On the front page of the business section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a story titled, “A matter of speculation.” It told a century-old story of a young Thomas Mellon, who after marrying into the already wealthy Negley family, used their 3,000-acre orchard to add to their family fortune. What would later become Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, was home to some of America’s wealthiest – Carnegie, Frick and Heinz. Mellon “split his land into parcels, sold the lots to home buyers, provided mortgages and foreclosed on those who could not pay their debts.”
The article was written sixteen years ago, and its tagline asked, “Will East Liberty finally rebound?”
On a brilliant Sunday afternoon last fall I arrived to a jubilant scene in Enright Park, which is adjacent to a housing development called Penn Plaza. Even modest greenspaces like these – two basketball courts, a playground and a dozen mature trees – are rare in this part of East Liberty. “There’s really nothing else on this side of Penn Avenue,” one woman remarked.
Residents gathered that day with family and friends for a picnic to celebrate modest concessions they won through negotiations with their landlord, LG Realty, who issued 90-day eviction notices (most of which had elapsed) to all of Plaza’s two hundred plus residents. Tenants, community organizers, and Mayor Peduto successfully cut a deal with LG to buy residents more time, and up to $1,600 for each of them to restart their lives somewhere else.
In the low October sun, a handful of people danced to a DJ playing Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited,” while others congregated around a sizzling grill or conversed in the shade. Generally, the mood was mixed. Some residents spoke to me about their worries about where they would go, but others said they wanted to enjoy the moment, knowing what awaited them in the days to come.
The morning of the picnic in Enright Park, October 4, 2015, the Tribune-Review ran a story titled, “Pittsburgh offers Enright Parklet as bargaining chip in East Liberty development talks.”
I didn’t know where I was going when I started writing this story. There were a few soft blobs that passed for ideas, one of which was a vague question that popped into my head every time I visited East Liberty during the past couple of years. Loosely translated: “What the hell is going on here?” The new apartment buildings, restaurants and stores, street trees and a host of other things, paint a picture of dramatic progress that doesn’t dampen the feeling that I and many others have – that something’s not right about the place. A suitable tagline for this nascent story might have been, “Will East Liberty rebound from its rebound?”
This the first part of a story about an issue that may, more than any other, define who we are as a city, as we move into a new era in Pittsburgh’s history.
That article from 2000 was a story of land speculation in East Liberty that revealed a century-long continuum of competing interests between property owners and the broader community. It concluded by chronicling decades of similar stories that did some speculating of their own: about the neighborhood being poised for recovery. Those stories repeatedly hit on similar themes of foreclosure, deflated property values, inflated rents, blight and a whole lot of waiting for something to happen.
And then things started to happen. And the stories I unearthed about those things bore an uncanny resemblance to those written in the past six months, namely – evictions, displacement and relocation.
This use of historical anecdotes is my way of easing into more combustible topics. For instance, equitable development, fair housing, and the nature of how Pittsburgh neighborhoods are changing. Throughout the city, the housing opportunities for low-income residents are rapidly diminishing. Because East Liberty has been a primary provider of such housing for decades, it’s no surprise that it has emerged as the most salient battleground for a conflict that impacts, and is impacted by, many other neighborhoods.
If anyone said fifteen years ago that they anticipated hundreds of market rate or luxury apartments to sprout up in the heart of East Liberty, they would have been dismissed as bonkers. Pittsburgh doesn’t change that fast. Here, Pearl Jam’s 1991 hit, “Jeremy,” can still be heard on local radio every day. Since it debuted, we’ve changed mayors five times, but haven’t significantly changed our housing policies once.
National and international media have deemed Pittsburgh as America’s “Most Livable City” numerous times, and similar accolades have been bestowed upon us for our neighborhoods, parks, restaurants, universities and cultural institutions, to name a few. And for our low cost of living, to name another.
It’s that last one that catches in my throat when I repeat these honors. I wonder how long it will be before I move it into one of the discussions where Pittsburgh doesn’t excel: public education, integrated neighborhoods, African-American employment, or public transit, to name a few.
For some, maybe even most, our cost of living is still low compared to similar cities. Yet, in certain neighborhoods that were considered working class or distressed not long ago, Pittsburgh is trending in ways seen elsewhere, from Seattle to Boston, where median-income families cannot buy a house, and low-income families cannot find rents below 30% of their monthly income. While it’s necessary and worthwhile to delve into the details of specific neighborhoods, we do so perilously if we stop there and declare that certain geographies have affordability problems, but an abundance of options exist elsewhere. Housing affordability doesn’t respect dotted lines on maps that delineate where one neighborhood ends and another begins. At least not for long.
Pittsburgh is shedding the last bits of its rust-belt skin. Our rivers support ecology and recreation, not industry. Our Italian food doesn’t always have tomato sauce anymore. We have miles upon miles of trails and bike lanes. Yet, our housing policy is, decidedly, very much of a 1990’s rust-belt mindset: end the stagnation by incentivizing developers to build anything that may attract new residents.
I talked with a few dozen people about housing affordability, and most of the conversations quickly turned to East Liberty. At the center was a complex dispute over whether those who are driving the neighborhood’s transformation have done enough to spare longtime, low-income residents the pain of displacement, and to maintain opportunities for those individuals to share in East Liberty’s socio-economic rejuvenation. A lot of information and data poured forth from all sides, and though I can’t reconcile all of it, I can explain much of it.
More specifically, sharp exchanges have taken place – primarily between city officials, East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI), community organizers and residents – over quantities of affordable housing units lost and gained; the needs of very-low income populations; eviction, displacement and relocation practices; the balance of market-rate versus affordable development; the uses of public subsidy; and the roles of community organizations.
And there are few areas where I found some common ground, involving public parks (such as Enright), outdated housing policies, and the pressure on East Liberty that originates in other neighborhoods.
While Pittsburgh’s population is not booming, it’s growing slowly, and the decades of decline appear to have ended. The City of Pittsburgh’s housing policies should be amended to reflect the former, and not the latter. To do that we must resist the impulse of quick fixes, and find ways forward that will matter in the longterm, while not crushing the comfort level of those who are taking risks with their investments. To do that, we must assess what has and continues to transpire in places were critical levels of shortages have arisen.
This the first part of a story about an issue that may, more than any other, define who we are as a city, as we move into a new era in Pittsburgh’s history. Generally, local reporting on affordable housing has fallen short in several important ways. First, it lacks serious representation of the voices of those who know these crises not from newspapers, but through daily lived experiences. Second, it does a shabby job of simply explaining what affordable housing is. Third, a lack of context about how we arrived here presents crises (such as Penn Plaza) in isolation, disconnected not only from other emerging housing shortages, but from the years of planning, real estate deals, public policy and market dynamics that brought us to this point. And lastly, scant light is shed upon viable paths forward.
I’ll get to all of that. Up next is a story about a working grandmother who’s family relies on subsidized housing to get by, and a primer on what affordable housing actually is.