Organizers of three homeless camps in Philly announced a victory Saturday, saying the city has tentatively agreed to turn over 50 vacant city-owned homes that activists plan to convert into affordable low-income housing.
The city had not officially announced - but did not deny - that an agreement was reached between the two sides this week after months of negotiations. But protest group Philadelphia Housing Action said that the city and Philadelphia Housing Authority are open to placing the homes into a community land trust managed by activists.
Activists also say the city conceded to allow 15 already occupied homes to remain occupied. PHA head Kelvin Jeremiah had called that practice unsafe and said many of the vacant homes were unlivable, requiring major work and federal funding that had not come through.
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Homeless mothers who were squatting in the homes told WHYY that many only needed minor repairs, and some still had the utilities connected.
If granted, the land trust would meet one key demand of the activists, who heavily criticized PHA for selling homes to developers who then flipped homes for profit. Meanwhile, a waitlist for people to get into affordable housing sits at around 40,000 after it was closed at 100,000 applicants in 2013. The activists wanted PHA to follow through on a commitment to give vacant homes to nonprofits that could redevelop them into livable housing.
In a statement Saturday evening, a spokesman for Mayor Jim Kenney said negotiations were still ongoing and that the agreement wouldn't be official until protesters agreed to disband the tent camps.
“The City remains in negotiation with the representatives of the protest camps, but many details remain to be worked out," a city spokesman said. "Any agreement will require a date certain by which the protest camps will be resolved.”
“There was already a major housing crisis in Philadelphia and we anticipate a wave of mass evictions on top of that due to COVID-19," Sterling Johnson, an organizer, said in a news release. "The scale of the housing crisis would require thousands of new units of low-income housing but we feel that with this agreement we can at least get started moving people off the street and into homes before winter. This is only the beginning.”
The camps, also referred to as encampments, first gathered homeless residents in June on the Von Colln baseball field along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Activists and homeless residents of the camps demanded "housing now," saying they were tired of city services that they felt could not permanently change their lives.
Over the summer, two other camps formed, one near the Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters and another behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The city negotiated with the activists for months, and regularly mentioned homeless shelter beds as an option. In rallies, activists had said they preferred the camp to shelters. But there was a mutual acknowledgment that the camps could not last forever - whether it would be due to the city removing residents by force, or residents moving inside as the weather gets colder.
“Not only has a group of poor and homeless organizers managed through direct action to win an agreement that will set a precedent for the entire country, but we have also forced the city to exercise its power of the Philadelphia Housing Authority and finally get them to give up these vacant homes that have been blighting our communities for decades," organizer Jennifer Bennetch said in a statement. "We will continue to pressure the city to transfer more houses to be designated as permanent low-income housing, stabilize our communities and combat the displacement caused by market rate development and gentrification.”
Another piece of the housing puzzle being considered is a "tiny house village" or villages that could shelter 25-50 people each. The project is still in the early stages and sites and funding have not been confirmed.