The owner of subsidized townhouses in West Philadelphia told tenants in July 2021 that it planned to end its federal affordable housing contract so it could sell the site, which had become much more valuable since the homes were built more than 40 years ago.

After almost two years, many protests, City Council legislation, and a lawsuit against the city, the owner of the University City Townhomes and the city have come to an agreement to transfer a piece of the site to the city for development of at least 70 replacement subsidized units.

But subsidy contracts for more than 10,000 other housing units will be up for renewal across the city in the coming decade or so, often in amenity-rich neighborhoods the tenants can’t afford without subsidies. Most residents of these at-risk units are Black.

“The townhomes, that was a long fight and I feel great about the outcome, but we need a plan right now for how we’re going to approach this issue in a broad way over the next decade,” City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents the area, said in an interview. “We have a responsibility to have a robust plan for the thousands of units that could expire over the next five to 10 years.”

Council members are considering bills Gauthier introduced that would direct the city to maintain a public database of subsidized housing properties and their subsidy contract expiration dates. The bills also would alert a wider range of people when contracts are set to expire and give communities opportunities to make purchase offers on sites with expiring contracts.

At a Council hearing Monday, Gauthier acknowledged that despite the agreement providing for affordable housing at the site of the townhomes at 39th and Market Streets, the residents still have to move out. She said the lesson city officials must learn from the experience is that “the city must take a bolder and more proactive approach to affordable housing preservation.”

‘A crisis point’

Dina Schlossberg, executive director of the nonprofit law firm Regional Housing Legal Services, said the pandemic made even more clear that “we are at a crisis point when it comes to affordable housing.”

“The city needs a coordinated and comprehensive strategy to preserve our existing subsidized affordable rental housing,” she said.

The Council legislation would require property owners with expiring subsidy contracts who plan to sell to first consider offers from “eligible parties” — which include government, affordable housing providers, and tenant organizations. If these offers match private ones, the owner would have to choose an offer from one of those parties. A tenant or tenant group would get priority.

Boston, Chicago, and Washington have similar systems, according to housing advocates at the hearing.

Advocates and city officials acknowledged that Philadelphia needs more resources if it’s going to help potential buyers compete with private offers to purchase housing properties to keep them affordable, especially as property values continue to increase.

The legislation also would expand the groups that need to be notified when a property owner decides to end a contract to include legal aid groups and overlapping registered community organizations. And owners would have to give notice if they have subsidized housing contracts with the state or city, not just with the federal government.

Missed opportunities

Housing advocates said that often by the time residents who are being displaced come to them, it’s too late to work out alternatives to keep tenants in their homes.

More than a decade ago, about 16 families living in one Society Hill property came to Community Legal Services of Philadelphia because the property’s subsidy contract was ending and they had to move out, said Rachel Garland, managing attorney of the housing unit at the legal aid nonprofit. Many of the residents were part of families who had fought to get the housing built, she said.

And many had lived in their homes for decades, attended Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, had gone to McCall Elementary and Middle School, and worked at the school, Garland said.

In this case, she said, “there was no opportunity for any level of advocacy or preservation.” She said she learned that “had there been an opportunity, this owner very likely would have wanted to continue to have the property be preserved. They just didn’t want to be landlords anymore, and they wanted to exit [their contract], and they thought that this was the best thing to do in order to be able to sell the property.”

The families were displaced, Garland said, “and there is no longer this locality of subsidized housing in Society Hill,” one of the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods in the city.