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Racial Capitalism and the City of Brotherly Love

by Akira Drake Rodriguez and Prentiss Dantzler

July 24, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Long-running processes of displacement and dispossession in Black communities in Philadelphia have left residents vulnerable to economic and political exploitation, compounded by the impacts of climate change.

  • These vulnerabilities are both intersectional in nature (deepening across class, gender, and ability disparities), and multiplicative, creating exponential harms on the most disenfranchised and politically underrepresented groups.

  • Federal legislation that prioritizes front-line communities such as the Green New Deal for Public Housing can address multiple goals at once: constructing resilient, deeply affordable housing for dispossessed communities with unionized laborers who reside within the community.

The fight for just and resilient housing can only be understood through the political economy of racial capitalism and within the context of the intersectional crises of climate change, land dispossession, and austerity. In our paper, “Racial Capitalism and the City of Brotherly Love,” we examine how this fight lands at the University City Townhomes, a project-based Section 8 housing development built in the 1980s. The land for the development was purchased for $1, itself the result of a settlement between the City (and then-mayor Frank Rizzo’s administration) and the federal government for Rizzo’s discriminatory siting practices of subsidized housing in majority-Black communities. As urban renewal cleared Black households from the rapidly developing and expanding “University City” (home to the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the University Science Center, and Philadelphia University/University of the Sciences), the University City Townhomes remained a Black enclave and borderland between extractive universities and sites of Black dispossession. 


Dispossession and social/environmental vulnerability have always existed in Black communities. From plantations to maroons, and from ghettos to gentrified communities, Black households have been left to exist in areas bereft of capital and climate resilience - or the social, political, and economic ability for communities to cope and endure after major climate events. In Philadelphia, the segregated and redlined neighborhoods of Eastwick (located in southwest Philadelphia near its airport) and Gray’s Ferry (adjacent to a refinery that exploded after over a century of operation, poisoning groundwater, damaging air quality, and leaving residents vulnerable to respiratory and  skin conditions while increasing, cancer-causing health risks), have isolated Black communities in areas vulnerable to severe flooding and ongoing public health crises. In University City, where the Townhomes are sited in the once-majority Black West Philadelphia community, decades of urban renewal and gentrification have shifted the demographics (and thus the market value of properties) to create a minority of majority-Black neighborhoods that are vulnerable to intense displacement. Areas of relocation include the city’s many urban heat islands in North Philadelphia, homes located in the traditional hundred-year floodplain of Southwest Philadelphia, and older households in poor structural condition that lack resilience for a changing climate.


Beginning in the summer of 2021, following the announcement of the University City Townhomes’ owner (Brett Altman D/B/A IBID Associates) decision to not renew the contractual agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to keep the development subsidized and affordable under the project-based Section 8 program, residents began organizing in earnest with local activists and policymakers. Through careful coordination and research with an alliance of resident-organizers, students, and allies, residents fought to not only retain their right to stay put in the rapidly-developing and gentrifying community, but for the right of other developments with expiring subsidies to do the same. From disruptive direct actions at the Building Industry Association (BIA) annual fundraiser to a month-long encampment on the site of the UC Townhomes, organizers kept the plight of the seventy households on every political agenda. The movement gained national attention through press interviews and support from housing activists from Atlanta to Oakland. 


After two years of struggle on the frontlines with limited communication from the owners, the City of Philadelphia and IBID reached an agreement (without participation of the most active residents): each household with established residency as of July 2021 would receive a $50,000 settlement (before taxes, and after completing a paternalistic financial literacy course), assistance from the United Way of Philadelphia to find decent and suitable housing (in a city with limited affordable options for Housing Choice Voucher holders), and the redevelopment of 70 new units of affordable housing on a donated half-acre of the current site (which architects have found is not enough land for the scale of redevelopment, and the definition of affordable is still pegged to 60-80 percent of the metropolitan area median income, or between $55,000-$84,000 for a family of 4).  Residents condemned the settlement because of their exclusion from the negotiations and discussions, and the high minimum incomes required for the forecasted affordable housing units (median incomes for Black households in Philadelphia as of 2020 was about $39,000). They continued to point out that IBID and Altman stood to make nearly $100 million from the anticipated sale of their land, most likely to the University of Pennsylvania for lab and commercial retail space.  The settlement represents a classic case of racial capitalism – an extractive and exploitative shift of resources from those who are racialized as Black and working-poor to those who are racialized as white and affluent. 


Expiring housing subsidies in a once-affordable, majority-working class homeowner city like Philadelphia is an urgent issue that climate activists must be attuned to.  Philadelphia lies between two rivers, and has already experienced increased flooding events in recent years alongside increased heat events. With an aging population and housing stock, the ability to maintain safe and climate resilient housing is one that increasingly rests with its white, younger, more affluent population. Philadelphia City Council has recently introduced legislation that would force subsidized development owners to give 130 days notice from when they intend to end affordability for a property, and also allow the City and/or residents 45 days to bid on these properties before they are placed on the market for sale.  While this would address some of the asymmetrical information that contributes to the maintenance of  inequities  driving racial capitalism, it does nothing to address the increasing climate vulnerability of these subsidized properties, or the properties where housing choice voucher-holders are likely to be relocated. Policies like the Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez sponsored Green New Deal for Public Housing, however, do address these issues of vulnerability, dispossession, and extraction by prioritizing the retrofit and resilience improvements on subsidized housing.  Through local hiring and job training efforts included in the bill, current and future residents can also benefit from these federal investments and minimize the flight of wealth from their communities.  The time for climate resilience and housing affordability action is now, and it takes a willing coalition of progressive organizers, policymakers, and researchers to keep these inequities on the political agenda to reverse the harmful impacts of our racialized-capitalist status quo. 

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