North Philadelphia residents stuck in eminent domain ‘game’

Rashida Young, 31, is a home health-care aide who moved into a home on Sharswood Avenue with her husband and two daughters earlier this year.

But she can’t stay there long, because the house is being bought by the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) under eminent domain to make room for a planned housing development.

“I like it here. There’s yards for the kids to play in, the block is quiet, everybody looks after each other,” Young said. “They choose to take a whole neighborhood away. I feel like, how can they just uproot families?”

The new Blumberg-Sharswood housing project is intended to revitalize the community north of Girard College, on the borders of Brewerytown, Strawberry Mansion, Sharswood and Francisville.

The project calls for 1,200 new units, which is expected to take a decade and cost $529 million. It also calls for tearing down the decaying Blumberg towers, which date back to the 1960s. Phase one of the new housing projet, which involves building 57 units at a cost of $22 million, began last week.

Related link:PHA breaks ground on massive new North Philly housing project

But in the process, the use of eminent domain to acquire land in the project’s footprint is leaving some local property-owners feeling disenfranchised.

“I think the development’s great,” said Martin Rembert, Young’s landlord. “However, I think what they’re offering the landowners there is actually disrespectful.”

Rembert said he was offered a third of the price that he had Young’s home, which he renovated, appraised for.

PHA president Kelvin Jeremiah said negotiations are ongoing and that some property owners are “speculating.”

“I understand the game,” Jeremiah told Metro. “You couldn’t give people these properties, frankly. Now, you have a lot of folks who are speculating. I saw yesterday as I was touring the area a gentleman whitewashing an abandoned vacant building.”

Related link:North Philly Peace Park tries to start over after PHA swap

But local property owners may be tired of being toyed with.

“They’re the ones playing games, trying to steal our properties,” said Michael Scott, who owns three properties in the area that are being purchased by the PHA and says he is being under-bid. “I got my properties to benefit my daughter.”

Scott produced a letter from the PHA offering $20,000 for a property that real estate website lists as having an estimated value of $100,000.

Scott, who is appealing the use of eminent domain with an attorney, said PHA’s offers don’t take into account the renovations he’s performed on his properties.

Related link:Video: PHA implodes Queen Lane tower

“In the event the offer PHA made is too low and an owner wants to contest it, they will go through a process to provide evidence that a property is worth more than PHA assessed it to be. That’s part of the process,” Jeremiah said.

But for Young, the process is destabilizing her life.

“For somebody to tell me, ‘Oh, you have to move, and there’s nothing you can do about it,'” Young said. “That’s the city of brotherly love?”

Public benefit?

Eminent domain can’t be used to give properties to private developers in Pennsylvania, but it can be used to give land to public agencies like the PHA. Even so, the practice is problematic, said Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions at the D.C.-based Institute for Justice.

“It’s unsurprising that this neighborhood is being targeted,” Walsh said. “Eminent domain … disproportionately affects minority communities and those that are less well off.”

“Just because a use is public doesn’t mean that the use of eminent domain isn’t abusive — it still destroys communities and destroys people’s lives.”