"Oh Jesus, be a fence around me every day," sings Aalaiza Venay, age 6, as she dances down the sidewalk. "Jesus, I want you to protect me, as I travel along the way." Aalaiza says she learned the number as a member of the Rodman Steppers, a dance group at East Liberty's Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church. The nearby church is one of the reasons the Venay family seems to revolve around Aalaiza's great aunt, Gwen Venay, in front of whose home they're gathered today.
As Aalaiza finishes her routine, though, a large black-and-gray dump truck rounds the corner, rumbles past Aalaiza and her younger sister and brother, and dumps a load of dirt, rocks and concrete just 10 yards from where the children are playing. The driver explains that he was told he could dump here, and drives off.
It's little wonder Aalaiza is singing about protection. Her aunt's neighborhood of Liberty Park, to which she has long come to play, is mostly demolished. In fact, Gwen Venay and her two teen-age kids are all who remain of the 150 families that once occupied this swath of East Liberty. Their building is the last one standing, and its four other units are windowless shells full of glass, bricks, mortar, nails, bottles, plastic, wires, crumbling drywall and smashed furniture. That's not to say they're unoccupied. Recently, says Venay, "I heard this noise, and I came out the front door, and there were drug addicts in there arguing about who was going to take the shot first."
The city's Urban Redevelopment Authority wants Venay out, since she's the last barrier to the demolition of Liberty Park. Venay says she wants out. "I have been out there looking for affordable, decent housing," she says. "This is not where I choose to live." But Venay says that despite looking at perhaps 100 potential new homes, she has yet to find one that is in a safe area, accepts her Section 8 housing voucher and is accessible given her recent ankle fracture and a disabling injury to her right hand. Her experiences suggest that despite its reputation for affordable housing, Pittsburgh is a tough place to find shelter if you're poor, black and displaced.
The URA wants to redevelop three 35-year-old public housing communities in East Liberty. The goal is to replace the high rises and townhouses of East Mall, Penn Circle Plaza and Liberty Park with a mixture of subsidized and market-rate housing. Current and former residents are guaranteed a shot at the new homes, though it's unclear whether there will be enough subsidized housing to accommodate them all if they choose to move back. So far 270 families have moved out.
Under a settlement agreement with the URA, current and former tenants have the right to subsidized housing that is comparable to their old digs, and in "a non-racially impacted location." That's legalese for a neighborhood that isn't segregated, crime-ridden and poverty stricken. Most got Section 8 vouchers, entitling them to pay just 30 percent of their income in rent, with the federal government picking up the rest.
The URA and the city's Housing Authority "have made concerted efforts to assist Ms. Venay with her relocation and have met all obligations under the settlement agreement," says the URA, in a written response to City Paper's questions. The two sides are now battling in court over that point, with Venay arguing that the URA hasn't given her the means to find adequate housing.
Venay presents a list of 145 rental units the URA provided her early this year. She says she's been to many of them, often with representatives of the nonprofit Housing Alliance, the Fair Housing Partnership or Northwood Realty. Some, she says, were not available when she called. Others were up multiple flights of stairs. Others were in areas she considered dangerous, like Upper Lawrenceville's troubled alleys. One such row house seemed a magnet for felines, she says. "I said, 'Why are all of those cats jumping in and out?'" Venay recounts. "And a woman said, 'I'm not going to lie. There's mice and rats here.' ... I know I need a place, but I wasn't going there."
Venay and friends also cruised neighborhoods, copying phone numbers from "For Rent" signs. When she called and said she had a Section 8 voucher, some of those landlords turned cold. "They stereotype you and stigmatize you that you are lazy and not working," says Venay, who says she worked for many years. "Sometimes I worked three jobs at the same time to put my kids through school, because I'm a single parent," she says. Her eldest son is now a minister in Boston, and a daughter is attending Clark Atlanta University.
It's legal for a landlord to turn away a Section 8 voucher holder, says Michael Barge, a team leader at the Fair Housing Service Center who has gone house hunting with Venay. Some landlords complain that federal payments come too slowly, that they can't meet requirements regarding the condition of the units, or that they "have had a bad experience" with a Section 8 tenant, says Barge. Then there's racism. "The Section 8 voucher is a symbol: It's a mascot for black people and the ghetto, and [some people fear] it's going to come in and terrorize the neighborhood," Barge says.
Though Venay is the only one left in Liberty Park, she apparently isn't the only one who has had trouble finding satisfactory housing. The URA says 56 of the relocated families have asked to be relocated again, though 11 of those have withdrawn that request.
Aliya Bey left Liberty Park for a two-apartment house in southern Highland Park in September 2003. "I liked [Liberty Park]," she says. "It was convenient. Everything was right there in the open: Giant Eagle, the doctor, the dentist." Her new home had problems at first, including a tub that leaked into the basement and a toilet that ran constantly. It still has drafty doors and windows that drive her heating bill to $300 a month in the winter, she says, and nearby drug activity scares her. A student at the International Academy of Design and Technology, Bey asked to move again, but then withdrew her request as the deadline for renewing her lease approached. "I didn't want to be with my back against the wall and no place to live," she says.
That's the fear that cows most relocated families, says Barge. "It's typically a struggle when someone wants to use a Section 8 voucher to find a place that's safe, decent and affordable," he says. "Most people submit to desperation because they want a place so bad."
Venay hasn't. She's still hunting, and invites landlords with vacant three-bedroom places to call her via the Housing Alliance. "What was offered in the settlement," she says, "is all I'm asking for."