be more responsive to Philadelphians and its residents.
For the last two years, Bennetch has been attending PHA’s board meetings, and she said she is increasingly dissatisfied with what feels like residents’ inability to get answers to their concerns. Among other issues, she said, she has questions about PHA’s progress in Sharswood, the North Philadelphia neighborhood that the agency is rebuilding to help stave off gentrification.
An ambitious plan to redevelop Sharswood
The genesis of PHA’s 10-year, $500 million plan to transform Sharswood was in 2016, when PHA imploded the notorious Norman Blumberg Apartments, three high-rises and a cluster of low-rise buildings that had long been a symbol of the area’s deep poverty and crime.
“No child should live under the conditions I saw at Blumberg,” PHA President Kelvin A. Jeremiah said in 2016, citing his visit to the complex, where he said an armed man in the courtyard told him to get out. One year after the towers fell, federal prosecutors issued charges against a million-dollar-a-year drug operation that gripped the campus.
The demolition of high-rise public housing towers has found national support, including at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has awarded municipalities grants to demolish public-housing towers to build lower-density, mixed-income neighborhoods instead. Jeremiah’s plan for Sharswood has been regarded as more ambitious than most.
The Sharswood Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan, as the project is called, seeks to revitalize the neighborhood — which stretches from 19th to 27th Streets and Girard to Cecil B. Moore Avenues — by constructing 1,200 homes, revitalizing the Ridge Avenue commercial corridor, reopening schools, and bringing in more businesses.
To achieve that, PHA used eminent domain to acquire nearly 1,300 properties for redevelopment — a move that faced criticism for relocating the residents of more than 70 houses. #OccupyPHA has questioned the status of the seized properties and why many of them appear to still be vacant.
Jeremiah acknowledged that PHA “started out boldly.” The neighborhood, he said, “cried for something to be done.”
Which is why, Jeremiah said, PHA moved swiftly to acquire the private and public parcels — many of which he said were vacant, tax delinquent, or city-owned. Had PHA not intervened, Jeremiah said, "we would not have been able to maintain affordability in an area where we … had, frankly, responsibility to address the circumstances that families here found themselves in.”
Jeremiah defended the agency’s track record and said the protesters were wrong. He met with Bennetch on Monday to discuss her concerns.
“I think they do not have the information that they can reasonably rely on to make the determinations that they have made,” Jeremiah said before the meeting.
In roughly three years, he said, PHA has completed 57 single-family homes as rental units and finished the redevelopment of the one Blumberg tower that was left standing, which will house seniors in 94 units. PHA’s $45 million headquarters on Ridge Avenue recently opened. And the authorityhelped launch the Vaux Big Picture High School in the neighborhood, Jeremiah said.
In the months ahead, 87 new single-family homes will open on the old Blumberg campus, Jeremiah said, and plans are in the works for 20 affordable houses for purchase through a Habitat for Humanity partnership. Other partnerships, including with the Michaels Organization, Pennrose, and Hunt Cos., will yield hundreds of new affordable housing units, too.
All residents who were part of the Blumberg development have the right to return, Jeremiah said. Those who were displaced or whose properties were seized were compensated, a spokesperson said.
Still, vacant lots and blighted houses owned by PHA dot Sharswood’s landscape, though Jeremiah said development will sprout as the agency continues its work. He said PHA’s progress is reliant on annual funding, which has been pressured by an increasingly dubious federal funding landscape and competition for subsidies.
“This plan … it’s comprehensive, and it tries to address education, economic empowerment opportunities for families who could be living and working in this neighborhood, and it provides high-quality housing that anyone could be proud of,” Jeremiah said. “Change doesn’t happen overnight.”
‘We’re in a crisis’
Because the occupation is located steps from PHA headquarters, it has drawn in folks who have come to the building with questions and concerns.
That includes Antoinette Miller, a disabled 60-year-old grandmother who’s been on the waiting list for PHA housing since 2008. Every year, PHA sends her a form to fill out to confirm she’s still interested in housing. This year, she alleges, she didn’t get it. She had come to PHA to make sure she was still on the list.
And Larry London, a 27-year-old father, who received a Section 8 voucher and found an apartment to live in, yet, he says, he has been waiting a month for PHA to inspect it. London, an amputee, was worried his voucher would expire, and he wouldn’t have a place to take his son. (A PHA spokesperson said the reason for the delay was because London had chosen an apartment that someone else was already living in but that the apartment just passed inspection this week.)
The protest speaks to a larger crisis in Philadelphia amid the largest development boom in the city’s history. Even as the city continues to see wealthier residents move in, thousands of Philadelphians still face housing insecurity — in 2017, for example, one in 14 renters had eviction notices filed against them. Legislators have tried to take on the problem with laws protecting renters, but building owners and landlord associations have fought them, arguing the regulations are burdensome.
According to Community Legal Services housing attorney Rasheedah Phillips, displacement concerns are real in Sharswood, in part because of how quickly Brewerytown, Francisville, and Cecil B. Moore neighborhoods have been gentrifying around it. PHA’s redevelopment plan has been billed as mixed-income — Jeremiah said 80 percent of units will be affordable housing units and 20 percent will be market-rate. Phillips, a Brewerytown resident who has collected oral histories of Sharswood residents, fears that “the fabric of the community is going to shift dramatically.”
“These protesters,” Phillips said, “their mind is in the right place."
“We’re in a crisis," she continued. "We need to understand the longer-term impacts and what everybody’s role is.”