“The Price the Poor Pay For Gentrification” by Tammy Rojas

October 15, 2019

This article is reposted below and was first published on Medium.com (linked here).

Joe Walker and his partner Carol have very graciously agreed to allow us to share their story in hopes the people of Lancaster, PA will begin to better understand the plight of the poor and dispossessed in our community. Their story highlights the many interlocking injustices we face on a daily basis. (Photo: Joe Walker outside his home on Popular Street, Lancaster, Pennsylvania)

Joe, 67 and Carol, 77, have struggled all their lives living in poverty despite the fact they both have worked very hard all their lives. Joe, shared with us that he cannot read and write, the highest level of education he received was 8th grade through the special education program and the jobs he has had over the years were mostly low paying hard labor jobs, one of which was Lancaster Malleable.

I first met Joe Walker while I was doing a seasonal litter clean up job in the SOWE neighborhood located in Lancaster City, PA. The SOWE neighborhood is the same neighborhood in which both he and I reside. The first day Joe approached me to talk I could tell immediately he was very stressed and needed someone to talk too and I was more than happy to be that person and lend an ear to a neighbor in need.

Joe shared with me that he was very worried about the letter he and his partner Carol had received from SlateHouse Group, asking them to vacate the residence on Popular Street which they have called home for nearly 22 years. When you add up all the rent they have paid while living in that small one bedroom home, the total comes to about $145,200 dollars, which is well over the value of the home at the time they moved in and it’s current value.

I noticed what they were given was a letter asking them to vacate the residence within 30 days and not an official eviction notice. I did my best to answer his questions at that time, I gave him a tenant/landlord handbook and reported the concern to the neighborhood group Coordinator, Jake Thorsen of Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership (LHOP) in hopes they could possibly help Joe and Carol with resources and or to find new housing.

Over the course of 30 days following the first time Joe approached me he made it a point to seek me out in the mornings while I was working, picking up litter and after the first few days of our interactions we exchanged phone numbers and we talked just about everyday. He would share stories about his and Carol’s life and one day we started talking a little bit about the organizing work I do. He shared with me that he was born at the old St. Joseph’s Hospital and he couldn’t believe they closed it down, “I can’t believe they closed that hospital, they are denying the people a choice,’’ Joe said.

As each day passed, I could tell the stress was weighing on Joe. I could tell he hadn’t been sleeping much and he shared that very fact with me. Every morning he would give me an update. He shared with me his back up plan in case they couldn’t find another place by the deadline date. He said he would make sure Carol had a bed to sleep in, even if it was a shelter, and he would get camping gear. He said he would survive just fine in a nearby wooded area because he had received survival training years ago and he’s good with making tools, he said he would pitch a tent to live in and cook cans of beans with his cooking gear and indulge in one of his favorite hobbies, fishing. I honestly think he was saying these things out loud with the hopes of reassuring himself that everything will be ok.

I was dismayed that there seemed to be little action in stepping up to help them by those who claim that’s what they are there for and I couldn’t in good conscience let these poor people struggle through this alone. So I decided, with their permission, to share Joe and Carol’s situation with the other members of the Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee of Put People First! PA and together we decided we would do whatever we could to help Joe and Carol through this difficult time.

Joe and Carol had trouble finding an affordable place to rent so they didn’t vacate their home per the request of the letter SlateHouse Group sent, so Slatehouse Group decided to file for eviction to gain possession of the property. Joe & Carol were able to obtain a lawyer through MidPenn legal services who accompanied them to court along with two members of the Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee, Anne Winslow and myself.

The judge was sympathetic towards Joe and Carol while the representative SlateHouse Group sent to appear in court was cold and relentlessly kept repeating that SlateHouse simply was there to request possession of the property and she didn’t seem to care or give any thought as to what would happen to Joe and Carol once her employer, SlateHouse Group, was given possession. After the hearing Joe, Carol, Anne and myself all talked with the lawyer and had a plan in place. The lawyer would file an appeal and that would buy us 4–6 months to find Joe and Carol a new place to live which would give us to at least the end of this year.

Their lawyer suggested we look in Columbia, a small borough in the far western part of Lancaster County. The lawyer went on to state, “that’s where many of the poor people who leave Lancaster city are moving to.” Something the Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee was all too familiar with, as well as knowing that Columbia is the new target to push for gentrification. Joe & Carol are concerned about leaving the city limits because they don’t have transportation and their doctor is located in Lancaster City, which makes it easier for them to get access to the necessary healthcare services they need.

What we didn’t see coming and what ended up putting a damper on our plan was SlateHouse Group ultimately decided to sell the property to someone else recently. Over the course of the 22 years Joe and Carol have lived in that same home it has been sold at least four-five times and many of those landlords failed to maintain the needed upkeep on the home. Now Joe and Carol are being asked again to vacate the residence by the new owner who bought the property, Stoltzfus Investments, by October 31, 2019.

Joe and his partner Carol live on a fixed income, and are Medicare recipients, they are worried they will not be able to find another place they can afford or that will be within accessible range of their doctor, before the new deadline. With Carol’s health issues and Joe’s past history of major depression it concerns us greatly that they may lose that accessibility to their doctor and ultimately, the healthcare services they need in order to survive. “All we want is a roof over our heads, bills paid, not asking for anything else,” Joe said to me the day he shared with us the letter they had received from the new owner.

As each day passes, with no luck yet of securing a new place for Joe and Carol, the members of the Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee worry that these two wonderful people may just find themselves homeless by no fault of their own. For 22 years they paid their rent every month, worked hard, “followed all the rules” and now they may become homeless, all for the sake of a real estate company wanting to make a profit. This is what gentrification is doing to the poor and dispossessed in our community. It’s time we end this war on the poor!

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