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New housing in East Liberty delivers on a promise

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The huge novelty scissors wielded by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl were a bit cranky in the cold, but otherwise the Dec. 4 ribbon-cutting at the Fairfield, a mixed-income residential development in East Liberty, went off without a hitch -- after years of hitches.

About half of the one- and two-bedroom apartments and townhouses are rented under the Affordable Housing Program, in which rents are keyed to family size and income. And many of the residents who currently fill up about 90 percent of the units formerly lived in the demolished East Mall, one of East Liberty's federally subsided high rises.

The displaced residents were given rent vouchers and a printed list of new spots to move, but many wanted to stay in the neighborhood that had been home for decades. At first, they had no guarantees they'd be able to move into the new development, built with URA and HUD financial assistance.

"They said, 'We'll build first, so you only have to move once.' That didn't happen," says Alethea Sims, a 20-year resident of East Mall and president of Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty, Inc. "There was no guarantee we were coming back to the new housing. We had to go to court to sue the Housing Authority and the URA to guarantee the right to return." Sims characterized the process of getting the displaced residents back into East Liberty as "meetings after meetings after meetings after meetings," with "Downtown types."

"We're the last to know," Sims says. "That's the struggle."

But residents, most of whom moved in late this fall, seemed pleased with their homes now. They mingled in the common room at Thursday's ribbon-cutting, snacking on petit fors bearing a letter "F" made of frosting and listening to a jazz band. The room housed two computers with printers, a kitchenette and a huge flat-screen television on one wall.

"It's a beautiful façade," Ravenstahl said. "Driving by, you'd never know it's affordable housing."

The one-bedroom unit that was open for touring had lots of closet space and a view from French doors out into a courtyard with a swingset. It was a short walk from the fitness room, a small space with a treadmill, stationary bike, weight machine and handicapped-accessible rowing machine.

"I absolutely love it. I lived in Highland Park and I happened to be driving by," says Elaine Montgomery, who moved in with her husband this fall. "I thought it would be hard to get in. They were so nice, it was so easy. It's so nice you just want to take care of it, keep it nice." She lauded the diverse mix of ages, races and income levels.

Nikkole Jones and her son Ziaire, 7, live in one of the development's townhomes. "Everybody loves coming to my house," she says. Her mother, Deborah Williams-Jones, says that in light of her daughter's multiple organ transplants, she's reassured by how accessible everything is in the townhouse.

"The design is awesome," says Williams-Jones. She said the diverse make-up of the residents mirrored Pittsburgh's status as a "most livable city."

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