Since June 2015, when hundreds of evictions were announced at the below-market-rate apartments of Penn Plaza, in East Liberty, Pittsburgh officials, local nonprofit developers and community groups have been scrambling to create more affordable housing, particularly in East End neighborhoods.
Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess, of North Point Breeze, is taking extra steps to ensure his district, which is made up of mostly low-income and black East End neighborhoods, receives the help it needs. He recently formed the Homewood, East Hills, East Liberty, Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar and Larimer Protection (HELP) Initiative to address crime, blight and affordable housing. HELP combines resources of community groups, and seeks funding for one large group, instead of several smaller ones.
“In each neighborhood, it is important for community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, residents and interested parties to all work together in a single, cooperative process for community transformation,” wrote Burgess’ special assistant Shawn Carter in an email to City Paper. “HELP will assist each neighborhood in creating a comprehensive community plan.”
But one blighted neighborhood in Burgess’ district was left out of HELP: Garfield. And Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. executive director Rick Swartz is mystified why it was excluded, considering it’s also in need of increased funding and support. “Why Garfield is not included in capital investments [of HELP] is puzzling for us.”
Swartz says rents in Garfield are rising and renovations are planned for long-neglected row houses on the 5400 block of Penn Avenue. “We are starting to see the pressure of gentrification,” says Swartz. “We are feeling those same pressures that the rest of the East End is feeling.”
According to 2014 census figures, Garfield residents paid about 40 percent of their incomes in rent, on par with East Hills, but more than the 30 percent Pittsburgh average.
Carter says HELP is more than willing to partner with Garfield, but because Garfield already has a fully functioning community development corporation in the BGC, Burgess doesn’t feel it needs the technical assistance that the five HELP neighborhoods need.
Swartz says he is flattered by Burgess’ faith in BGC but also wonders why East Liberty and the East Liberty Development Inc. are included in the planning process for HELP. ELDI has been very successful in attracting to the booming neighborhood both development, some of it controversial, and affordable-housing projects.
There are additional concerns that creating another affordable-housing-focused group could generate additional competition for funding, says Swartz. There are currently five applicable sources of affordable-housing funding for Pittsburgh’s East End. It appears that HELP won’t compete for most of those funds, but it does raise money from philanthropic sources, like R.K. Mellon Foundation and Bridgeway Capital.
“If Burgess is going to raise a significant amount of money from philanthropic world,” says Swartz, “what does that leave for the other neighborhoods in the city?”
Carter rejects the idea that HELP would hurt other community developers and says that HELP will attract new funding sources to the affordable-housing realm.
And Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff, Kevin Acklin, says the door is still open for Garfield and other city neighborhoods to be included in plans like HELP. “This effort will expand to other districts,” wrote Acklin in an email. “It’s just beginning in the East End with Councilman Burgess. It’s a model for community-driven development that can be deployed citywide.”
And Housing Alliance PA policy director Cindy Daley says a new statewide housing trust fund, from the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Act, could help community groups gain access to the funding they need to complete their affordable-housing projects. “We have every reason to believe that the many capable community organizations in Pittsburgh, along with the city, will be able to available themselves of this new resource,” says Daley.
Editor’s note: A quote from Housing Alliance PA policy director Cindy Daley has been changed from an earlier version of this story. Daley said the original quote didn’t have the proper context. The new quote is reflected above.