Philadelphia Housing Action Defends Homeless Family from Illegal Ejectment
Housing Authority Police Failed in Attempted Extra-Judicial Removal
July 10, 2020, Philadelphia, PA On Thursday, July 9th, Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) maintenance workers and PHA Police attempted to force a family living in one of its properties to leave without proper legal procedure and under threat of criminal charges. Notice had been hand delivered to the house in North Philadelphia the day before, giving the family 48 hours to vacate the property or face felony criminal trespass charges. Arriving the very next day, 24 hours early, the PHA attempted to access the building with its own locksmith and with its own police standing by.
The family of 9 was assisted in moving in to the property by Philadelphia Housing Action, a coalition of groups, including OccupyPHA, Black and Brown Workers Cooperative and the Revolutionary Workers Collective which formed in late February to assist the homeless in seeking shelter in the thousands of vacant city owned properties. The family had been occupying the residence for months, putting in several thousands of dollars of work to bring the property from a condition of boarded up blight to a dignified livable home, replacing appliances, painting and securing the building.
Philadelphia Housing Action was able to mobilize dozens of supporters and allies to the house within the hour and successfully stopped the ejectment from taking place.
“The notice to vacate is a tactic regularly deployed by the Philadelphia Housing Authority to intimidate both occupiers and lawful tenants into leaving without going through normal court procedures, ” said Jennifer Bennetch, an organizer with OccupyPHA. “Any other landlord would have to file documents in court and go before a judge to remove tenants or non-tenants openly living in a vacant property, but because the Housing Authority has its own police force, it is able to circumvent the court process entirely and intimidate residents into leaving without due process of law under the threat of felony criminal trespassing charges.”
Bennetch live-streamed the encounter with PHA Police who were apparently attempting to gain entry to the building with the help of a private locksmith.
Due to the potential criminal charges that could be levied upon people seeking emergency shelter, Philadelphia Housing Action say they were forced to operate clandestinely until June 22nd, when Bennetch announced on a live broadcast by media outlet Unicorn Riot that OccupyPHA and allies had been assisting homeless families to move into vacant City of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Housing Authority properties. “We just couldn’t sit by and let these mothers and their kids sleep in their cars or on the street. We all knew it was a risk but with the pandemic we decided that the benefit outweighed the risks and we helped them find vacant city-owned properties in good condition.” Bennetch claims the group has housed over 40 people in undisclosed locations, making it the largest such organized housing takeover nationwide in recent times.
The group, which is also associated with the James Talib Dean (JTD) encampment on Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Camp Teddy, across from the Housing Authority Headquarters on Ridge Ave, is demanding the transfer of vacant city-owned properties to a community land trust set up specifically for permanent low-income housing. Talks with the city regarding the encampment have recently stalled around the issue of permanent housing. The City has publicly stated that they are seeking to close the JTD camp on the parkway as early as Saturday July 11th.
In email correspondence, between the PHA and Philadelphia Housing Action via an intermediary housing attorney, the PHA maintains that the families are illegally occupying the houses and are subject to criminal charges, but has committed to pursuing a civil court ejectment process and refraining from using its private police force to carry out an eviction. According to witnesses who overheard workers discussing the matter with the Philadelphia Police Department, the July 9th action to remove the family appeared to be a routine operation by the Housing Authority and not specifically targeted against the protest group.
The PHA is the largest landlord in Pennsylvania, housing over to 89,000 tenants. The current President and CEO, Kelvin Jeremiah, a Republican and New Yorker who pays himself nearly double the federal cap for housing executives took over the Housing Authority after a series of scandals and Federal indictments in 2012 forced the resignation of former President Carl Greene. Since taking control of the Authority, Jeremiah has expanded the PHA Police force from 12 to 80 officers and has carried out a series of controversial actions, including the eminent domain of 1,300 properties in the Sharswood neighborhood of North Philadelphia, the auctioning off of over 500 public housing units, the planned closure of several housing projects, including Fairhill and Bartram’s Garden, and the sale of WestPark Apartments to the highest bidder.
In the email correspondence with Philadelphia Housing Action, PHA representatives stated that Jeremiah would not meet in person with representatives of Camp Teddy and Philadelphia Housing Action, citing risks associated with coronavirus, but the PHA did acknowledge that it does have the power to transfer some properties to non-profits or CDC groups and that some of the properties occupied by OccupyPHA might qualify for such a transfer, depending on the status of the specific properties.