Affordable Housing Task Force Report Met with Protests, Questions of Intent

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Despite the rapid pace of real-estate development in Pittsburgh, a housing crisis still exists for low- and moderate-income residents who cannot afford to live in the upscale housing developments taking the place of formerly-affordable houses and apartment complexes. As a result, many lifelong Pittsburghers, particularly African-Americans, are pushed out of their homes, their neighborhoods and the City itself.

In response, in December of 2014, City Council Representative R. Daniel Lavelle proposed legislation which would require any developers using public monies including tax subsidies and/or grants of public land like that of the former Civic Arena site in the Lower Hill District, to make an effort to include 30 percent of housing units as affordable housing. The proposal was met with approval by the City Planning Commission, which agreed with Lavelle that housing would cost no more than 30 percent of income for households at, or below, 50 percent of median income.

The legislation was not enacted, rather, in January 2015 Council created an “Affordable Housing Task Force” chaired by Lavelle and City Planning Director Ray Gastil, the 25-member task force, with representation from all levels of government, developers, financiers, and citizens active with housing issues, began to “assess the current and projected future landscape of housing affordability in the City of Pittsburgh,” according to the preliminary report issued Wednesday, April 27. The task force has also created a website, pittsburghpa.gov/dcp/ahtf/index.html, to document the process and the recommendations.

Following the presentation of the recommendations to Council, Lavelle called a Post-Agenda session to enlighten his fellow legislators about the contents of the preliminary report. The meeting held in Council Chambers was open to the public, and the Chambers were packed, partially as a result of a pre-meeting press conference held by Pittsburgh Homes for All (homesforallpgh.org/), recently formed by local housing-rights activists based on a national group of the same name. Homes for All participants questioned the viability of the task force’s recommendation, particularly in light of recent development trends.

“Pittsburgh’s economic redevelopment has earned it the reputation as a ‘most-livable city,’ but growing numbers of City residents are asking ‘livable for whom,’ Homes for All asserts in a press release. Citing Pittsburgh’s own declaration of being a “Human Rights City,” the group says, “We can no longer ignore the reality of a growing divide between two Pittsburgh’s: One affluent, professional and largely white; the other, low-income people with long-term rots in the region, largely people of color.”

The task force recommendations include incentive-based inclusionary housing requirements, which would “generate affordable units through public benefit” like zoning regulations, tax incentives, loan programs and below market value land sales; expanded use of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit to support construction and rehabilitation efforts; programs to monitor the preservation of subsidized or “naturally occurring” low-income housing; and the creation of a $10 million Housing Trust Fund through the URA, similar to one created for East Liberty, to “stabilize and improve Pittsburgh neighborhoods through dedicated sources of revenue.”

In Pennsylvania at the end of 2014, the latest figures available, median income is $52,396. For those under the age of 25, median income is $27,259, and for African-Americans, median income in Pittsburgh is $22,000. This would mean that the recommended 30 percent of income spent on housing would be $1309 for most Pennsylvanians, but for those with lower incomes, like African-Americans, the amount would be $550, an amount far less than that charged for a studio apartment in most newly-constructed housing units.

“There is already a deficit of more than 20,000 affordable units to meet residents’ needs,” says Housing for All, “yet none of the estimated 10,000 new housing units will be affordable for those most in need. This shows a blatant disregard by our public officials for the basic human rights of City residents.”

Seeing the long list of those signed up to make public comment at the Post-Agenda meeting, Lavelle warned potential speakers that the meeting was not, in fact, a public hearing, but that each of those listed would be given one minute to address the members, many of whom might otherwise be forced to leave the meeting early to meet other commitments as a result of timing. Many of the speakers provided written testimony to be shared with Council through the City Clerk’s office.

“The City owns property, houses that are abandoned,” says Gail Williams of the Penn Plaza Tenant Council. “I don’t understand why they don’t get some of these schools that teach carpentry, plumbing, whatever, to refurbish these homes, grade these students [based on] what they have done — and they will take pride in it — and put some of these people in them, instead of letting them sit and deteriorate. This is what the City needs to do.”

“We need to have mandatory requirements — I don’t think incentives alone,” says Paul O’Hanlon. “I think the report glosses over the fact that the area of greatest need is in the 30 percent or below median income, and what we have gotten is this sort of tsunami effect that forces poor people to rent apartments that are unaffordable to them. This makes others rent keep going up and up.”

O’Hanlon says “There is too much of an emphasis on rental property, and very little on home ownership. Section 8 vouchers could allow poor families to become homeowners. Ad we could confront structural problems where if you can’t afford home maintenance, a repair insurance program could be created where homeowners could pay an affordable amount per month.”

“I am coming here for like the 50th time to tell you there is a housing crisis in our City,” says Ronelle Guy, a longtime housing rights activist who is also a member of Homes for All. “I’m getting old. Tell me you don’t care about the working poor. Tell me you don’t care about people with disabilities. Clearly you don’t, because for 20 years, I have been telling you there is a housing crisis, and now, People who work for the City can’t find [affordable] places to live.”

“We need to be direct and intentional about including these populations when we are designing development plans,” Guy says. “The reality is that we call ourselves a Human Rights City, but the poor in this City have no rights. No choices in where we live, no choices in where we shop, no choices of providers and vendors we use. That’s appalling for a Human Rights City. You signed it, now you have to be about it.”

“Be above reproach. Make sure everyone in this City has a decent, affordable, safe place to live,” Guy says. “A home that they can afford.”

“The main concern Homes for All is addressing today is that the task force is calling for ‘incentive-based’ inclusionary zoning,” says Helen Gerhardt, one of the group’s spokespersons. “Research shows that such programs are far less effective than mandatory programs at producing affordable units. Only 17 percent of all inclusionary housing programs nationwide are incentive-based, and they tend to work only in cities where it is difficult to obtain zoning and development approval without an affordable housing commitment. And why should these restrictions apply to developments of only 25 units or more?”

“We currently face an affordable housing deficit of more than 21,000 units,” Gerhardt continues. “Between 2007 and 2012, Pittsburgh’s average monthly rent rose $120, a 23-percent jump that even outsized increases in New York.”

Gerhardt says that she must commit almost 50 percent of her income to housing, making proximity to public transit another important factor in the creation of affordable housing.

“I rode here in the rain on my bike, and I need to stay near the transit center. That is my lifeline,” Gerhardt says. “Please stand up for us, in action, not just in word.”

Alethea Simms of East Liberty wonders why a task force was necessary to determine the need for affordable housing.

“Look at the rolls at the Housing Authority and see who is on the list and has been there for years. Look who has had to turn their vouchers back because they couldn’t find any place that is affordable,” Simms says. “Ask us who have had to try to find a place, near transit, near stores, near our support centers. This task force was, I’m sorry, a waste of money.”

Cynthia Tillson of Shadyside says that, during daily rides on the City’s bike trails, “I witness more and more tents being erected. These tents are housing homeless individuals who are just normal people down on their luck and are having a hard time getting any traction. According to statistics kept by the state’s Department of Education, there are more than 1700 homeless children in Allegheny County alone.”

“Most of these families are crowded in shelters, because parent’s income is often an issue in finding affordable housing,” Tillson says. “All the Section 8 housing developments in the City have waiting lists, and those lists have been closed for years.”

“The housing task force is comprised of 17 government officials and a few community representatives, and I think that is a problem to begin with,” says Black Political Empowerment Project Chief Executive Officer Tim Stevens. “You need to be hearing from the people who are directly impacted.”

“Any agency, any developer, who comes into the City — there must be set aside a commitment for low-income, affordable housing,” Stevens says. “Otherwise, they should not be in our City. We are hoping that there is a strong commitment for follow-through, and for programs to guarantee housing for low- and moderate-income people in Pittsburgh.”

“That’s the way we live,” Stevens says. “That’s who we are.”

A full version of the report is expected to be available soon, with a final version to follow.

By Nancy Hart

Nhart543@gmail.com

Twitter: @nhart543

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