As with nearly everything in Pittsburgh, the continued loss of subsidized housing for those with low income or disabilities is practically a neighborhoods issue.
Marvin Harpool of East Liberty, on the board of National Alliance of HUD Tenants, joined two dozen or so local activists in front of the Federal Building Downtown on Oct. 9 to urge Congress to maintain HUD funds at current levels -- specifically the Section 8 program, which provides rent help in the form of vouchers that tenants can take to participating landlords.
But Harpool is most concerned locally about holding together East Liberty, since he and several hundred others were removed from three federally subsidized high rises this summer when the Urban Redevelopment Authority commenced plans to replace them. Harpool says he was one of the few lucky enough to land back in his neighborhood.
He is disabled and on a fixed income, he says, and his former high rise was "the only way I can afford to pay rent. Tearing down the old to make way for the new, he believes, "is like a divide-and-conquer. They take people out of their neighborhood. Why should we be forced out to make room for somebody else?"
Harpool's fears are not unfounded, says Craig Stevens, Western Pennsylvania coordinator of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. "We're losing affordable housing in the region and around the county because of federal policy that allows housing to be demolished or foreclosed on and boarded up without attempting to replace those lost units. In this region we've actually lost 6,000 units of personal affordable housing: public housing and HUD multifamily Section 8 housing. For the first time since the [Section 8] program started [in the '70s,], the Bush administration is threatening to cut back Section 8 voucher program." Stevens says the program may end up with up to 100,000 fewer vouchers, including 5,000 in Pennsylvania.
That lost housing includes concrete-block projects whose design -- and eventual decay -- few people miss. But Stevens says programs to replace such "projects" with detached housing that mixes rental properties with those for sale at both subsidized and market rates has been "a mixed blessing. It's replacing older housing but in the process only a third of the original residents are able to or choosing to return to that new housing. So we're breaking up communities and taking housing from the poorest folks."
Also, as Stevens notes, "When they build new developments we're not building enough housing for people with existing disabilities."
Rick McWilliams, a program manager at Three Rivers Center for Independent Living in Point Breeze, held a "Housing Not Bombs" sign in his wheelchair. McWilliams works to help people transition from nursing homes into the community, and says "a significant amount" are on a waiting list for accessible subsidized housing -- both in complexes devoted to such facilities and in scattered sites.
McWilliams echoed the fears of many at the rally. "I would wager to guess that if they take money away from HUD," he said, "they're going to have to take it from a lot of places."