Sharswood: Local Activist Jennifer Bennetch Pushes Back Against PHA

Two years ago, the Philadelphia Public Housing Authority (PHA) broke ground on a brand new headquarters at the intersection of Ridge Avenue and Master Street in Sharswood. The building opened and became fully operational in January 2019, consolidating numerous PHA offices.

In March, Occupy PHA moved in. Jennifer Bennetch and several other activists lived in tents outside the new building and spent the next five months holding protest signs and talking to PHA visitors and employees about the organization’s development of certain neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

Tents and signs expressing disapproval for PHA still fill the empty lot across the street from PHA’s headquarters, with one reading, “PHA. Opening doors to gentrification and displacement.” Most noticeable is a large black banner with white print that reads, “Fire Darrell Clarke! Write-in Jennifer Bennetch. Residents over developers.” 

Through her activism, Bennetch became more engaged with her community and read up on PHA policies. In late summer, Bennetch launched a write-in campaign to replace City Council President Darrell Clarke, though he went on to win, receiving 27,546 votes to 306 write-ins

Bennetch started Occupy PHA after years of conflict with PHA’s private police and executives, stemming from Bennetch’s original complaint that PHA’s private security force was indistinguishable from Philadelphia Police: similar uniforms, cars and even tactics.

Bennetch is a homeowner who lives near PHA properties close to 19th and Diamond streets and has had several uncomfortable interactions with PHA’s private police. She was forced out of her home when it caught fire shortly before the Occupy PHA protests began.

How did you become involved with Occupy PHA?

I’m actually the one who started Occupy PHA. It was the culmination of a lot of things. I’m a homeowner. Well, my husband and I are homeowners, and we were harassed by private Philadelphia Housing Authority police back in 2016. We thought they were real police for a while. They have the same blue and yellow stripes with similar markings. When we realized they were housing police, I started doing activism around trying to get the housing authority to create distinctively marked vehicles and uniforms, to have a clear course of action and oversight committee for people who are not residents of the housing authority but are affected by what they’re doing.

They would kick us out of their office. They wouldn’t allow us to file complaints. I started going to board meetings in May 2017. I had never spoken in public before. It got my heart up and I got so nervous. I got on the microphone and really poured my heart out to this board and CEO. He kind of just snickered at me, saying his cops would never do that. There was a lady, about 70 years old, who was evicted for an unauthorized dog and cat. All of these people with horrible stories and they just laughed everyone out of the room.

So I said, “I’m just gonna keep coming.” Then I started paying attention to the policy and started noticing the housing authority’s role in gentrifying the neighborhood through different means, such as eminent domain, forcing tenants to move on threat of eviction, and their private police force. March 20th, my home was firebombed. PHA police were the first ones there. I don’t know how they knew my home was firebombed. They were there before the fire department. Occupy PHA was something I had been wanting to do and after the firebombing, I decided to start.

What was it like to be out there protesting? What type of reactions did you receive?

Some of the people that work with PHA have come to me to say that the lower level employees are treated like trash. But the higher ranking PHA employees were the ones that would harass us and bother us. They were going back and forth trying to figure out a way to get us arrested. A lot of the lower level employees came to us and thanked us for doing it.

People walking by would share their own PHA horror stories. They kind of expanded the reason I started the movement. It really surprised me because, usually with these things, you get people that are angry at you. But we didn’t really deal with any of that. The first day out there, it was only two of us, myself and my friend Fredo. The two of us just decided to go out there one night. We had no idea how long it would last. It was just spontaneous.

Did you have support beforehand or did it grow as the protest went on?

It grew. It kind of started with me just angry about my situation and just trying to resolve that. That’s what led me to seeing the other issues and meeting other people. There was a good five months where I would be protesting PHA alone, or just me and my kids.

What did you hope to accomplish by occupying PHA?

The overall goal was to create an independent oversight committee that would be able to take complaints from people about PHA. There’s nowhere to go if you’re not in public housing. But even if you are, they investigate themselves. 

We also wanted to bring accountability to their private police force to get them to change their vehicles and uniforms so they could be distinguished from the real police. We wanted them to follow the same standards of transparency and accountability as the Philadelphia Police, like publishing their complaints online, which we actually got them to do during the protest. That was the one thing we got them to change. They would post what the complaint is and outcome of the situation. 

What was it like toward the end of the protest, and why did you stop?

By the end (PHA executives) were just pretending like we weren’t there. They tried to use the Streets Department against me to remove the big banners, but the department said as long as it wasn’t blocking anybody then it was fine. That’s what they were doing by the end, using other city agencies like the Philadelphia Police or the Streets Department to say that I was doing something illegal.

 I stopped after around five months when my mom became sick. But I felt like Occupy PHA has served its purpose. I knew they weren’t going to agree to any of my demands. I just wanted to raise awareness and bring other people’s attention. The actual protest was to get people to come out and share their stories. I knew PHA would continue to ignore me and I don’t have to be sleeping out there to address the issues that are going on. Honestly, I feel like I’ve become more efficient since I stopped. Being out there 24/7 made it harder to do legal work, send emails, do research, or meet up with people. 

Do you think the protest worked?

It worked for what I wanted it to work for. It obviously didn’t change much about PHA. I just wanted more people to pay attention.

Diamond Street is a good example. PHA forced people out of these houses and now it’s part of Temple student housing. I wanted to meet some of these people that this has happened to because I want to build a class-action lawsuit against PHA for their role in gentrification and displacement. It served the purpose of raising awareness and bringing more people out.

How and when did you decide that running for City Council was the best course of action?

During the whole situation with PHA police, we were running back and forth from Darrell Clarke’s office as his constituents. They knew that PHA police is private security guards with the power of police. However, they wouldn’t give us any constituent service and they banned us from the office at one point. 

They said there was nothing they could do for us. Since I was protesting and looking into PHA’s role in gentrification, they wouldn’t hear it, they didn’t care. And not just that they didn’t care, but they wouldn’t show any professionalism. I started seeing [Clarke’s] role as being really complacent about things. The man has been in office for 20 years. Look at the conditions of the neighborhood. 

We did a march, an Occupy PHA march, to Darrell Clarke’s office either late July or early August. We marched up to his district office on Sedgley Plaza. When we got there, we said we wanted to speak to the councilperson about the issues with PHA. They had the police remove us and I got really frustrated. It started off as just an angry thing, I was on Facebook live and everyone was there, so I said, “If you’re tired of being treated like this by your councilperson, fire Darrell Clarke and write in Jennifer Bennetch.” It was just something I said impulsively, but people started messaging me, saying, ‘“He’s got to go.”

Did you get to have a one-on-one conversation with Clarke?

I had a one-on-one conversation with him just once, and it was kind of by chance. We were going to an auto-parts store near his Brewerytown office and I saw his Tahoe parked out front. He’s usually never here, so I wanted to go inside to get him. I went in there questioning him about PHA and he took me to the back to have a conversation, but I think it was only because he didn’t want other people to hear. We talked about the PHA police, and he even agreed that they were out of control. He said he would meet with me a second time, but he never did.

What do you still want to accomplish through your activism?

I’m going to continue with the PHA stuff and I’m leaning towards getting enough people for a large scale lawsuit against PHA for their role in gentrification and displacement. I’m looking into trying to have Clarke removed from office for violating his oath of office. 

We just want to keep going. Things change every day, so we just have to pay attention to what’s going on. We’re still working on holding PHA more accountable and building the oversight committee. I kind of started the oversight committee already. It’s not funded and PHA isn’t cooperating with it. It’s tough when they aren’t cooperating, but I’ve had people reaching out to me to meet them at their home, helping them put their issues in the timeline, and seeing what steps we can take forward. I’m hoping to use that to demand that the City allows us to create the oversight committee by showing that people have been coming to me with their issues. We’re still in the fight.

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