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Apartment complex may be reborn as "cohousing" development

After fending off ex-con housing proposal, community envisioning radical changes

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Four months after fending off an attempt to move ex-convicts into an East Liberty apartment complex, residents and a community-development group are envisioning radical changes for the decrepit building. Meanwhile, federal officials continue to search for ex-offender housing.

The U.S. Marshals Service had hoped to use the building at 5620 Rippey St., which the federal government seized from a convicted drug-dealer, as transitional housing for non-violent offenders being reintroduced to the community. But fierce community opposition from the tight-knit neighborhood killed the plan in late July [See City Paper, "Proposed federal halfway house axed," July 26].

Now, the building's fate lies in the hands of East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI), a non-profit that purchased the building from the feds on Oct. 31 for $250,000.

"Our number-one plan is to renovate the building as cohousing," says ELDI Planning Coordinator Kendall Pelling. "It will help build stability in the community."

"Cohousing," which originated in Denmark in the 1960s, is a type of residence where neighbors design and run their communities cooperatively. Such communities, for example, typically use common facilities for meals and social activities, and make management decisions collectively.

"Cohousing is for people who want more than just to wave at their neighbors," says Pelling, who compares the concept to college dorm life. "It allows you to live amongst your neighbors."

Currently, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States, there are an estimated 200 cohousing projects in 37 states -- 93 of them completed, five of which are in Pennsylvania.

Pelling says he's unaware of any other cohousing arrangements in Pittsburgh.

If ELDI does rehabilitate the building into cohousing, Pelling says it would consist of about 14 condominium units. Each could require renovations ranging from $60,000 to $150,000 per unit or higher, depending on the desires of the potential residents.

"The sky is the limit," he says.

According to Pelling, many cohousing communities design their buildings to be more energy efficient. "The scale of the green building depends on who is involved," he says.

Pat Buddemeyer, a Rippey Street resident who is helping ELDI find candidates for cohousing, says some potential buyers recently toured the complex and "expressed interest."

Buddemeyer acknowledges that many people have reservations about living in such a social atmosphere. So far, no one has made any verbal or contractual agreement to cohousing in the building.

"It's not the best fit for everybody," she says, but "We're going to give it a try."

"It's too early to commit," Pelling says. "A lot has to be defined." Once details about cost, condo sizes and other specifics are ironed out, he predicts, "Some families will continue to be interested, while others won't."

Pelling says he would like to start renovating the building next fall or summer, but wants to know within the next two months whether there is enough interest to convert it into cohousing. If not, he says, ELDI will settle for a second option: renovating the building as rental properties. Such a rehab, he says, could cost between $20,000 and $40,000 per unit.

Still, say Pelling and Buddemeyer, that option would be better than what the federal government originally proposed.

"The ex-offender development created a very negative mobilizing force," Pelling says. "Now we have an opportunity to bring the neighborhood together and envision something positive."

But Ted Johnson, chief of U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System locally, isn't letting Pelling and East Liberty residents forget their pledge to help reintegrate the ex-offenders into other housing.

"I'm not upset" about losing the apartment complex, Johnson says, "as long as the community makes good on their promise."

Johnson and Pelling have had meetings about potential housing options in East Liberty for Johnson's ex-offender population, but little has changed so far.

"There hasn't been a lot of progress," Johnson says. "I want to hold them to their promise. Someone has to show me the money."

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