Can COVID-19 Reopening Plans Mitigate Cycles of Residential Displacement?


  • Shawnna Thomas-EL University of Pennsylvania



African American, Anchor Institutions, COVID-19, Gentrification, Displacement, Town and Gown, Housing


This article uses interviews of long-standing neighborhood residents’ sentiments of university expansion into their community. These data provide persuasive empirical evidence for the need of urban anchor institutions to include as an integral component of their campus reopening efforts, intentional plans for reducing the disruption of housing patterns of permanent residents. The term COVID exposure has come to signify not only the potential to succumb to the virus, but it also implies the revealing of inequities in systems that impact the effects of the crisis within Black and Brown communities. Every sector of U.S. society has been impacted by COVID-19, and it has required a paradigm shift in our interactions with one another. Academic institutions are enacting robust de-densification efforts which will stimulate dramatic shifts in the off-campus housing needs for students, but they stand the chance of displacing or further disadvantaging the long-standing residents who reside outside of their campus border. Universities must use reopening plans as an instrument to change the trajectory of relationships they hope to cultivate with their long-standing neighbors, through renewed engagement efforts that integrate lessons from the past and that seek to build stronger neighborhoods by challenging housing inequity and housing inequality.

Author Biography

Shawnna Thomas-EL, University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Shawnna L. Thomas-EL is an Academic Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine and an Adjunct Faculty member at the Drexel University School of Education. Her teaching and research centers the voices and experiences of Black people, specifically within the context of gentrification and the disproportionate access to and equity in higher education. During her thirty-year career in the field of higher education, she has worked to recruit racially marginalized students into higher education, increase the numbers of underrepresented African American students in traditionally white spaces, and advocate for more welcoming access to higher education. Through her service on committees such as The Friends of the Black Bottom, The Uniquely You Summit, Inc., and research efforts that focus on issues of privilege, race, and racism, she endeavors to demonstrate the inextricable relationship between university expansion and the inequitable access to higher education by members of the Black community. Born in West Philadelphia and raised in the Mantua section of the city, she is a proud product of the Philadelphia School District, and has earned her undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees from Drexel University. When she isn’t advocating for Black students, she can be found on her mat offering yoga instruction to budding yogis. 


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