April 10, 2023
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Excerpted from Poverty & Race, Volume 32, No.1 (Jan – March 2023)
Prentiss Dantzler and Akira Drake Rodriguez
Nobody lives in the old house now, but a man comes each winter out of the North and collects his high rents.
(Du Bois, 1903: p. 95)
It’s a peculiar feeling to study something so close to you that you can’t seem to get away from it. The harder you try to understand it, the more it becomes elusive as some problems seem to be insurmountable. We take pride in little victories – those that seem to have at least changed some things for the better. Yet, at other times, social forces such as racism, poverty, and housing inequality seem to structure the everyday lives of people in urban, suburban, and rural communities alike. The boundaries between what was, what is, and what could be seem blurry these days. Modern issues related to the role of housing in (re)producing social inequality are major issues for us all. And while it seems progressive policies could get us closer to seeing housing as a human right, it is important to remember that our fight for a place to call home rests upon a different way of living.
In this essay, we explore the realm of possibilities as urban denizens fight to reclaim places and spaces they have called home even in the face of years of disinvestment and uneven development. We discuss the role of housing as not only a critical site of urban inequality, but an object of exploitative capitalistic development. To further illustrate this point, we draw our attention to the City of Philadelphia – a place we’ve both called home for years. We focus our discussion on the current battle over University City Townhomes, a federally subsidized, privately owned rental property built in the early 1980s. Constructed as an affordable housing development as compensation for the destruction of the Black Bottom, and historically known as a predominantly Black working-class neighborhood, this complex has been transformed into “University City.” However, recently, the owners have decided not to renew their contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), putting approximately 70 families at risk of displacement. These families have not been silent even with the pending threat of dislocation. Once viewed as a haven in the face of racialized uneven development, the non-renewal of this affordable housing development and the subsequent actions taken by the property owners, policymakers, and longstanding residents elucidate how affordable housing serves as a threat to the spectre of dispossession hovering over urban denizens. We end the essay with a continued call for situating housing as a human right to disrupt the logics of private property dynamics and capital accumulation.
Housing and Racialized Uneven Development
Homes mean something to everyone. However, the global urban housing affordability crisis continues to invoke a spectre of dispossession among urban denizens. The financialization of housing has exacerbated the disconnect between wages and the cost of living resulting in higher rates of household turnover and neighborhood change. Recently, urban scholars and activists have drawn attention to the role of racial capitalism in producing uneven development through the racialization of both people and places (Dantzler, 2021). Many historic communities of color, particularly Black neighborhoods around the United States, once stigmatized as ghettoes and pockets of cultural immorality have engaged in redevelopment efforts as the vestiges of the past are rebranded in order to draw in younger, high-skilled, higher income populations. Attracting human capital has been a salient economic development strategy resulting in many related contemporary forms of redevelopment resonant of the legacy of urban renewal. As newer concerns over housing attainment and residential stability have focused on the role of housing finance (e.g., Fields and Raymond, 2021), landlord-tenant dynamics (e.g., Crowell, 2022), the enduring legacy of redlining (e.g., Imbroscio, 2021), unsafe rentals (e.g. Korver-Glenn et al., 2023) and segregation (e.g., Trounstine, 2018), many of these current processes can be understood as modern day manifestations of racial capitalism.
While the concept of racial capitalism emerged in the 1970s to explain South African apartheid, scholars and activists have employed it to understand the racialized nature of capitalism, especially within the U.S. context (e.g., Dantzler, 2021; Rucks-Ahidiana, 2021; Dantzler et al., 2022). As a concept, it underscores the mutually constitutive nature between racism and capitalism through forms of exploitation and expropriation (Dantzler, 2021). Other scholars have used it as a theoretical framework to explain everything from the racialized nature of micro-level activities such as grocery shopping (Mayorga et al., 2022) to gentrification across neighborhoods (Rucks-Ahidiana, 2021) to the broader urban political economy (Hackworth, 2021). However, these dynamics have always been challenged by urban denizens’ quest to find a free place for themselves, a place to call home. Under the auspices of racial capitalism, publicly subsidized housing has served as an iconography of class, race, and gender dynamics. Like other social welfare programs, subsidized housing has been seen to be antithetical to the free market. In a free market, supply and demand rule where government intervention is either non-existent, or structured in a way that promotes economic activity above the lives of many. Subsidized housing, including public housing in the United States, social housing in Canada, and affordable set-aside units within market-rate developments, has consistently received opposition since its inception. However, in the quest to live a full collective life, many lower income communities have viewed these same developments as a haven – an escape from the daily onslaught of everyday dispossession (Freeman, 2019). Subsidized housing wasn’t, and still isn’t, the problem. Its threat to the logics of capitalistic endeavors remains quintessential to the fight for the city.
University City Townhomes as a Threat to Uneven Development
In the city of Philadelphia, urban denizens continue to reclaim space for themselves, spaces that were not only abandoned and further marginalized by state actions, but also expropriated by private interests. University City Townhomes is located on a prime piece of real estate on the western edges of the University of Pennsylvania’s main campus. The 70-unit development sits adjacent to a subway station and several bus routes, and is surrounded by neighborhood amenities such as grocery stores, retail outlets, and multiple options for childcare and healthcare. When it was first constructed in the 1980s in response to a lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia for siting low-income, subsidized housing in low-resource neighborhoods, the current owners of the development purchased the land for just one dollar. Over the last four decades, the neighborhood has developed from a site of subsidized housing and disinvested public goods and services to a site of market-rate residences and public-private parks, bus lines, and primary schools. Maintenance and renovation inside the townhomes, however, have not kept pace with the development surrounding the residences. The UC Townhomes is emblematic of Wyly and Hammel’s (1999) concept of “islands of decay in seas of renewal.”
In 2021, the owner of the UC Townhomes (Brett Altman, d/b/a IBID Associates), informed the Department of Housing and Urban Development that he would not extend the subsidy contract on the property that classified it was a “project-based Section 8” property, and would opt to sell the development following the eviction (and rehousing) of all seventy households. Research from Lens and Reina (2016) demonstrates that properties with expiring subsidies are increasingly in high-opportunity neighborhoods, as evidenced by higher median rents and household incomes, thus creating an incentive for owners to opt-out of renewing their contracts. Unfortunately, tenants in these developments are unable to benefit from these improved neighborhood amenities, as landlords in the same neighborhood are less likely to accept the Housing Choice Voucher offered to those in lieu of the project-based subsidized unit.
Following this announcement, residents began organizing internally and externally to draw attention to the plight of low-income residents in the increasingly unaffordable city. For decades, Philadelphia has been one of the largest, poorest cities with one of the highest homeownership rates (Haider & Eichel, 2020). Although the city’s median incomes and wealth stagnated below that of its peers, low-income Philadelphians managed to resist displacement due to a large (albeit aging) single-family housing stock, slow rate of population growth, and policies such as the homestead and senior tax exemptions that reduced property tax bills for those on fixed incomes. But for tenants, especially near the downtown core, market rates were becoming comparable to other large Northeastern cities, and many landlords were opting not to renew project-based Section 8 contracts and refusing to accept Housing Choice Vouchers. The seventy families that had made University City Townhomes their home and community had few options. Jamie Gauthier, the city councilperson representing the third district where the townhomes are located, immediately put forth legislation that would prohibit the demolition of the existing site, and changed the zoning to mandate any new apartments constructed to be rented at 20 percent of the area median income (City of Philadelphia, 2021). The owners immediately sued Gauthier and the city.
The tenants re-activated a long-dormant Residents Council and received organizational capacity and assistance from several domains, including: the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter (a national organization committed to organizing Black people around social and policy matters) students, staff, and faculty of the local universities (including the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University), the Philadelphia Housing Alliance (a local group involved in several direct action occupations and encampments for those experiencing houselessness and the precariously housed), the Black Bottom Tribe (a group representing the adjacent community of Mantua that was targeted during the city’s Urban Renewal programs), Moms4Housing (a housing justice group based out of Oakland, CA), Philadelphia Tenants Union, Up Against the Law (a legal observer and advisory group), Community Legal Services (a nonprofit Legal Aid provider), Food not Bombs (a pacifist group against hunger), and several other unaffiliated individuals and groups. With the support of these groups, under the Resident’s Council leadership, residents engaged in protests, marches, rallies, occupations, and legislative testimonies over the course of 18 months. From disrupting private fundraisers to holding a thirty-day encampment on the property site, the residents have effectively managed to delay the eviction date six times in the last year.
The residents are firmly against moving and opposed to the sale of one of the last affordable housing developments in University City. Many have searched for replacement housing in vain, as age and disability make many homes that accept HCVs untenable. Others have decried the lack of assistance from the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the dismissiveness of their needs and wants in a neighborhood, and the lack of adequate schools in the receiving neighborhoods. Many of the residents live in multi-generational households, and the organizers center the needs of themselves (predominantly single Black women and men, aged 25-75) in their struggle against the wave of unfettered development in the city. They have allied with other groups in the city (including the environmentalist group PhillyThrive, who are organizing against the redevelopment of an exploded gas refinery and the No Arena in Chinatown Solidarity Group, who are organizing against a new stadium in Chinatown) to suggest this is not an isolated incident, but a systemic way of doing business that privileges developers at the expense of Black and Brown communities via the erasure of affordable housing, publicly-funded goods and services, and pro-tenant legislators.
The fight for housing is a fight for one’s ability to claim space. The case of UC Townhomes is a familiar reality for many urban denizens across the world. Waves of dispossession and displacement are creating new urban realities causing many of us to question whether there’s a place for us to live, to work, to create and raise families, to grow old.
Housing is being used as leverage for capital accumulation at a rate and intensity that supports unfettered capitalism at its core. In order to disrupt the market-oriented dynamics of urbanity, we argue for situating housing as a human right. We understand that this does not cease housing’s role, in addition to the financialization of property and land, in supporting racial capitalism. However, similar to calls made before us (e.g., Dantzler and Reynolds, 2020; Fields and Raymond, 2021; Bledsoe et al., 2022; Rucks-Ahidiana, 2022), we argue for a more intentional focus on how capitalism involves processes of racialization and valuation. As Issar (2021) argues, we have to move beyond the class-versus-identity approach of understanding marginalization. As Rodriquez (2021) notes, urban denizens will continue to create their own geographies of resistance. Even while trying to escape the spectre of dispossession, urban denizens have, and continue to, dream of just futures for themselves. It is our job as academics, researchers, advocates, or whatever other status we hold, to use our positions to make these dreams into reality. It is up to us all to make these threats to uneven development into promises for a better future.
Bledsoe, A., McCreary, T., & Wright, W. (2022). Theorizing diverse economies in the context of racial capitalism. Geoforum, 132, 281-290.
City of Philadelphia (2021). Bill No-210778-AA03 “Affordable Housing, Overlay District.”
Crowell, A. R. (2022). Renting under racial capitalism: residential segregation and rent exploitation in the United States. Sociological Spectrum, 42(2), 95-118.
Dantzler, P. A., & Reynolds, A. D. (2020). Making our way home: Housing policy, racial capitalism, and reparations. Journal of World-Systems Research, 26(2), 155-167.
Dantzler, P. A. (2021). The urban process under racial capitalism: Race, anti-Blackness, and capital accumulation. Journal of Race, Ethnicity and the City, 2(2), 113-134.
Dantzler, P.A., Korver-Glenn, E., & Howell, J. (2022). Introduction: What Does Racial Capitalism Have to Do With Cities and Communities? City & Community, 21(3), 163-172.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). Souls of Black folk. A.C. McClurg & Company.
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Freeman, L. (2019). A haven and a hell: The ghetto in black America. Columbia University Press.
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Imbroscio, D. (2021). Race matters (even more than you already think): Racism, housing, and the limits of The Color of Law. Journal of Race, Ethnicity and the City, 2(1), 29-53.
Issar, S. (2021). Listening to Black lives matter: Racial capitalism and the critique of neoliberalism. Contemporary Political Theory, 20, 48-71.
Korver-Glenn, E., Locklear, S., Howell, J., & Whitehead, E. (2023). Displaced and unsafe: The legacy of settler-colonial racial capitalism in the US rental market. Journal of Race, Ethnicity and the City, 1-22.
Lens, M.C. & Reina, V. (2016). Preserving Neighborhood Opportunity: Where Federal Housing Subsidies Expire. Housing Policy Debate, 26(4-5), 714-732.
Mayorga, S., Underhill, M., & Crosser, L. (2022). “I Hate That Food Lion”: Grocery Shopping, Racial Capitalism, and Everyday Disinvestment. City & Community, 21(3), 238-255.
Rodriguez, A. D. (2021). Diverging space for deviants: the politics of Atlanta’s public housing. University of Georgia Press.
Rucks-Ahidiana, Z. (2022). Theorizing gentrification as a process of racial capitalism. City & Community, 21(3), 173-192.
Trounstine, J. (2018). Segregation by design: Local politics and inequality in American cities. Cambridge University Press.
Wyly, E.K. & Hammel, D.J. (1999). Islands of decay in seas of renewal: Housing policy and the resurgence of gentrification. Housing Policy Debate, 10(4), 711-771.
Prentiss A. Dantzler, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.
Akira Drake Rodriguez, Ph.D. (email@example.com) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design.