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'Sliberty Slope

A redevelopment push has East Liberty residents worried that their place in the changing neighborhood is slipping away

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Step out Dalilia Washington's front door, and you're in a Mad Max movie. Across the street is the wreckage of a row of apartments. To the right is an impromptu junkyard of mattresses, couches and bookshelves, scattered about a portable toilet. Five doors to the left a crane smashes another five-apartment building. In the course of its work, it breaks a sewer line, sending ooze bubbling to the surface. In the distance, hooded figures wander across rubble.

 

Washington is raising five children, ages 8 months to 11 years, in what remains of the East Liberty public housing community called Liberty Park. When she came here five years ago, it wasn't paradise, but it was conveniently located and reasonably safe, she says. "Everybody knew everybody because there were so many kids," she says. "I got comfortable here."

 

At that time, residents were working with Boston-based developer The Community Builders on a plan to redevelop three East Liberty public housing communities, in hopes of improving and desegregating the eastern and western ends of Penn Circle. The spirit of optimism has crumbled, though, as the community-based process has taken a back seat to contentious negotiations between the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority. The end result is a harried effort to get residents out of the Liberty Park, East Mall and Penn Circle Tower public housing communities to make way for demolition now, and mixed-income developments later. The effort has scattered hundreds of East Liberty families.

 

Worst off are those, like the Washingtons, who are still there. "I'm very upset that they're tearing this down while I'm here," says the 28-year-old nurse's aide. "There's asbestos. There's pesticides." She's called many landlords, but hasn't yet found a place suitable for a family of six that will take her Section 8 voucher -- and despairs of finding anything in East Liberty. "They're not even trying to help you stay in the area."

 

East Mall, Penn Circle and Liberty Park were built by private developer Federal American Properties from 1969 to 1971, and had the capacity to house nearly 650 families. In the mid-'70s, Federal American joined a program known as HUD-Assisted Multi-Family Housing, under which it charged low-income renters a percentage of their incomes (most recently 30 percent) and HUD paid the rest of the cost of operating the buildings, plus a profit margin for Federal American.

 

By the 1990s, residents were largely dissatisfied with Federal American's management. And by 1997, HUD was moving away from multi-family housing subsidies, and encouraging the transformation of tenement-style public housing into neighborhood-style communities. Residents saw an opportunity, formed a group now called the Coalition of Organized Residents in East Liberty (COR), and linked up with The Community Builders.

 

TCB specializes in turning troubled, subsidized properties into mixed-income communities. "They seemed to be resident friendly, and were geared more to the benefit of the tenants rather than just the funding part," says Marvin Harpool, a former Liberty Park resident and a COR leader. TCB bought Penn Circle Tower and East Mall in November 2001, for $861,500, with plans to purchase Liberty Park thereafter. Mayor Tom Murphy held a press conference to herald the sales.

 

Residents wanted the developer to build some new housing on sites it (or the city) owned before tearing down the existing housing. That way, residents could move directly into new homes, rather than going off to other apartments for a few years, and then moving back. TCB was amenable, as long as the financing worked.

 

But in early 2002, the deal the residents thought they had unraveled. HUD alleged that building conditions substantially deteriorated in all three properties -- a charge TCB, residents and the URA deny. The feds yanked the properties' subsidies, and began a foreclosure process. It replaced the subsidy it paid to the properties with Section 8 vouchers that would go wherever the tenants did. (Section 8 vouchers allow low-income households to rent homes that fall within price guidelines. Residents pay 30 percent of their income as rent, and HUD pays the rest.) The change left the developer without a reliable source of funding to operate the properties, and with black marks on its record that could make it difficult to win further federal subsidies.

 

HUD's actions threatened to scuttle the redevelopment effort. Murphy met with Sen. Rick Santorum and HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, and they pounded out a new plan. HUD would foreclose on the properties and turn them over to the Urban Redevelopment Authority. HUD would provide a $40,000-per-unit subsidy for redevelopment. But HUD refused to renew the subsidies tied to the buildings. The new deal didn't guarantee that TCB would be the redeveloper.

 

Neither residents nor the developer were involved in crafting the agreement. The new deal had no provision for building before demolishing, meaning residents would be at least temporarily dislocated. And the replacement of a subsidy tied to the units with one tied to the tenants might create an incentive for a developer to gradually price out low-income residents, COR complained. The URA says it involved the residents as much as it could, but Harpool says his group's cries weren't heard. "As far as the city and HUD were concerned," he says, "they don't want us involved. They never wanted us involved."

 

HUD foreclosed on Liberty Park in May, and turned it over to the URA. The agency wasn't ready to take on the responsibility of running the property. "The URA and all other parties had anticipated and negotiated for a phased foreclosure schedule, with East Mall being first, to minimize the relocation workload, the disruption to tenants, and to spread out the [costs] over a longer period of time," says URA Executive Director Mulugetta Birru. "HUD dictated the accelerated foreclosure." But if the URA hadn't taken the properties, he says, they'd have gone to the highest bidder and conditions might have worsened.

 

The foreclosure couldn't have come at a worse time for the URA. The authority has about $20 million in cash, but much of it is reserved for various legal contingencies or to cover commitments it has made on projects citywide. The URA has already had to loan the developer more than $4 million to operate East Mall and Penn Circle Tower, and set aside $4 million more to cover potential liabilities related to Liberty Park -- say, if someone gets hurt or killed on the site and sues. Birru calls the East Liberty effort "the scariest project I've ever done."

 

Meanwhile, Republican state legislators are scrutinizing the URA's balance sheet and urging that it sell assets. Birru says any asset sale would jeopardize his agency's ability to function, since it covers about 70 percent of its operating costs through rents, development fees, parking revenues, loan repayments and other "earned" income. "Even if I stopped [doing projects] today, I have bonds [to repay], I have liabilities, and I need money to operate this organization," Birru says.

 

The URA has requested and received proposals from developers interested in Liberty Park, and is expected to choose one in December. Demolition is proceeding even as the few dozen remaining residents look for new housing. HUD foreclosed on Penn Circle on Nov. 17, and gave it to the URA, which immediately returned it to the developer. HUD foreclosed on East Mall the next day, and passed it to the URA, with the expectation that TCB will repurchase the site after the near-empty apartments are demolished. The URA is spending $200,000 a month operating the buildings.

 

"We've partnered with the City of Pittsburgh because they've had plans to redevelop East Liberty," summarizes HUD Pittsburgh Director Richard Nemoytin. "Now the city owns them."

 

In July, Dalilia Washington got word of Liberty Park's impending demolition, along with orders to move out. "It's not like we have money to buy a home," she says. "If we did, we wouldn't be here in the first place. To be told to get up and move, that's tough."

 

The URA is offering $1,000 to residents who move by certain deadlines, but that incentive hasn't helped Washington. She went to a relocation office run by the Pittsburgh Housing Authority and was given a printout of about 40 four-bedroom homes owned by landlords who've said they'll rent to Section 8 voucher holders. Just three are in East Liberty. The rest are scattered far and wide; from Beltzhoover, Brookline, Hazelwood, the Hill District, Sheraden, Stanton Heights and other city neighborhoods to further-flung Forest Hills, McKeesport and North Braddock.

 

Washington says she has called more than half the landlords on the list, and they've either rented their places, or are offering properties that she considers unlivable. "I went to look at a house the other day," she says, holding the list. "The kitchen was in the attic. How are you going to get a refrigerator up there?" The dining room, she adds, was downstairs.

 

When a federally funded redevelopment effort forces people to relocate, the agency involved must provide them with at least one referral to a comparable, available, affordable home, says Kevin Quisenberry, an attorney with the Downtown-based Community Justice Project. He says the URA hasn't done that, and has filed a class-action suit on behalf of current and former residents. Federal law also demands that the relocations not perpetuate segregation, and many of the properties on the lists provided by the Housing Authority are in desegregated neighborhoods. But the Section 8 vouchers tenants have been given have rent caps on them that effectively keep displaced residents out of many city neighborhoods, Quisenberry says. "Almost everybody we've spoken with who's told us where they've moved has ended up in [mostly African-American] neighborhoods," says Quisenberry.

 

Some residents aren't interested in moving to mostly white neighborhoods. Washington says she'd settle for many city neighborhoods, but would rather stay where her kids know the schools. "Find me a nice house in East Liberty!" she challenges.

 

That's precisely the outcome the city doesn't want, in a neighborhood it has begun to reshape by bringing in retailers like Whole Foods and Home Depot, say COR residents and advocates as they gather around a table at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. The city "has pretty much said, we don't want you people around," says Alethea Sims, a COR member and the last remaining resident of East Mall.

 

"They want Shadyside and Highland Park-type residents to come down here -- the Whole Foods clientele," says Ronell Guy, affordable housing preservation coordinator at the Pennsylvania Low-Income Housing Coalition, which is working with COR.

 

"We're renters -- we don't shop at Home Depot," adds Harpool.

 

Later, Birru said he just wants "quality housing that will be rented and/or purchased by a mix of income levels," and seems stung by resident complaints and lawsuits. He says former residents who want to return will have a place in the redeveloped properties.

 

It's unclear, though, when they'd be able to return, or whether there would be spots for the nearly 300 families who occupied the three properties as of early this year. The URA's request for proposals to redevelop Liberty Park calls for 83 subsidized rental units, versus 117 market-rate rental and for-sale homes. The URA wants a redeveloped East Mall to include some 135 apartments, including about 95 low-income units. Plans for Penn Circle Towers aren't finalized, and TCB says it hasn't yet determined how many low-income homes it can build. Trek Development of Oakland and McCormack Baron Salazar of St. Louis, which have submitted proposals to redevelop Liberty Park, also won't say how many low-income homes they'd include.

 

"They just say once they're done, if you want to come back, you can come back," says Washington, as she sits with 8-month-old Autumn in her lap. But when? And where will she go in the meantime? She has no idea. "I don't know what they're going to do," she says, "with people who can't find a place."

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