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How the Philly #HousingNow Encampment Movement Prompts Us to Reimagine a Right to Contract, Part 1


Madison is a JD candidate at University of Pennsylvania Law School.

This summer, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the corresponding racial justice uprising, a coalition of unhoused people and organizers with the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative and the Workers Revolutionary Collective quietly hitched some tents in a park just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia.

Situated between luxury apartment buildings, a Whole Foods, and one of the City’s most famous tourist spots, “Camp JTD”—named after cofounder James Talib Dean who passed away during the encampment’s first week—swelled quickly as word-of-mouth spread around the city of an open-air encampment offering unhoused residents the type of community, solidarity, and safety that many had struggled to find in the City’s shelters, especially during a global pandemic.

As the occupation grew to boast hundreds of tents, a well-stocked kitchen, a donation stand, and a medic tent, the residents of Camp JTD gathered to communally adopt a radical but simple demand: permanent housing for the camps’ unhoused residents. They decided that they would remain in the encampment until this demand was met. As one unhoused resident and organizer explained to journalist Jason Peters: “We just want permanent housing. We all want permanent housing. We’re not gonna stop until we get permanent housing.”

“We just want permanent housing. We all want permanent housing. We’re not gonna stop until we get permanent housing.”

Meanwhile, in North Philly, another encampment – named Camp Teddy after a particularly gregarious resident– sprung up on a tract of land outside of the headquarters of the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), when a group of unhoused people joined with organizers from Occupy PHA to demand that the PHA house the unhoused, rather than sell properties to private developers for market-rate apartments. In an interview, organizer Alex Stewart remarked: “there are eight vacant PHA properties for every unhoused person in Philadelphia.” Elsewhere in the City, Occupy PHA organizers began moving unhoused mothers and their children into vacant PHA properties, fixing up the properties during the process and giving families a safe space to shelter-in-place.

Over the next four months, the City attempted to evict both encampments on three separate occasions. Each time, the residents defied the eviction orders and hundreds of Philadelphians mobilized to defend the encampments, through nonviolent resistance, petitions, phone zaps, email campaigns, and demonstrations outside of City Hall and Mayor Kenney’s house.  With each eviction attempt, the call for Mayor Kenney to take seriously the demand of permanent housing grew. Organizer and Camp JTD resident Dee Black, who crafted a petition that amassed nearly five thousand signatures, explained: “If you aren’t going to give us what we need, we’ll get signatures to force you to give us what we need.” Despite these demonstrations of public will, negotiations between the encampments and the City began to stall. Confronted with the City’s inaction and hard-lining, Black followed up with a legal threat: “[W]e will have to rely on the [intelligence] of lawyers and judges.”

Implicit in Black’s allusion to lawyers and judges is a contention that the City’s obstructionist behavior was illegal. Speaking from a community organized around a shared commitment to a positive right to housing and radical democracy, the City’s inattention to popular will and unmet housing needs was a violation of a community norm. By framing the City’s betrayal of the encampment’s normative values as a legal issue, Black joined a longstanding tradition of activists, as documented by Reva Siegel and Robert Cover, engaging in jurisgenesis – the creation of legal meaning – via the expansion of the public imagination of law to include normative frameworks not currently enshrined in the law. Eventually, Black was right; lawyers and judges did get involved, when a legal team assembled a constitutional argument and filed an emergency lawsuit in federal court to enjoin the City from evicting the encampment.  The lawsuit helped to slow the City’s eviction process even though the court eventually ruled that eviction was “permitted, but not required.”

Meanwhile, organizers were engaged in collective bargaining with the City. Where a formal constitutional argument failed, the encampments used the power they had cultivated to enshrine shared normative values not into public law but into private law. As Lisa Alexander explains, the normative “right to housing” is increasingly “constitutionalized” through the creation of party-made private law, demonstrating how organizers can use public will to shape the law outside of courts and legislatures that have been inhospitable to acknowledging the right. On October 5, Camp Teddy, the North Philly encampment outside of the PHA headquarters, announced that they had entered an agreement. The camp’s twenty unhoused residents had won nine houses and the opportunity to work alongside union laborers in rehabilitating the properties in a job training program called “Working for Home Repair Training Program.” In doing so, the unhoused residents reclaimed public housing previously slated for privatization through the controversial RAD program. Then, on October 13, Camp JTD on the Parkway announced they too had entered an agreement. The City and PHA had vowed to transfer 50 vacant properties into a community land trust established by encampment residents.

it is also embedded within the very practice of unhoused people occupying public space as leverage in pursuit of recognition of their right to dignity and housing

Organizers have formally eschewed the label of “victory” for this resolution, pointing out that this is just one battle in the larger war against “forces of cultural genocide like developers, housing authorities, cops [that] are still targeting our neighborhoods and communities.” Still, the agreement is a major breakthrough. It means that hundreds of formerly unhoused people will have a permanent place to call home. In a society where other rights depend on one’s property rights in housing, this means so much more than just a comfortable, safe place to sleep. As organizer Sterling Johnson puts it, “We’re talking about people being able to smoke without being hassled, being able to go without being sexually assaulted by police or harassed by police, woken up by police or outreach workers on a daily basis. It shouldn’t be a crime to exist, but it is right now.”

Much like abolitionist demonstrations during the summer prompted us to imagine a world without policing, these triumphant encampments have prompted us to imagine a Philadelphia – and a country — without homelessness. As Dee Black explains, “We are telling the state, ‘we want our rights back.’ We want y’all to give us what we’re asking for. More buildings for shelters. More resources, because at the end of the day if you can give people who have housing and jobs more resources, why can’t y’all give us that?” But the radical nature of the encampment is not just embedded within the radical vision of abolishing homelessness and de-commodifying housing, it is also embedded within the very practice of unhoused people occupying public space as leverage in pursuit of recognition of their right to dignity and housing and within a contract negotiation process that forges a legal right to housing even if not officially recognized by courts and legislatures.  It opens up space to experiment with the possibility for collective bargaining over terms of access to housing and for the reordering of the overlapping property and contract rights that currently govern such access.

In my next post, I will interpret how these protests have disrupted the process of market distribution of housing, challenged the conventional understanding of the “right to contract,” and transformed the legal relations that undergird every housing agreement into a more collective method of arriving at pivotal terms.