Philly’s Housing Encampments of 2020 Led to a Nationally Celebrated Deal. Then It All Began to Unravel
It was supposed to be a historic agreement between the city and activists that would revolutionize the way Philly — and the country — dealt with homelessness. What happened?
Edwin Jones spent many of his days riding the El as it hummed over Philadelphia and his nights sleeping in 30th Street Station. Jones, who has gone by “Beast” for nearly 50 years, was homeless, and had been ever since the city seized his mother’s West Philly home a couple years ago over unpaid taxes. It was hard, but Beast got along by checking in with the city’s homeless services and connecting with childhood friends who were also unhoused.
Things changed for Beast and other Philadelphians experiencing homelessness last June, when the George Floyd protests ripped through the city and the nation, calling for an end to police violence and racial injustice. Beast supported the cause; he remembers standing behind police barricades and shouting at cops while they attacked the MOVE compound in 1978. But the weeks of unrest disrupted his life. Services paused while the city scrambled to respond, so Beast couldn’t get food as easily, or medical care for his diabetes and foot sores, or even a shower. Eventually, he’d had enough. One day at a march, he confronted the protesters. He told them they were making his life worse than the police ever had, and he pleaded with them to consider homeless people as they fought for justice.
After Beast’s impassioned speech, he was approached by two men. Alex Stewart and James Talib-Dean asked if he might want to join their own protest. They weren’t homeless themselves, but they wanted to bring more attention to the issue and the city’s ineffectiveness at addressing it. They told him that the city and the Philadelphia Housing Authority — PHA, the public agency that builds and manages low-income housing in the city — owned thousands of vacant properties even as thousands slept on the streets or doubled up in single-family homes. It didn’t make sense. Stewart and Talib-Dean had a plan to build encampments of homeless people that would put Philly’s housing problems out in the open and give the city little choice but to act. “Y’all find a place,” Beast told the two men, “I’ll be there.”
And that’s how Beast joined a housing movement unlike anything Philadelphia has seen since 1988, when a group of homeless people took over a collection of vacant properties in the Northeast. The encampments that formed in the summer of 2020 off the Ben Franklin Parkway and in North Philly were organized, armed with sophisticated knowledge of housing laws and squatting. They provided community and basic services, with a kitchen, a medical tent and a library. The protesters captured local and national attention throughout the summer. As they resisted the constant threat of eviction, a black banner hung above their tents like a pirate flag, proclaiming HOUSING NOW!
But what really set the encampments apart from similar movements was that they appeared to accomplish something major and tangible. In October 2020, after weeks of negotiations between representatives of the encampment, the city and PHA, the parties struck a legally binding agreement. Fifty vacant homes, half from PHA and half from the city, would be transferred to the encampment residents through a to-be-established community land trust. The city would also provide land and some funding for two villages of “tiny homes” that advocates hoped would serve as proof-of-concept projects to open the door for even more tiny homes across the city. And it was all supposed to happen fast.
The story of the encampment deal is changing. Rather than one of triumph, it’s become one of negotiating naivete, lack of execution, government roadblocks, and perhaps inevitable bureaucratic slow-rolling.
Academics, housing activists and journalists nationwide celebrated the victory. The encampment protesters hadn’t solved homelessness, but they had demonstrated, it seemed, a way to jump-start systemic change. A March 2021 article in the New Republic profiling one activist, Jennifer Bennetch, was titled “How Housing Activists Took on Philadelphia and Won.”
But in the year since the negotiators shook hands and the camps cleared, very little of the deal has been accomplished. Once, it seemed that the encampments and their protesters had created a new, replicable model for housing-rights activism. But as time has passed, the story of the encampments and the deal has gone from one of triumph to one of negotiating naivete, lack of execution, government roadblocks, and perhaps inevitable bureaucratic slow-rolling. The obvious victims are the encampment residents, who, for a fleeting moment, believed they had won — but so far have not.
If any city was ready for sweeping housing change, it was Philadelphia. Its issues are severe, yet relatively small compared to those in other major cities. Currently, about 6,000 people living in Philadelphia are considered homeless, and about 1,000 of them sleep on the streets each night. The numbers don’t mean much to those, like Beast, who wade through often dangerous, overcrowded shelters or shut their eyes on the El, but for comparison, in Los Angeles, roughly 41,000 people are homeless, and in New York, the number is 80,000.
Philly’s housing problems are deeper than homelessness, though. This is the poorest big city in the country; some 23.3 percent of its citizens live in poverty. And for thousands of people, the line between having a home and being homeless is razor-thin; affordable housing options are limited, and the waiting list for homes through PHA is 82,400 names long.
Despite its serious lack of affordable housing, the city currently owns more than 5,000 vacant properties — a collection amassed over decades through claiming of abandoned properties, eminent domain, and acquisition of tax-delinquent properties. The city aims to turn vacant property into affordable and relatively low-cost market-rate housing but has struggled to do so. Back in 2015, the city created the Philadelphia Land Bank to consolidate its land holdings and convey property to private ownership. The goal was to clean up a process that was convoluted and easily abused. Yet over the past five years, the Land Bank has disposed of fewer than 350 properties, according to officials. New legislation encourages the development of “workforce housing” intended for middle-income residents. Such units fit the technical definition of affordable housing — accessible to households earning up to 120 percent of the median area income — but are still out of reach for more than two-thirds of all Philadelphians. One of the Land Bank’s creators, City Councilmember María Quiñones-Sánchez, said recently, “The Land Bank is still inefficient. It doesn’t have the capacity or willingness to process all of the pending applications” to buy city properties.
COVID made matters even worse. Between March and April of 2020, the city lost more than 100,000 jobs. People were told to stay inside their homes, while communal spaces for the homeless — shelters, soup kitchens, public buildings — shut down or restricted access. With nowhere else to go, the city’s homeless increasingly gathered at the Convention Center and the airport. In March of 2020, despite CDC guidance that explicitly cautioned against it, the city began clearing those informal encampments in the name of containing the spread of the virus. Some residents were accepted into the few open shelters or drug treatment centers, but others were forced out on their own again. Into the spring, Philly’s housing situation became desperate.
The foundations of the protest encampments that garnered so much press in the summer of 2020 were built well before that, by five Philly activists who knew each other from the city’s small and well-connected housing activism community. Alex Stewart and James Talib-Dean, the two men who approached Beast, were leaders of a grassroots activist group called the Workers Revolutionary Collective. They were joined by Talib-Dean’s cousin, Sterling Johnson, who worked at the time with the Black and Brown Workers Co-Op. There was Jennifer Bennetch, a formerly homeless Sharswood resident who gained prominence in 2019 for her Occupy PHA protest of the agency’s handling of vacant property and its policing practices. She worked closely with Wiley Cunningham, another longtime Philly resident and housing advocate. Early in 2020, the activists began scouting out vacant properties, seeing which of them were safe and livable and had electricity and running water. They helped people move in sub rosa — usually single mothers and their children — and regularly supplied them with necessities.
But when support swelled for the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for racial equality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, some of the housing activists saw an opportunity to seize that momentum. It would require a change in strategy. No more working in the shadows. They would start an encampment.
Alex Stewart identified Von Colln Memorial Field as an ideal location. It’s a grassy baseball field on the Ben Franklin Parkway, in the shadow of luxury apartment buildings, a Whole Foods, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It would be impossible for the city to ignore the encampment and the contrasts it presented as wealthier Philadelphians shopped for groceries and tourists lined up across the street to take pictures with Rocky. They named the encampment Camp Maroon, an homage to escaped slaves who built their own settlements and communities in the wilderness rather than integrate as free people into white society.
The encampment protesters first demanded that the city transfer ownership of vacant properties to a community land trust. Such a trust is typically organized as a nonprofit that takes title to multiple properties. Those properties are permanently removed from the market and instead leased back to community members at low (i.e., below-market-rate) prices via long-term agreements. Community land trusts have been used effectively in such cities as New York, Oakland and Washington, D.C.
The second demand called for a moratorium on the city’s acquisition and sale of additional properties, because the protesters believed these transactions produced gentrified housing, not low-cost options.
Camp Maroon protesters also demanded that the city allow them to self-fund and set up tiny homes in Philly. Across the nation, tiny homes (literally very, very small houses with an inside footprint of 100 to 400 square feet) have proven to be a cost-effective tool in combating homelessness, but they’re not currently permissible under the city’s building codes. “We need a diversity of housing options [in Philadelphia], and I think tiny houses, and the dignity and community associated with them, will serve a portion of the population,” says Stephanie Sena, an anti-poverty fellow at Villanova’s Charles Widger School of Law and a tiny-homes advocate who worked closely with the encampment protesters. The land trust, tiny homes, and a moratorium would all work together to create the encampment protesters’ own maroon communities. The goals were clear, and the encampments successfully grabbed Philadelphia’s attention. But privately, dysfunction was brewing.
Tragically, James Talib-Dean died of an overdose shortly after the encampment was built, and Camp Maroon was renamed Camp JTD in his honor. His death, say some protesters, marked a shift. “When it started, it was nice and quiet,” Beast recalls of the camp’s early days. “As the summer progressed, it got worse and worse.” Fights broke out among residents, and tensions escalated between the encampment and the surrounding neighborhoods. The stress and emotions of that summer — from the protests and COVID to the growing fear that police would evict the encampment — all weighed on the residents and leaders. “We were broken,” says Chelsea Dalsey, an activist and a volunteer at the camp.
Deep fissures between the camp’s leaders and residents began to form, threatening to undermine the movement. Jennifer Bennetch was a skilled, intuitive leader of protest and agitation. But that didn’t necessarily translate to management of a prolonged encampment and negotiation. Of her organizing strategy, Bennetch told the New Republic, “I’m not a planner. I just do shit.” She clashed with encampment residents, volunteers and other leaders. “People was questioning her motives,” says Beast. “Everything with her was always, ‘I did,’ ‘I, I, I,’ instead of us, we or they.” Multiple sources said they found Bennetch to be intimidating and scary and said that she occasionally threatened others with violence. Bennetch acknowledges an incident in which she helped to physically remove a volunteer from the encampment but otherwise denies issuing threats or committing violence.
Bennetch left Camp JTD at the end of June to start a second encampment, Camp Teddy, in North Philadelphia. She and some others set up in the Sharswood neighborhood on a vacant PHA-owned lot across from its new $45 million headquarters (the site of her 2019 Occupy PHA protest). The Camp Teddy parcel had been designated by the PHA for an impending $52 million mixed-use development project that would include a shopping center and apartments.
Concerns with leadership went beyond Bennetch, though. Sterling Johnson worked closely with Bennetch during the process. In a December 2020 Facebook video, months after the encampments had been cleared, three members of the BBWC accused Johnson of harassing someone working with the co-op and then of doxing a co-op member who was attempting to mediate the issue internally. Johnson says the allegations are all lies. Johnson and the BBWC split last fall.
Negotiations between the protesters and the city began over the summer and quickly became contentious. Bennetch, leading the negotiations for the protesters, was combative and at times stormed out of meetings, people close to negotiations say. Alex Stewart described the talks as “screaming matches that really didn’t amount to anything.” He withdrew from negotiations after the first few meetings with the city and refocused on caring for residents at the camp. “It went terribly,” says Tara Taylor, a resident who had risen to a leadership position and later withdrew from negotiations as well.
Taylor and Stewart felt that Bennetch and Johnson were putting their own priorities over those of the residents. “We were talking about PHA police policies and harm reduction policies that were not addressing the immediate issues of the camp,” Stewart says, calling it a stark departure from the camp’s original vision. Ultimately, a schism developed within leadership, with Bennetch, Johnson and Wiley Cunningham operating separately from Stewart, Taylor and other activists. According to Stewart and Taylor, Bennetch and Johnson sometimes called those opposing them white supremacists. (Bennetch is white.)
By the end of the summer, talks stalled. But there was no time for an impasse. The PHA had a deadline to develop the land that Camp Teddy sat on, and if it and Mosaic Development Partners, the local firm contracted for the project, didn’t break ground there by October 6th, they would lose tax credits and lender financing; the project would likely be dead. Bennetch learned of the critical deadline, too, which gave her negotiating leverage.
According to reporting from the New Republic, the encampment negotiations were revived in September when Kelvin Jeremiah, PHA’s CEO, called Bennetch secretly. Jeremiah offered to transfer nine vacant homes to the protesters’ yet-to-be-established community land trust. In the final agreement, seven of the nine homes, located in Strawberry Mansion, were to be rehabbed with PHA funding. The offer included job training for residents, policing reform, and a moratorium on for-profit house sales. But according to the New Republic, there were two big conditions: Camp Teddy would need to be cleared within four days, and Bennetch was to keep the agreement confidential. Bennetch accepted the offer and moved the Sharswood protesters out over that weekend. Some were put into squats, and others went down to Camp JTD.
Jeremiah reportedly followed the same playbook with Bennetch a week later when he made another secret offer, this time regarding Camp JTD. In a conference call to her with Tumar Alexander, the city’s managing director, Jeremiah offered that in exchange for clearing the encampment in six days, Bennetch would receive 25 more vacant houses from the PHA and 25 from the city, all to be placed in the community land trust. In the final agreement, the city also agreed to solicit proposals for two tiny-home villages — one of 10 to 12 self-contained units intended to be permanent affordable housing for homeless seniors, and another 10 to 12 “pods” for people transitioning from homelessness, with communal bathrooms and a kitchen. (A PHA spokesperson denied that Jeremiah demanded confidentiality in his dealings with Bennetch.)
Bennetch was overwhelmed with the magnitude of the decision. Tensions were high at Camp JTD, and she didn’t know how much longer they could resist the growing threat of forcible eviction. Begrudgingly, Bennetch says, she took the deal. “We don’t feel like 50 houses is enough at all,” she told me, adding, “We had to take the agreement and just hope the city keeps their word to reproduce it.” The final agreement between the city, the PHA and the encampment was signed on October 12, 2020.
Bennetch’s decision enraged some encampment residents and leaders. She says that after receiving Jeremiah’s offer, she and her husband went from tent to tent; she believed she had the support of the majority of residents. But Beast says he found out about the deal while scrolling through news headlines on his phone and was angry at what they had settled for. “This is a bunch of bullshit,” he told others at the time. To Tara Taylor, the deal was “an absolute betrayal of the unhoused community.”
JTD residents were in shock. They would have to leave within six days, while the 50 vacant units and the tiny homes wouldn’t be ready for months. Some argued over who should get the first properties, since there wouldn’t be enough for everyone — reports said there were between 150 and 200 people at the encampment at peak occupancy. Still, Bennetch moved quickly to clear everyone out. According to multiple people at Camp JTD, one resident who worked closely with Bennetch went around the encampment and slashed tents with a knife to render them useless. (Bennetch says no one instructed the resident to slash tents.)
A fortunate group of nearly 50 residents was accepted into a pilot program with the Office of Homeless Services that was established as part of the negotiations. The Street to Home program gave its participants housing from the private market and two years of rental assistance. But most of the encampment protesters left the Von Colln field for shelters or vacant squats — or headed back to the streets.
One year later, no homes have been transferred to the community land trust. And the city bureaucracy and private involvement that often distort good intentions have altered the tiny-homes project drastically from the original vision.
Stephanie Sena jokes that she’s gotten so frustrated with it all that she falls asleep like Arya Stark from Game of Thrones, repeating the names of those who’ve helped fuel Philly’s growing housing crisis. Sena, the Villanova law school fellow, founded the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP) in 2011. It’s an emergency homeless shelter system operating in several locations across the city.
She has become a prominent advocate for affordable housing solutions, particularly tiny homes. Last summer, she worked with the encampment organizers to strengthen and prolong their protest, once suing the city to halt evictions at the site. Johnson, Stewart and Taylor came over to her house now and then for dinner, though not at the same time because of the conflicts among them. She and Jennifer Bennetch have an up-and-down relationship but worked together on strategy. As the Camp JTD organizers entered negotiations with the city, Sena pushed to make tiny homes part of the final agreement.
Tiny homes are truly small, with just enough space for a bed, a kitchenette, a bathroom and some storage. But small size has virtues; the units can be built modularly off-site, quickly and at low cost. They can make efficient use of available land, even small lots.
Stephanie Sena says she’s gotten so frustrated that she falls asleep like Arya Stark from Game of Thrones, repeating the names of those who’ve helped fuel Philly’s growing housing crisis.
Although other major cities like Detroit and Seattle use tiny homes as part of their affordable housing solutions, Philadelphia’s and Pennsylvania’s building codes currently don’t allow for them. The codes are older and outdated and also outlaw similar space-saving housing strategies, like partitioned homes and accessory dwelling units. Sena’s goal was to build a tiny-home village under special exemptions from the city as a test pilot. If the village was successful, Pennsylvania could look to it as a reason to update its building codes, instantly unlocking affordable housing options citywide. She had support from state legislators and officials in the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections. With the encampment deal, Sena felt she’d finally landed the pilot opportunity she’d been looking for.
Since each village would target different populations, the city delegated their management to separate agencies. The Office of Homeless Services assumed responsibility for the pod-like transitional units. (A city spokesperson says the city has contracted a developer for this project and plans to complete construction and begin occupancy in 2022.) The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) took control of the village of self-contained permanent units — the project Sena wanted to build.
The PRA tiny-homes project is led by Angel Rodriguez, a senior vice president of land management at the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, the parent organization of PRA. This fact worried Sena. Rodriguez is also the executive director of the Land Bank, the same organization seen as slow and ineffective in recycling the city’s vacant properties back to communities.
The problems began immediately. In the encampment agreement signed last October, the city agreed to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for the tiny-homes project within 10 business days. But when the RFP was finally issued in November, it signaled to Sena that Rodriguez and PRA weren’t aligned with the spirit of the Camp JTD agreement. The first requirement listed in the RFP was that units be a minimum of 600 square feet and “must be developed based on current zoning.” While a 400-square-feet figure was crucial to the tiny-home advocate’s plans, the figure appears nowhere in the final agreement. According to a PHDC spokesperson, the larger size was chosen “in accordance with the Philadelphia Residential Code that is currently in effect.” With the bigger size, Rodriguez and PRA weren’t allowing any special exemptions that might lead to a change in codes and unlock more housing, as Sena had hoped; PRA wanted a one-off development. Those larger units would also be more expensive to build, which defeated another main purpose of the tiny-home endeavor.
The land that PRA chose for the site, a vacant lot in West Philly’s Mill Creek neighborhood, has been undeveloped since PRA acquired it for $1 in 1965. The area has a history of sinkholes and cave-ins as well as significant environmental waste. But in a question-and-answer session with potential developers, PRA stated that it wouldn’t provide environmental reports (which test for contaminants) or geotechnical reports (which test for soil and drainage conditions) for the site. Developers could conduct their own tests, but the property was being offered “as is.”
And while city-sponsored redevelopment projects often include some sort of development subsidy or construction financing, the RFP made clear none of that would be offered. The only financial incentive was two years of rent subsidies for the tenants, paid by the city’s Office of Homeless Services.
Still, Sena and her team scrambled to submit their bid by the deadline of December 11th. In the proposal, Sena likened Philadelphia’s COVID-exacerbated housing crisis to the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She described how San Francisco responded to the destruction by creating small cottages that still exist today, arguing that Philadelphia had a similar opportunity to use a crisis to change how it housed Philadelphians in the future. Her organization, SREHUP, would partner with Philadelphia-based companies to build 12 units of roughly 300 square feet each. The one-story units would have a single bedroom, a kitchenette, a bathroom and a private patio. Six units would be fully wheelchair-accessible. The village would also have a small community center, a shared outdoor kitchen, and a communal laundry area. The houses would be built off-site, each for between $40,000 and $60,000, funded by private donors. At the time of the submission, several of the homes already had financial support; Sena intended to have the entire cost of the project committed before beginning construction.
Sena knew the smaller units strayed from what the RFP stipulated. She had consulted with the former head of the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections, David Perri, who advised her to submit designs that fit the building codes she wanted adopted, not Rodriguez’s larger size. It didn’t seem like it would matter much if Sena veered from the RFP. At the time, she told me, “I believe we will win [the RFP], mostly because I’m fairly certain nobody else is applying for it. I think we’ll win on default.”
On March 9th, three months after she submitted her proposal, Sena got an email from Angel Rodriguez. “The PRA has determined that your bid did not meet threshold requirements,” he wrote. “We are unable to extend an award to you.”
As it turned out, another group did submit a response to the RFP — Mosaic Development Partners, the same group that was partnering with the PHA to develop the Camp Teddy parcel. Mosaic, a Black-owned private developer, has been awarded large projects throughout the region. The company develops for-profit projects like the $2.6 billion Navy Yard and mixed-use apartments as well as mission-based projects like Edison 64, a housing development for military veterans. Still, it was surprising that Mosaic wanted the tiny-homes project, which wouldn’t be profitable and was much smaller than its other recent projects. One of Mosaic’s co-founders, Greg Reaves, told me this project was completely mission-based: “Frankly, the economics are nonexistent from an investment standpoint. And that’s fine.” Mosaic won the RFP.
Its proposal was thin on specifics compared to SREHUP’s. The company would partner with an Ohio-based architecture firm to design and build 12 two-story units ranging in size between 672 and 756 square feet. None of the units would be fully wheelchair-accessible, and the only village component would be a designated green space for gardening. The houses would be built off-site for an average cost of roughly $76,000 apiece; funding for the project wasn’t specifically identified.
Sena was devastated but arranged a meeting with Mosaic in an attempt to salvage parts of the larger project. Mosaic wasn’t persuaded.
“We’re the only ones who’ve been working on this in Philadelphia for years. I don’t think they have any idea what a tiny home is,” Sena says now. Reaves acknowledges that his development won’t unlock affordable housing options across the city, as Sena envisioned, but he still believes there’s value in Mosaic’s project beyond the few people it will house: “We don’t really take a traditional developer approach to anything we do. We think future projects could benefit from what we’re able to apply [here].”
It isn’t clear when construction on Mosaic’s village will begin or when residents will be able to move in. The first step is for PRA and Mosaic to agree to a contract, which then needs to be approved by PRA’s board of directors and City Council. At press time, none of that had occurred. Mosaic’s proposal estimated that from contract agreement to resident move-in would take one and a half years. At this pace, occupancy isn’t likely until at least 2023.
As a result of the housing protest and subsequent agreement, there will be a village of small homes in West Philadelphia, but it stands to be a major departure from the vision Sena and the encampment leaders once had. For now, Sena is focusing her efforts elsewhere, including a new shelter just across the city line in Delaware County: “There’s a million other projects that I’m going to be working on and am currently working on, but the tiny homes, I’m just like, peace out. You’re a mess, Philly.”
This past May, new encampments arose in Kensington. There was no protest or strategic organization behind them. This time, people were just gathering to find community, with nowhere else to turn. The city cleared those encampments in August.
In the year since the first tents were pitched on the grass off the Parkway, not much has changed for Philadelphia’s homeless citizens.
Almost no part of the Camp JTD agreement concerning vacant properties and the community land trust has materialized. According to a city spokesperson and a PHA spokesperson, at the time of this writing, neither entity has transferred properties to the encampment protesters, including the homes from the North Philadelphia Camp Teddy deal. That’s because the community land trust, which would hold those properties, doesn’t appear to be fully operational yet. There are still several lengthy and expensive steps that organizers working on the land trust, primarily Bennetch and Johnson, must go through, like acquiring liability insurance and extensive permits and approvals. These requirements, which the city inserted into the agreement, are significant and daunting. It’s not clear that there’s a timeline for when the land trust will be up and running.
The Camp JTD agreement does include a clause allowing the encampment protesters to notify the city of any potential breach of the contract, under which the city would have a week to begin rectifying that breach. The protesters haven’t yet issued any notice of or filed a lawsuit concerning a breach, but Bennetch says she’s considering doing so after the community land trust is operational. She didn’t specify which part of the agreement such a notice would concern.
Even once the community land trust is established, the vacant properties will need to be renovated before they’re truly livable. PHA president Kelvin Jeremiah speculated that some could cost between $100,000 to $250,000 to rehab, with construction, clearing accumulated waste, installing appliances and more. Bennetch disputes that assessment; she says most of the vacant units just need cosmetic repairs that could be paid for largely by grants and future fund-raising. She points to former encampment residents she’s helping to inhabit dozens of vacant PHA houses, including some of the same 50 vacant properties that are part of the agreement, as evidence that major renovations aren’t necessary. But when some of Camp JTD’s residents first moved into these vacant homes ahead of the encampment’s clearing, multiple activists say, a number of them quickly returned to the encampment because the homes weren’t in livable condition. The gap in assessments is significant; a city spokesperson states that when the properties are conveyed to the land trust, they will still be subject to Philadelphia building and fire codes. Additionally, the agreement contains a reversion clause allowing PHA to take back properties if they remain undeveloped or “become a source of blight and nuisance.”
“They city got the press, and they did not have to give anything in return,” says activist Chelsea Dalsey. “And then they get to say, ‘Oh, look, these assholes can’t do this kind of thing.’”
Shortly after the encampment deal was announced, Jeremiah told a reporter with Shelterforce, somewhat cynically, “This is where the rubber meets the road. There are so many people who think they can do this job better than the professionals.”
It’s not clear whether it was by design or simply because these things are difficult and navigating bureaucracy is maddening, but the city responded as cities often do when faced with a burgeoning social movement. Tactics employed by the city, like overwhelming leadership with secret negotiations and offering, then publicizing, meager concessions, were prime examples cited in the 1977 book Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. And some activists do feel like they were set up to fail. Chelsea Dalsey, one of the Camp JTD activists, puts it bluntly: “A lot of what occurred is what the city wanted. It’s played directly into their hands. They won here. They got the press, and they did not have to give anything in return. And then they get to say, ‘Oh, look, these assholes can’t do this kind of thing.’”
A year ago, Sterling Johnson and Jennifer Bennetch signed off on the agreements with the city and PHA. Now, Johnson downplays the significance of the Camp JTD deal, preferring to look forward. “There’s a lot of focus on this one agreement,” he says, adding, “There’s nothing [in the deal] that’s going to stop the amount of people [in Philadelphia] that are going to become homeless in the next five years.” Bennetch still believes the Camp Teddy agreement, which is supposed to net seven fully renovated homes paid for by the PHA, was a good one. But now, she doesn’t see the headline-grabbing Camp JTD deal the same way. “At the time, I didn’t realize how bad that deal was,” she admits, contemplating how little they ended up with and the work ahead on the community land trust. “I don’t know if I would do that again.”
Last summer, as the news of the encampment deal spread among Camp JTD residents, Bennetch approached Beast just as Alex Stewart and James Talib-Dean had several months earlier — after hearing him speak his mind while making a scene, telling others, “We just got shafted.” Bennetch told Beast that as part of the deal, PHA had agreed to give a small number of newly rehabbed units, separate from the 50 vacant units and the Street to Home program, to encampment protesters through something called the Shared Housing Initiative. She asked if he’d be interested.
A couple weeks later, Beast had the keys and a signed two-year lease. His North Philly apartment is small, just enough for him and his tall, wide frame. The one-bedroom was bare when Beast moved in last October. There was no refrigerator, no curtains to offer privacy from the outside world. He made his own window coverings out of children’s blankets and got mostly everything else, including a fridge and a bed, from friends and family. Now, a TV quietly buzzes on a dresser near the far window, a stereo booms Michael Jackson on the radio, and a fleece blanket covers the linoleum floor. Beast suspects Bennetch offered the unit to him, even though they’d clashed before, to get him out of the encampment before his feelings about the deal started rubbing off on others. But ultimately, that didn’t matter much to him. Beast had already seen and been through enough to know — promises and hope were nice, but it was always best to take a sure thing.
Published as “House of Cards” in the October 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.