Voices | July 23-30

Reactions, rants and other random musings from you, our readers

East Oak Lane
The back and forth between Councilmember Cherelle Parker and her East Oak Lane constituents continues, voting during a pandemic, and what can be done to end the summer violence? All in this week’s Voices. | Image: YouTube screenshot

East Oak Lane residents united against development

On July 8, Philadelphia Weekly published a letter from Councilwoman Cherelle Parker. In her letter, Parker refutes an East Oak Lane constituent’s claims that she is pushing through a zoning variance against the wishes of the community. Parker writes, “This project would be moving much more quickly if I had decided to change the zoning of the property via the legislative process.”

The practice Parker mentions is known as a councilmanic prerogative, a widely debated legislative power, which a Pew study from 2015 describes as grounded in tradition rather than law. Parker’s statement underscores a paternalistic attitude prevalent in government – the notion that elected officials know better than the people they represent. True, Parker has not yet wielded her councilmanic prerogative because, as she claims in her letter, “I value community input.”

Let’s take a moment then to examine community input over the last several years this development has been in the works, from 2015 to present day.

  • Before the Refuge Evangelical Baptist Church acquired property rights in 2015, the church expressed future plans to construct a three-story residential building for seniors on the site, which was met with strong community opposition. The land was, and still is, zoned RSD-3, single-family residential. The church was aware prior to its purchase that a zoning variance would be required to achieve its aim.
  • At every public meeting of which we have record regarding this high-rise development (February 2016 through February 2020), the majority of attendees have shared time and again that they could not support high-density development on this parcel of land.
  • At these meetings, the only support for the project was expressed by members of the Refuge Church, most of whom did not live in the neighborhood.
  • At the most recent meeting in February, hosted by the Registered Community Organization, over 100 people attended to discuss the merits and reservations about this apartment complex, and 85 percent voted against the high-rise development.
  • At the February community-led meeting, Parker made a 15-minute appearance where she chastised constituents in opposition, pushed her own agenda, and then promptly left the meeting.
  • At the Philadelphia Zoning Board meeting later that month, community members again raised their concerns, which centered around increased parking and congestion, diminished property values, compromised traffic safety for the neighboring elementary school and reduced road clearance for the neighboring fire station.
  • Three civic associations, the Friends of the Oak Lane Library, the Oak Lane Community Action Organization, and the Oak Lane Tree Tenders, have expressed formal, written dissent for the project.
  • In the surrounding blocks of the proposed development site, over 100 signs in opposition stand on the lawns of community members.

This is not, as Parker claims, “a few individuals’ intent on spreading misinformation about the project.” Despite attempts by Parker and the property owner to divide residents, East Oak Lane is unified on this issue.

Parker describes the proposed development as “a four-story building with 40 units of senior housing … designed for area residents who desire to remain in the community as they age but find their independence challenged by stairs and other aspects of their homes.”

EOL is a neighborhood with a large percentage of seniors who have resided here for decades. Many households are multi-generational, with two and three generations living together. As the Washington Post reported in April 2019, seniors prefer to stay where they are, because they are happy with their homes, communities, and quality of life. This holds true for most seniors here in EOL, who vehemently proclaim their interest in aging in place. Particularly in the time of COVID-19, our seniors do not want to leave their houses to live in 600 square-foot apartments, surrounded by other seniors instead of by families and neighbors who help care for them.

These families, who have built generational wealth in their homes, recognize this misplaced high-density development will negatively impact the value of their homes. Further, the proposed complex would have strict income guidelines for residents, meaning most EOL seniors would not meet the requirements. Parker’s claim this is “designed for area residents” is really a hollow one, and a callous disregard for senior voices in our community.

EOL and the surrounding area is saturated with apartment complexes and senior living facilities, with over 40 nearby. We reviewed their websites, and most of them have vacancies.

Parker closes her letter by expressing surprise and indignation that a constituent would raise the possibility of her having corrupt motives. When a politician openly ignores the voice of the clear majority, and campaigns against their interest, one has to question their motivations. Paternalism and political self-serving agendas from government representatives are an unfortunate part of our country’s history, and we have a right to question, object, and demand fair representation.

We are not against construction and development in our community, and we realize that economic sustainability matters for the property owner. We ask them to please build a structure that adheres to the current zoning ordinance, RSD-3. This will give the church the revenue and positive community impact it seeks, while not contributing to congestion and diminished traffic safety.

Build houses not high-rises! We love our community and we want to continue maintaining its family-based values and positive activism for the future of our great city.

East Oak Lane residents Yvette Young, Serena and Anthony Chisholm, Milay Galvez, Eric Lightheart and Michael Poxon.

The SHOUT Out

Philadelphia recently experienced one of its most deadly periods in years.

Your turn: How would you reduce gun violence in the city? Send your thoughts to voices@philadelphiaweekly.com

COVID-19 and the impact on sexual assault

Philadelphia and the rest of the nation are entrenched in the pandemic. For the past four months, COVID-19 has disrupted our sense of normalcy, it has altered the way we live, conduct business, and interact with people. The entire world has experienced stay-at-home orders and quarantines to quell the incidence of the virus. We are in the midst of a public health crisis. 

For many people, the coronavirus-related stay-at-home order has resulted in victims of sexual violence, being quarantined with their abuser. These victims are children or adults. The sexual violence that occurs during the stay-at-home order is continual and does not let up.

The violence is compounded by additional stress related to loss of a job, the potential for housing/hunger insecurity and sudden loss of childcare, or unprepared homeschooling of school-aged children. These variables compounded with gender inequities and power hierarchies result in increased stressors in the home and ultimately an increase in sexual violence. Women and children are suddenly removed from the people and services that provided safety and protection.

Children who rely on mandated reporting to recognize signs of child sexual abuse are no longer in contact with these professionals. Co-workers who would lend a caring ear and support are no longer accessible. Victims of sexual violence are alone and attempting to survive. They cannot call for help. They think that no one hears them and they suffer in extreme silence.

In May, amid the coronavirus pandemic, civil unrest occurred. COVID-19 and its effects were compounded with the latest social justice emergency. Once again, a Black man was murdered at the hands of law enforcement. Philadelphia had to manage not only a pandemic, but protests and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which exacerbated sexual violence as Philadelphia is focused on containing the spread of COVID-19 and the violence in the streets.

The result is, between the months of mid-March until today, Philadelphia has been dealing with a silent epidemic of sexual violence interwoven into the fabric of a pandemic and civil unrest. An epidemic that we will not know its magnitude until people return to work, virtual learning is over and children are once again in the audience of teacher, counselors and support staff.

Our families, particularly our children, are suffering. COVID-19 and the negative impact of civil unrest are creating a perfect storm for gender-based crime. We will not know its impact until Philadelphia has adopted its “new normal.” When people can interact with friends, peers and colleagues; when youth-serving professionals can put their eye on children and adolescents.

When people can receive the help and support that they have been requesting. Through it, all, WOAR – Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence is poised to provide much-needed support and guidance to individuals who have experienced sexual assault during this time. We are ready to handle the increase in hotline calls today, tomorrow, and when our “normal” is created. If you are a victim or someone you know is experiencing sexual violence, don’t hesitate to contact the 24-hour hotline at (215) 985-3333 or visit our website to access our chat line at woar.org.

IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING!

Monique S. Howard, Executive Director, WOAR – Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence.

Oppose judicial gerrymandering in state

I want the state legislature to actively oppose judicial gerrymandering in PA. Fair and impartial courts form the basis for our democracy, but HB 196 – already passed by the House and Senate – would undermine the impartiality of our court system by allowing the legislature to engage in judicial gerrymandering. 

To pass this constitutional amendment, it has to go up for another vote in the General Assembly, and we urge our representatives to reject this partisan, political maneuver to take control of our court system. 

PA has been my home, and its integrity is being besmirched by gerrymandering. Put an end to judicial gerrymandering now!

May McGraw | Philadelphia

Ensure all residents their vote will count

I am a Philadelphia resident who is very concerned about voting in the November election. Because of the pandemic, I am understandably worried about going to a polling place where I will be indoors and in potential contact with people who are not wearing masks or observing safe social distancing.

Although I have no intention of working at a polling place, I am concerned about the people who take on that responsibility. Many of them are elderly and their health is undeniably at risk.

It seems obvious that voting by mail should be an option for anyone who, like me, is fearful of being in public, indoor places as long as the pandemic continues. But mail-in ballots require time and planning to be available and processed correctly. 

During the primary election, many mailed ballots were not received in time to be counted, and many people without internet access were unable to obtain mail-in ballots at all. I was told that the city commissioners are the decision-makers regarding election procedures.

But, despite the obvious risk and the almost certainty that Philadelphians will be exposed to Covid-19 at polling places, they have refused to tell me or any of my concerned fellow Philadelphians about the precautions that are being taken or the plans to send applications for mail-in ballots to registered voters. 

Residents of Philadelphia deserve to know what is being done to ensure that all eligible voters in Philadelphia who want to vote in the important November election will be assured that they can do so safely and that their vote will be counted.

Howard Krakow | Philadelphia

Residents are safer in encampments

A letter to Mayor Kenney and Kelvin Jeremiah, PHA CEO: 

Please stop gaslighting us. 

At their Thursday July 16 press conference, PHA and Mayor Kenney stated it would be “unfair” for encampment residents to jump the waiting list for housing. The waitlist for low-income housing has been closed since 2013 and those who got on the list have been waiting for eight years or more. PHA has more than 40,000 vacant properties that, instead of being converted to low-income housing as per the Philadelphia Housing Authority mandate, are being sold off or just left to rot. The Philadelphia Housing Authority has a history of corruption and has continued to decrease public housing and to sell off public property, turning a profit at the expense of the real people desperately in need of affordable housing in Philadelphia. Instead of opening low-income housing, PHA built a $45 million headquarters last year. The CEO of PHA, Kelvin Jeremiah pays himself about $300,000 a year. How is that fair? 

Prices in the city are going up, low-income people are being pushed out. Often pushed out into the streets. When your rent costs over 30 percent of your income, you are two months from being homeless. During this time, when unemployment is suddenly at an all-time high and we are facing health risks unprecedented in our lifetimes, what is the city doing beyond gaslighting the people? Trying to “place” people into shelters or temporary hotels is not a resolution. 

Kenney, you say the encampment is “unsafe” and “unhealthy” and “unsanitary.” But you only seem concerned with the safety, health and sanitation conditions of the houseless when you can see them in your nice neighborhoods. I just don’t believe you care beyond the image it projects. 

Kenney, you say there has been violence at the encampment but where is your concern for the violence on our streets all over the city? My mom taught me safety in numbers, on the streets alone with no housing, anything can happen and no one will care. Gathered together, there is safety not available for the individual on the street. The stabbing you keep referring to happened to a resident by a non-resident. Instead of breaking up encampments why don’t you take a look at the gun violence in the city?

Kenny, you say you worry about the health of residents and the risk of COVID spreading. It has been reported that the encampments are COVID breeding grounds; this is a lie. The encampment follows guidelines as much as possible. The proof is in the pudding as they say, our record tells the story. There has been one COVID-positive resident, and due to our quick response and frequent testing, the spread was stopped. Compare that to Philadelphia homeless shelters where the largest male shelter recently had 50 percent COVID-positive.

Kenny, you say you are concerned about the hygiene of the camp. The parkway encampment is only unsanitary because the city has pressured the port-a-potty company to cancel our contracts. You are using dirty tactics to disrupt and disturb the encampment. You are trying to play all the sides but winning none. 

Lastly, every decision made is based on consensus of residents; the encampment is an autonomous zone. That autonomy is grounded in the decision-making power of houseless and housing insecure residents. Organizers are not denying residents the ability to talk to city outreach, the encampment is fully directed by residents.

Due to a history of abuse and the belief that allowing these organizations into the encampment would be akin to allowing the police free access, residents have banned city workers. The very real history of abuse and neglect is on the side of the city, not the organizers nor the residence nor anyone involved. If you mean to respect the agency of residents then feel free to offer to the residents to talk to you outside the encampment, there is nothing stopping them from coming to you, they just don’t want to.

Residents are safer both from the regular dangers and pandemic danger at encampments. The houseless in our city are people who have often been ignored and forgotten; this is easier to do when they are dispersed and alone.

Maureen Bellwoar | Philadelphia