By Kelvin Lassiter – Policy Analyst
There’s a huge divide in America. Most believe that divide is either racial, economic, political or a combination of all three. They would be right. What about affordable housing? The heart of the matter lies in who is dominating the conversation regarding what’s affordable. The divide in the affordable housing conversation is racial, economical, and political. Let’s tackle income inequality, for starters, the federal minimum wage. Some would say our nation should explore provide universal basic income. Already underway and is a plus. See the pattern here? The individual, organization, or government entity directing the narrative determines what’s affordable and what’s not affordable. What income level is suitable and what is not. It was refreshing for a change to see the people determine what’s suitable regarding the recent events in Philadelphia, PA.
For years, the Philadelphia Housing Authority has ignored its most vulnerable citizens. Eligible housing units that the poor can qualify to live in sits empty. This is by design. Developers and housing investors stalk their prey with lobbying efforts to develop something called mixed income communities. America, that’s just a fancy way to disguise “gentrification”. On average, a larger number of poor people that leave their neighborhoods behind never return. Philadelphia is no different. Empty housing just occupies city space while over 40,000 people sit on a waiting list for public housing. This is a normal practice in America. Make the poor sit and wait. Developers, house flippers, and city governments leave out the people that need it most, well, not this time.
Lawyers, activists, and the unhoused seized on the opportunity to grab the attention of America with advocates that know something about grabbing attention; Black Lives Matter. It’s a marriage that ties housing and justice together. The people taking matters into their own hands may repair fractured relationships between housing authorities and the citizens they are supposed to serve. The journey started out with a simple demand; provide housing or we will take to next steps to provide housing for ourselves.
Well, of course, city hall did not listen, setting the stage for what would happen next. Close to 200 of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable people took over a park at 22nd and Ben Franklin Parkway in a neighborhood known for the lifestyle of the rich and famous. In this same time period, fifteen unoccupied housing authority homes became property of the people. The conditions may not have been ideal; however, it forced the housing authority to look at a much greater problem, humanity. Encampments were strategically set up in various parts of the city to force action.
After months of political posture, an agreement was reached. The city agreed to turn over 50 public housing units including the fifteen occupied during a citizen take over. These homes will be in a land trust meaning housing will be affordable for the poor and operated by the people. One of our sources who participated in the negotiations shared the following, something you may not hear with the national media:
Jobs are available through the trade union. Houses are being fixed up in North and West Philadelphia, and the formerly unhoused are welcome and will contribute to keeping the character of the neighborhood. While this is a landmark deal that will have implications nationwide, it comes with a set of challenges as well. The city council still continues the practice of political gamesmanship and owns a graveyard set up for housing policy. While it is much appreciated for the Philadelphia Housing Authority to grant 50 houses, it is still not enough for the estimated 6,000 plus unhoused people that remain in Philadelphia. Finally, the practice of encampment sweeps will continue in the midst of a global pandemic.
The fight for housing, which is a “human right”, has remained an issue since the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Discrimination has reached an all time high in punishing the poor just because they are poor. Will other housing authorities nationwide join Oakland, and Philadelphia using land trust models? Will the people have to take matters into their own hands or can we depend on housing authorities to do the right thing? Have we, or will we finally reach a moment of reconciliation in America? The jury is still out and has not yet reached a verdict.