In his heyday, Emanuel Freeman got millions of dollars in grants for the various social service agencies he ran purportedly to help low-income, minority residents of Germantown, and from which he, his wife Emma and their cronies profited handsomely. But in 2018, Freeman has been settling for a couple hundred bucks at a time, squeezed out of the low-income, minority residents who still live in the properties he controls but does not legally own.
But hopefully, that won't happen anymore. Last week, a community meeting was held for the estimated 140 tenants of 45 properties identified as still under Freeman's control, which are currently headed for foreclosure after the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) last month decided to default on $3.5 million in loans to Freeman and take over the properties. That decision came after a public outcry when it was learned in February that PRA was considering Freeman's offer to pay back the $3.5 million in return for the forgiveness of $5 million in debts and penalties, which the PRA ultimately rejected.
"We were about to make a mistake. We should have done more due diligence. We didn't. But we stopped it," said City Director of Planning and Development Anne Fadullon at the meeting. "We heard you and said 'Okay, this is a bad actor, we're not playing with that bad actor anymore.'"
But while PRA has expressed support for keeping the tenants in their homes and keeping rents affordable, plans are not set in stone. Many of the properties are blighted and have large utility and tax debts. Some have serious structural problems, and many units are vacant.
"We're just trying to figure out what's going on," said Lamont Anderson, a rent-paying resident of Hamill Mills, one of the Freeman properties. "Nothing in my kitchen works. Eighty percent of my apartment's electric is busted. The heat, hot water, gas all has problems. We'll see what happens."
The properties in question were ordered sold off in 2010 by a judge after many of Freeman's interconnected social service agencies across Northwest Philly declared bankruptcy, but trustees apparently never followed through.
"There were rumors that Emanuel Freeman was still collecting from properties he owned, or still controlled," said Connie Winters, a Germantown developer, "but the community was asleep and assumed the court-appointed trustees were doing their job to dissolve the assets of the corporation."
Freeman has been continuing to collect rent and even in recent weeks to contact tenants to demand more illegal rent, some said. He has even allegedly stolen money from tenants he said is for repairs, taking $1,300 from one tenant for a leaky roof that he never fixed. But despite all this, many tenants at the meeting wanted to find out how to stay in their home or, if they can, to buy it. (Freeman, who fled Philadelphia for Bear, Delaware, years ago, could not be reached for comment.)
"That meeting last night was the first time that anyone from the Redevelopment Authority or the councilwoman's office was directly engaging with tenants," said Emaleigh Doley, executive director of Germantown United CDC. "People living in these properties that are being discussed downtown need to be prioritized, and they need to know about what's happening, because they're afraid."
Germantown United was part of task force including members from Baynton Hill Neighbors, Historic Germantown Properties, SoLo/Germantown Civic Association, Wakefield 49ers and West Central Germantown Neighbors, who collectively organized the community meeting. Residents heard promises from Licenses & Inspections Commissioner David Perri and City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who vowed to help tenants address trash and other quality-of-life issues at Freeman's properties. Attorney and neighborhood activist Yvonne Haskins offered to personally represent any tenant who is threatened with eviction.
But tenants at the meeting also learned the sordid, shameful history of Germantown Settlement: how Freeman took over a Quaker charity founded in the 1880s and marshaled significant political support to collect some $100 million in taxpayer-funded grants, before going bankrupt in 2010. From social programs to a charter school, housing and commercial development, Germantown Settlement did it all, with the encouragement and support of local politicians and officials, like former Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller and former PRA Executive Director Herb Wetzel.
As of 2006, the year Settlement bought the Germantown YWCA for $1.8 million in city and state funds (which remains vacant and undeveloped today), it owned some 500 units of housing and 170,000 square feet of retail space. But despite some of Settlement's early projects getting positive reviews, the organization was eventually revealed as a bottomless pit for taxpayer funds, which were either mismanaged or just disappeared. Freeman was never charged criminally for his role, despite enriching himself and his wife with six-figure salaries that they spent on luxury cars and homes in the suburbs.
"A lot of what you see in Germantown is directly related to the fact there were large parcels that were owned by these organizations and weren't taken care of, so blight breeds blight," Bass said at the meeting. "None of the people on stage were involved or were a part of what happened. … However, what we are going to do is fix it."
Any tenants of former Freeman properties are urged to contact Councilwoman Bass' office at (215) 686-3424 or Germantown United CDC at (215) 856-4303.