Supporting Arvilla Residents: Exploring the Impact of Gentrification in West Philly

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By Toni Walker

When residents of Arvilla apartments on 45th & Osage gathered last August for a block party to celebrate their community, they didn’t expect that only two months later they would be receiving eviction notices instructing them to leave their homes. But that’s exactly what happened in October of last year when the affordable housing non-profit, Mission First Housing Group, notified Arvilla residents – predominantly Black and Brown low income families and individuals – that they had until November 30th to vacate one of the last affordable apartment building in the Spruce Hill neighborhood. With the holidays right around the corner and some residents having as little as six weeks to figure out a backup plan, this sale completely disrupted the lives of Arvilla residents.

Mission First, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a stated mission to “develop and manage affordable, safe and sustainable homes for people in need,” has justified the sale claiming that they are unable to cover the costs necessary to renovate and preserve the building. However, Mission First has neglected the Arvilla over the years – as documented by concerned neighbors – leaving residents to deal with glaring issues such as lack of running water, lack of working heat, and improper and/or unfinished repairs. This disregard for both the building and the residents is the main reason why such costly renovations are necessary and yet the residents suffer the consequences of Mission First’s actions.

The mistreatment doesn’t end there as residents and neighbors have pointed out the unjust process of communication to residents regarding the forthcoming sale. Not only was Mission First planning this sale years in advance but weeks before eviction notices were even sent out, a real estate listing for the Arvilla building was posted online priced at $2.4 million – the listing marketed the property’s post-renovation potential to attract high-paying renters seeking proximity to schools like Penn, Drexel, and Penn Alexander.

The listing leverages the displacement of Arvilla residents as yet another pull factor for the building as it advertises that buyers would be able to “vacate the units immediately after settlement.” Some of the residents have lived in the Arvilla for decades while others, like the single mother and her three children, moved in only 7 months before eviction notices were sent out. JJ Tiziou, a local neighbor and organizer, described the listing as predatory and disturbing. “As a public 501(c)(3) non-profit with a mission of caring for the most vulnerable it’s not right that the real estate listing was put up before the residents themselves were contacted,” he added.

In response to this injustice, residents and neighbors formed Protect Arvilla Residents (P.A.R.), an evolving grassroots organization with a focus on the livelihood of Arvilla residents, the restoration of the building itself, and the larger implications of the Arvilla sale as well as the future of other affordable housing units owned by Mission First. P.A.R. initially sought to prevent or delay the sale of the Arvilla and through their organizing, they were able to get the evictions pushed back to January 31st. Unfortunately, after several attempts, P.A.R. was unable to prevent the sale of the Arvilla.

“At this point, the building will be lost, a tragedy for a neighborhood and city that has already lost so many affordable housing opportunities,” said JJ Tiziou, who is also one of P.A.R.’s founding organizers. The Spruce Hill neighborhood in particular provided a wealth of resources to Arvilla residents.

“The places that need more affordable housing are the places with the most resources…that’s how you change outcomes. The sale of the Arvilla takes away about 95% of the people of color on our block in one fell swoop,” said Tiziou.

But the work of the organization is far from over as they continue to raise money to fund and support the displaced residents in the process of relocating. Though Mission First expressed that they would assist the residents in finding new homes, residents are still carrying the financial burden associated with the incidental costs of transitioning. To address the needs of all 18 residents, P.A.R. has launched a GoFundMe campaign run by Calvary Center for Culture and Community, a certified charity. The money goes directly to the residents themselves, distributed based on how many people live in each unit. So far, they have reached 16,710 of their 20,000 goal and they are looking to exceed their goal if possible.

Additionally, organizers hope to involve the greater Philadelphia community in addressing the declining affordable housing options throughout West Philly. In a 2016 study by the Community Development Studies & Education Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, it was reported that Philadelphia lost 20% of low rental units between 2000 and 2014 with gentrified areas such as University City taking the biggest losses; this number was expected to increase in the coming years. The sale of the Arvilla building is yet another reflection of this trend.

Many of us are already aware of the large role Penn has played in the displacement of low income Philly residents. This is not only a feature of Penn’s troubling history but it is also an ongoing issue that continues to impact the housing market and drive away low-income communities of color. While Penn frequently celebrates its contribution to the West Philadelphia area, these contributions have often resulted in higher property values, displacement, and less diverse communities. Penn Alexander is a primary example of this. As mentioned by Samantha Melamed in Philly.com, the African American student population at Penn Alexander dropped from 57% in its opening year to 21% as of the last school year. Furthermore, a study conducted by the Penn Institute for Urban Research in 2011 found that homes in the Penn Alexander catchment area increased in value by 211% from 1998 to 2011. This was more than three times the citywide appreciation rate.

The sale of the Arvilla building reflects a larger pattern going on as affordable housing throughout Philadelphia continues to diminish. However, it is clear that Penn has the financial, social, and political power to support low income residents in ways that don’t worsen their situations. Rather than investing in initiatives that threaten to remove affordable housing opportunities, Penn could instead work with existing local organizers to not only increase affordable housing options but also provide low-income residents with access to a wealth of available resources. People’s Emergency Center and The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities are just a few of the many organizations in Philly who are doing this work. Pressure from the student body, faculty and alumni is necessary in order to hold organizations like Mission First as well as the institution of Penn accountable for their active role in gentrification. To learn more about how to get involved with P.A.R., I encourage you to visit their website and donate to the GoFundMe campaign in support of the Arvilla Residents.

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