Negotiations at an ‘impasse’ between city and encampment leaders

A file photo from July 10 of the encampment at the intersection of 22nd Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Von Colln Memorial Field (Philadelphia Tribune photo by Michael D’Onofrio).

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — After months of negotiations Philadelphia officials and organizers of two pro-affordable housing encampments are no closer to striking a deal.

On Friday, organizers for the two encampments rejected offers from the Kenney administration and Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), accusing them of failing to offer immediate and viable affordable housing options for low-income and homeless individuals.

“We’re at an impasse,” said Sterling Johnson, a member of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative who helped form the encampments.

Liz Hersh, Philadelphia’s director of homeless services, put a positive spin on the development.

“We’re still hopeful we can reach an amicable resolution,” Hersh said. “The things we can do immediately, we’re doing.”

Protest organizers say they’re not budging from the camps — located on a baseball field along the Ben Franklin Parkway and on a vacant PHA-owned site in North Philadelphia — or a smattering of vacant PHA-owned homes, where at least 12 families are currently housed.

Jennifer Bennetch, founder of activist group Occupy PHA and a main organizer of the North Philadelphia encampment, accused city officials of pressuring them to disband the camps without solutions.

“Do you think humans disappear” once they leave the encampments? Bennetch asked. “It’s like they’re totally fine with all these people being homeless as long as they’re scattered around enough to be invisible.”

The Kenney administration has not set a date to evict those in either encampment, which is sure to roil residents living around the protests who have called for their removal. Mayor Jim Kenney had set a July 17 deadline to close the camps before backtracking.

The encampments are led by the Philadelphia Housing Action, a coalition of pro-affordable housing groups and other organizations.

While protesters have several demands, their primary goal is to have PHA to transfer scores of its long-vacant properties to a community land trust in order to create permanent and diverse low-income housing options, rather than sell the properties to private developers.

In an attempt to meet that demand, PHA President Kelvin Jeremiah said the housing authority this week kicked off a competitive program that will transfer more than 60 long-term vacant public housing sites to qualified nonprofits. PHA holds properties in trust for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which pays for the for the bulk of PHA’s $400 million budget.

Jeremiah expected PHA to begin transferring those properties through the Community Choice Registration Program by around Oct. 1 following public comment periods and application process. The selection process will be based on the resources, finances and proposals of applicants, Jeremiah said.

Yet Jeremiah conceded the program does not guarantee encampment leaders will receive any of those properties if they submit proposals. He also questioned whether protest organizers have the financial resources to rehabilitate those properties.

“There has to be a process, a legal, regulatory process that allows us to do what they are asking us to do,” Jeremiah said. “We do not on a whim transfer property to individuals or groups because they have demanded it.”

Bennetch believed the PHA’s registration program would take years to see results, leave out individuals with extremely low incomes, and not create permanent affordable housing. She also feared nonprofits with political connections would win out.

“It’s clearly not an answer to this immediate housing crisis and it’s likely going to go to one of their political cronies,” Bennetch said.

Sterling said the PHA’s Community Choice Registration Program was too slow and reiterated the need for a land trust that removes affordable housing options from the market altogether.

“We know that it’s a rather complex process and there’s no real promise of us being a part of it,” Sterling said.

“We can’t do things at the same speed that we’ve been doing previously but the administration continues to want to do it at that speed,” he added. “We need actual action. We need leadership. And they refuse to do that.”

The Kenney administration supports the creation of a community land trust to acquire and set aside publicly owned properties for nonprofits to create affordable housing, according to a commitment letter from the Kenney administration and PHA dated Thursday. But timelines and details remained unclear.

Hersh said the administration also is expected to issue a request for proposal (RFP) this month for the development of a so-called tiny house village by the year’s end. Another city RFP will offer between $5 and $10 million in new federal funding for rental assistance.

The city continues to offer employment, medical and social services to those at the encampments, as well as temporary housing options, which approximately 90 individuals from the camps have used, Hersh said.

Other commitments that the Kenney administration and PHA made with protest organizers included:

A moratorium on some of PHA’s property sales until the completion of independent study on the sales to be completed within nine months.

The creation of a PHA ombudsman to manage community complaints regarding vacant PHA-owned sites and to administer the Community Choice Registration Program.

A sanctioned encampment site elsewhere, which requires community backing.

As for the more than 12 families that protest organizers moved into vacant PHA-owned houses, Jeremiah did not rule out taking legal action against them or forcibly removing them.

“I cannot, in all candor, rule that out,” he said.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.