Philadelphia Activists Fight for Housing—and Win | #students | #parents

After months of protest encampments and housing takeovers, tenant activists have reached a landmark, if tentative, agreement with the city of Philadelphia. 

For the unhoused people who are self-organizing the camps, and the activists mobilizing community support, the connection between racial and housing justice is anything but incidental. 

Two protest camps had sprung up while unhoused people moved into vacant properties owned by the huge Philadelphia Housing Authority, Pennsylvania’s largest landlord. Critics say the PHA, a public housing provider, has boosted gentrification by selling some lots to private investors while keeping others vacant for years, despite a ballooning houselessness crisis in the city. 

The agreement calls on the city to transfer fifty vacant homes out of PHA ownership into a community land trust, a land-use model where tenants may buy and sell homes on land that remains controlled by a nonprofit land trust. Homeowners can build equity, but the retention of land rights by the trust allows affordable housing to remain affordable in perpetuity. 

Community land trusts have appeared across the country in response to an overwhelming demand for affordable housing. They are designed to be community-controlled, non-governmental organizations—as opposed to public housing provided by authorities like the PHA, which isn’t actually controlled by its tenants. The Philadelphia Housing Authority even has its own law enforcement branch to police these properties. 

While community land trusts are supposed to give their occupants a far greater voice and a stake in decision-making, some have fallen prey to bureaucratization. The culprit, says Olivia R. Williams in a recent article in Jacobin, is that “many organizations find their goals totally transformed to meet the goals of their funders . . . .”

A Philadelphia community land trust would be less beholden to funder interests since these fifty initial houses wouldn’t be acquired from a wealthy donor or grant money but from grassroots organizing itself. A similar approach was used in the Silicon Valley city of San José, California, where a campaign against a proposed Google campus demanded that the company instead donate the land to a trust.

In arriving at the new agreement, the city of Philadelphia’s hand was forced by two large encampments: Jam, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and Camp Teddy, directly across from the PHA’s headquarters. These camps came together after militant Black Lives Matter protests breathed new life into political organizing in the city.  

“We’re talking about Black disabled people, we’re talking about Black drug users, we’re talking about Black sex workers, and we’re talking about Black women,” Sterling Johnson of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative told The Intercept.

Philadelphia had some of the highest rates of Black displacement.

For the unhoused people who are self-organizing the camps, and the activists mobilizing community support, the connection between racial and housing justice is anything but incidental. 

Though some trace these housing fights back to the squatters’ movement of the 1980s, the connection between Black liberation and community land trusts in particular actually goes back much further to 1969, when New Communities Inc. was founded in Georgia by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. 

The committee’s mission was to provide permanently affordable land to Black farmers, whose support of the civil rights movement made them targets for eviction by their white landlords. New Communities held 5,735 acres as a farm collective, until discriminatory lending practices following a 1985 drought starved the project of emergency funds that white applicants continued to receive. 

After New Communities closed, co-founder Shirley Sherrod went on to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Georgia office. She made headlines in 2010 when she was terminated after rightwing outlets circulated a video of her that was deceptively edited to give the appearance she was prejudiced against poor white farmers. 

The Department of Agriculture later acknowledged its error in firing Sherrod. Moreover, in 2018 New Communities secured a $13 million settlement from the USDA for the racist lending practices that led to its demise back in 1985. This settlement allowed New Communities and its partners to begin rebuilding, purchasing a 1,600-acre pecan farm in 2011. 

“This land was owned by the largest slaveholder in Georgia,” the sign on the farm’s gate reads, “and is now owned by the descendants of slaves.” 

In 1964, five years before New Communities was established, Malcolm X said, “Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” 

Racial disparities in land ownership are a key factor in white American families having almost ten times the average net worth of Black families—in 2016: $171,000 versus $17,150. In fact, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, “the ratio of white family wealth to Black family wealth is higher today than at the start of the century.” 

While New Communities residents were first displaced because of political activism, the drivers of racial displacement today are less direct but more pervasive. Rising housing costs have radically transformed the racial, economic, and cultural landscapes of major American cities, with Black and brown people often the first to be priced out. 

A study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that Philadelphia was one of seven cities that collectively account for nearly half of the gentrification in the entire nation. Out of these, Philadelphia had some of the highest rates of Black displacement. 

Gentrification also corresponds to the police violence that sparked recent protests. Henry-Louis Taylor Jr., of the University of Buffalo Center for Urban Studies, has pointed out that gentrifying neighborhoods—such as the one Breonna Taylor lived in when she was murdered by police in Louisville, Kentucky—are “not only sites of economic restructuring but also the locations of aggressive policing.” Taylor’s family, for example, has publicly claimed that the raid in which she was killed was motivated by a desire “to clear out a street for a large real estate development project.” 

This past summer has seen massive unrest around anti-Blackness and policing as a looming eviction crisis threatens thousands of tenants—highlighting the connections between the two, as the unhoused organizers on the frontlines in Philadelphia have, lays the groundwork for taking new steps in a strategy generations in the making.

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