[Photo (cropped) : Matt Niemi, Flickr]

Continued from Part Four…

An Urban Laboratory

The driver of a hulking charter bus, patient up until now, was quietly expressing his irritation after I led him up yet another narrow residential street.  Behind me, dozens of urban design students visiting Pittsburgh from Toronto marveled at our crooked streets once suited for horses.  I was standing in as their tour guide – and doing a rather poor job of it.  Having done this sort of thing before, with greater ease and success, I now couldn’t command the words to describe the East End, a part of town I knew inside and out. Was it because the lumbering vehicle couldn’t go where I wanted it to, or was I just off that day?  The answer became apparent as we descended Penn Avenue into East Liberty:  I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Only a year or two prior, I would have been better suited for the task.  But things – long-standing things – were changing fast.  My fellow passengers, well-schooled in everything from the nadir of urban renewal to the present day public-private-live-work-play redevelopments taking root in cities all over, knew the general plot-line already.  I imparted a lot of information – like the numbers of people who had been displaced, but little knowledge – like what it all meant.  Had I to it over again, I might’ve simply admitted that I didn’t know what this place would turn into.  Perhaps no one did.

It’s not because Pittsburgh
sucks in some fashion.

Click images below for previous parts of this series.

Neighborhoods typically evolve gradually, where with each passing generation, they have a little less of what they had and a little more of something they didn’t; only occasionally do neighborhoods take radical turns.  East Liberty is an outlier – built up, torn down, rebuilt and tinkered with more than any other in the region.  Metamorphosis, transmutation, call it what you like – each new chapter in East Liberty’s history has been extreme and disorienting.

What is transpiring in East Liberty today will impact countless other neighborhoods in ways not yet known, as it hurtles forward in a manner that is less improvisational than it is experimental.  From this experiment, the City will make it’s first serious go at a script for others to follow.

For some, East Liberty serves as a powerful lens through which we can see a laboratory of urban research, experimentation and best practices – and the successes and failures that have resulted.  For others, it’s seen through the looking glass, where nothing is as it seems.

I began this story with an earnest attempt to answer and often debated question: Has East Liberty replaced all of the affordable housing that was demolished during the past fifteen years?  Not only was this the wrong question, I concluded, but a distraction to more important ones, such as: Can East Liberty accommodate the extremely low-income people it once did?  Should it?  If not, which neighborhoods should, can or will?

Pittsburgh’s city government is poised to launch a major offensive against the slowly building housing crisis that is now too dire to ignore. Can we legislate our way through the sludge of distrust that exists between government agencies, community organizations and the low-income populations who are at the mercy of sweeping change?

And lastly, if all the rhetoric somehow leads to a shared vision around housing for all, what tools are actually available to create it, and what are its true limitations?

It’s Complicated

Back on the bus, from the rear a student inquired about a particular building that “has a highway running through it.”  Technically, I explained, it wasn’t a highway, but served largely the same purpose.  It was Penn Avenue, and we were on it, I said.  The building was East Mall, a 20-story high-rise that was demolished years before, along with two other nearly identical high-rises. I tried to describe how nearly sixty floors in all, containing more than six hundred apartments, all within a few blocks of each other, were made to disappear in the twenty-first century.  I rattled off the cast of characters – the Mayor, the Senator, the HUD Secretary – who brought about some of the story’s most unusual twists and turns.

Such as when, in 2003, HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) seized the 20-story Penn Circle Tower through foreclosure from a respected non-profit developer, called The Community Builders (TCB).  TCB had recently purchased the building before HUD maneuvered it into the possession of Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), which promptly sold it – back to TCB.  Don’t worry if that sounds nutty; I’ll come back to it.

Our bus neared the site of the former Penn Circle Tower, which was eventually demolished in 2009, and on which sat a two-story Target store.  “The Community Builders demolished subsidized housing and built a Target?” one baffled student questioned.  “No,” I said, as if trying to explain a divorce, “It’s complicated.”

My new Canadian friends, seeing East Liberty for the first time, had no point of reference for the change I was woefully describing.  This bothered me then, and still troubles me know, realizing that a great many newcomers to Pittsburgh, and even East Liberty, are in many ways, no different.

After baking this story in the oven for three months, the result is less a fluffy cake than an assortment of misshapen muffins – some overcooked and chewy, some underdone and raw, but all so very interesting.

In the end, the reality I came to terms with is that for the past twenty years, Pittsburgh (and everywhere, just about) did not prepare for an extreme shortage of affordable housing that was forecasted to arrive just about now.   It’s not because Pittsburgh sucks in some fashion – it’s happening everywhere, and everywhere can’t suck all at the same time.  Like so many other places, we did some of what we could, but far from all we could, and to a large degree kicked the can down the road.

Presently, we have a lot of tools, resources, smart people, well-endowed philanthropies, and rising leadership.  Before that sentence takes on unintended meaning, those assets can be aligned to change our city’s course dramatically, primarily for the working poor, living a rung or two below the area median income.  Yet, for those households near the bottom, significant help may not be on the way.


History Repeats the Old Conceits

During the past year, longstanding conflict between community organizers, fair housing advocates, city officials, and the neighborhood’s community development corporation – East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI), – intensified as residents of the Penn Plaza housing complex scrambled to relocate in the face of eviction and the eventual demolition that is now underway.

Though smaller in scale, the Penn Plaza eviction saga shares many likenesses with a more severe situation from a decade ago involving the demolition of three massive 1960’s-era high-rise residential buildings, known as Federal American Properties (FAP).  At one time, FAP housed a quarter of all of East Liberty’s residents (about a thousand).  Like it, Penn Plaza residents were evicted and their relocation was incentivized with payments less than $1,600.

There are some notable differences, too.  Throughout its existence, FAP provided ‘permanently’ affordable rental housing, deeply subsidized through the federal government to accommodate extremely low-income people living at 30% or less of the AMI (area median income) [See Affordable Housing 101 for a refresher].  Penn Plaza housed a similar income population at one time, but after its federal affordability requirements expired around 2000, it evolved into a mixed-income complex with rents that were below market-rate (sometimes known as “naturally affordable”).  Forty-one of its roughly two hundred units were subsidized with Section 8 housing vouchers.  Many of those evicted from Penn Plaza were African-American working class people, many of which paid upwards of $850 per month.

Penn Plaza, August 2016

East Liberty’s history is very much unsettled.

The City’s Affordable Housing Task Force, appointed in February of 2015, met for the first time six months later, and began the work of charting a course for the city to better understand and combat an emerging housing crisis.  The Task Force released its preliminary report to City Council in April 2016, and its final recommendations at the end of May.  (Since beginning this story, Councilmen Lavelle and Burgess have introduced legislation and programs to address Pittsburgh’s affordable housing shortage.)

Does the decade-old demolition of three rather dreadful buildings matter now?  Elvis Costello might put it this way:

History repeats the old conceits
The glib replies, the same defeats
Keep your finger on important issues
With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues
I’m just the oily slick
On the windup world of the nervous tick
In a very fashionable hovel

Or, as Ronell Guy, Executive Director of the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing, said to City Council in April, “There’s a housing crisis in our city.  I’ve been saying this for twenty years. I’m getting old.”

As is so often the case, East Liberty is where we find the pulse of many other neighborhoods. What became readily apparent to me while researching this story is the distrust between low-income residents, their advocates, and many of the community organizations and government agencies that represent them. That affordable housing is even being seriously discussed on Grant Street is welcome news to many, especially those who feel that housing had taken a backseat to other concerns of prior administrations, like the lure of department stores and building trails.

It’s under these conditions of optimism that history often gets lost in its giant yarn ball of good intentions.  For many, East Liberty’s history is very much unsettled.  Much of the discord dates back to Federal American Properties, which resurrected deep distrust amongst low-income people citywide that lay partially dormant since the travesties of urban renewal.

East Liberty is looking a bit odd these days

Is it the how many or the who that matters?

Since the early 2000s, the wrecking ball has claimed not only the roughly 650 affordable units in Federal American Properties, but other smaller developments as well.  During the same time period, hundreds of replacement units have been built, yet heated disagreements persist about whether it sufficiently makes up for what was taken away.

Local media reports provided little illumination, mostly offering opposing statements that merely cancel each other out.  From the City Paper: “The Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty states that over the past 15 years, 764 subsidized units have been lost. However, ELDI says that over the past decade, hundreds of new subsidized units have been added in the community, for a current total of 694.”  Tomato, tomahto.

Or from the Post-Gazette: “About 90 percent of the 644 affordable units those high-rise complexes once provided have been replaced in smaller developments throughout East Liberty, Ms. O’Leary said.” (Ms. O’Leary works for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.)

For all of its flaws, FAP was the lifeline for
the poorest residents of East Liberty.

When I went to their sources, housing advocates directed me to “Black Homes Matter”, a booklet that, amongst other things, includes a graph that depicts the recent history of affordable housing in East Liberty; ELDI directed me towards a presentation on their website, “Affordable Housing in East Liberty 2015,” that largely covers the same time period.

There are some discrepancies between them, including which buildings are counted as affordable and towards what end.  No matter how many times I computed the data, I wasn’t able to come up with anything insightful.  Apples-to-apples comparisons eluded me, but the data is all there for any reader who would like to give it a go.

What did become evident to me was that these numbers are largely a distraction to a much more critical issue:  Who these units serve, regardless of how many of them there are.  No matter how I looked at it, it was plain as day that the majority of demolished affordable housing in East Liberty served extremely poor individuals, and the majority of replacement housing does not – a point I’ll return to.

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Fawlty Towers

Witnessing the demolition of FAP gave those of us who know urban renewal only from classrooms and books a taste of what of it was like.  The eviction of hundreds of impoverished people and the physical eradication of three massive buildings is an enormous undertaking.  While the latter is a public spectacle, the sequence of events leading up to it are largely hidden from view.

If enough numbers are thrown at us, we can easily go numb.  The story of Federal American Properties, in my opinion, provides the deepest insights into the topsy-turvy world of subsidized housing, and remains as an essential lesson for Pittsburgh as it moves towards tackling our housing crisis.

[Photo: Matt Niemi/Flickr] Former Penn Circle Tower site

Prior to FAP’s demolition, the East Liberty community had a generally positive working relationship with ELDI, which for many years had overseen numerous planning and development projects that benefitted low-income residents, including such things as affordable supportive housing for mothers coping with addiction, called Sojourner MOMS House. Kendall Pelling of ELDI said in a recent Post-Gazette article that prior to 2008, “We did almost nothing but affordable [housing].”

When and where ELDI’s relationship with its constituents unraveled varies based on whom I talked to.  Many cited the multi-year process leading up to the FAP demolition, while others say it’s more recent; regardless, of those I talked to, neither spoke with much warmth about the other.

FAP, for all of its flaws, was the lifeline for the poorest residents of East Liberty, even if deteriorating and crime-ridden.  It provided shelter for so many people that its demolition altered East Liberty’s orbit, and in the eyes of many, permanently.  Its demise is entirely too convoluted to retell in its entirety. Taking a few insignificant liberties, here is more or less what happened.

Liberty Park, Penn Circle and East Mall were the names of the buildings, but together they were known as Federal American Properties (the name of the Florida-based real estate company that built them in the late 1960s and maintained ownership for close to forty years).  As project-based Section 8 housing, most of the rents for most of the residents were paid by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to the private ownership company.

Two of the structures were twenty stories, the third seventeen, but this doesn’t begin to describe their omnipresence.  With the notable exceptions of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church and the then-vacant Highland Building, almost every other building in sight is four stories or less.  Yet East Liberty’s identity did not come from the historic grandeur of those structures, but from the looming FAP buildings of cereal box proportions, with alternating horizontal bands of beige panels and windows.  They were prominent landmarks, when seen from afar, and gateways when up close.  Driving under and through East Mall was as novel as driving through a Northern California redwood.

These commanding structures were what a couple of generations of residents called home.  Though lacking in aesthetic beauty, the upper floors offered vistas that, ironically, no amount of money could buy anywhere else in the East End.  While sorting through dozens of fifteen-year old newspaper stories, the FAP community seemed to me to be something of dysfunctional family, but family-like nonetheless.  Numerous testimonials decried the crime, drugs, negligent owners and so on, while others didn’t want to leave under any circumstance.

Still, most people agreed with the assessments of HUD and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) that the conditions in the buildings were deplorable.  Crime had reached intolerable levels, and they were described as casting “shadows of blight” across East Liberty.  Yet, as late as 2001, FAP got a passing grade from HUD inspectors, which many people alleged was HUD’s way of “propping up” negligent ownership entities.

What followed was abrupt and chaotic, yet at the same time foreseeable, as federal housing policy had been leading cities to this juncture for some time.  Public housing, already endangered at the start of the Clinton era, had a new centerpiece.  The HOPE VI program provided hefty federal block grants to local municipalities to transform public housing for very poor households into less dense, mixed-income communities.  While the results were mixed, the significance here is that HOPE VI was a paradigm shift with lasting impacts. The 1994 Republican takeover of Congress brought about additional reforms to housing policy that impacted East Liberty and FAP enormously, namely through the Mark-to-Market program.

HUD, a major target of federal spending reduction, was moving away from supporting project-based Section 8 housing projects like FAP.  This type of funding was costly, but provided subsidies that were deep enough to support extremely low-income households.  HUD was moving towards tenant-based Section 8 [Link to Housing 101], which was less costly and better suited for people with somewhat higher incomes.  To facilitate this policy change, HUD actively searched for opportunities to defund housing developments where owners were guilty of negligence.  FAP was a good candidate.

Then FAP President, David Oyer, was quoted in several Post-Gazette stories as saying that three million dollars had been spent on upgrades and repairs to the three structures.  However, people who had been through the buildings told me that an East Mall trash shoot was backed up to the 17th floor.  Regardless, the FAP ownership was behind on its mortgage payments – about $4.3 million behind.

The first plan that emerged in 2000 envisioned that The Community Builders, Inc. (TCB), a respected non-profit developer that had recently completed nearby New Pennley Place, would acquire the high-rise trio from FAP.  East Mall and Liberty Park would be demolished and replaced with new, lower-density units, and Penn Circle Tower would undergo a complete renovation.  In 2001, TCB bought from FAP two of the buildings – East Mall and Penn Circle Tower – with the goal of acquiring Liberty Park at a later time.  HUD and the URA continued to provide hefty subsidies to enable TCB to make emergency repairs, hire new management and provide better security.

After years of community meetings with HUD, the URA, ELDI and others, TCB supported the community’s desire to see replacement housing built before any demolition occurred, so as to minimize displacement.  East Mall was intended to be the first to be demolished; most of it’s residents were relocated to vacancies in Penn Circle Tower or to other nearby sites.  The build-first plan was off to a reasonably good start.

And then it went all to hell.

Without warning, HUD deemed all of the FAP buildings uninhabitable. All HUD-supported buildings are assigned a REAC score (provided by the Real Estate Assessment Center). Because TCB had invested considerable funds into capital and managerial improvements since the previous inspection, the FAP REAC scores should have gone up.  Curiously, they went down – way down – and now TCB was in poor standing with HUD, and ineligible for redevelopment funding.

In 2003, HUD abruptly seized Liberty Park, the remaining building that FAP owned, through foreclosure, before delivering an ultimatum to the URA: take immediate ownership of it or HUD will sell it to the highest bidder – in three weeks. Tom Cox, then Deputy Mayor, was quoted as saying that HUD negotiated “in the worst kind of bad faith.” The URA took it, and was forced to reallocate millions of dollars earmarked for other projects towards the demolition and relocation budgets for Liberty Park and its residents.  And then things got really weird.

Mayor Tom Murphy, Senator Rick Santorum, HUD Secretary Mel Martinez convened in a closed-door session to forge a new plan for the former FAP buildings.  Who was missing?  TCB, for one, wasn’t invited.  Nor was ELDI, nor were tenant organizations, nor were housing advocacy groups.  I wasn’t invited, and neither were you, I’m guessing.  But a new plan emerged nonetheless.

The remaining two buildings would be transferred to the URA, which would then own all three. Despite widespread consensus that East Mall needed to be demolished first, Liberty Park jumped to the front of the line.  Tenants were evicted and the URA issued a Request for Proposals to redevelop the site, while proceeding with demolition preparations.

The build-first strategy, it seemed, was also demolished.

To make this transfer happen, HUD needed to foreclose on the two buildings owned by TCB, and their failing REAC scores provided cover to do so.  In 2003, HUD pulled back its subsidies to TCB, and foreclosed on Penn Circle Tower on November 17, and then foreclosed on East Mall the very next day.  HUD sold both buildings to the URA.

The URA, in turn, sold Penn Circle Tower back to TCB for redevelopment.  And agreed to sell the East Mall site to TCB in the future, after the URA demolished the building on it.

To review: on November 16, 2003, TCB owned two 20-story buildings, and two days later owned neither, and not long after, owned one of them, and had an agreement to buy the other.

What transpired over the ensuing years has been difficult to sort out.  Old newspaper articles differ from one another as well as from the first- and secondhand accounts I was able to obtain. Central to this history is whether the build-first commitment was fulfilled – entirely, in part, or not at all.  The importance of building first meant that residents would need to be relocated only once until replacement housing – about 400 mixed-income units – was made available for them to return to.

The notion of building new housing prior to demolishing the old was complicated by a HUD policy that restricting funding to specific sites where previously funded housing existed; ergo, demolition of the old had to first occur to make way for the new.  But, I was told that TCB had an agreement with the Clinton administration that HUD funds would be transferred, or “ported,” both on- and off-site, making the build-first concept viable.  The incoming Bush administration, however, strictly enforced the site limitations, and the build-first strategy went out the window.  (As an important side note, the Obama administration restored the ability to port HUD subsidies off-site, which has yielded benefits for East Liberty residents, which I’ll discuss later.)

I asked around as to why the demolition-first approach prevailed, but was unable to sort it out.  ELDI staff people cited HUD’s footprint policy.  Housing advocates told me that ELDI, as one of the most sophisticated community development corporations in Pittsburgh, gave up too easily and could have better used their position to influence a better outcome. One former housing developer recalled that ELDI was actively involved in advocating for that very thing.  Regardless, the issue lingers to this day, resulting in much of the distrust that persists for much of the area’s vulnerable population.

Remaining residents were evicted and relocated to nearby developments, such as New Pennley or Negley Neighbors, others to Penn Circle Towers, and the remainder took Section 8 vouchers off-site.  It was the URA’s responsibility to track where everyone went and to provide first right of refusal once new housing was built.

But the process was far from neat and tidy.  More than half of the residents, I was told, left East Liberty’s 15206 zip code entirely, and many of those who remained moved multiple times and dropped off of the URA’s radar.  Tracking people’s movements in the 2000s was quite different from how it would be today, and some people didn’t do their part in making their whereabouts known.  Nonetheless, a major governmental agency did lose a whole lot of people, whatever the reason.

The Post-Gazette reported at the time that residents were incentivized with $1,000 checks to leave their FAP apartments sooner than later, but others I talked to added that the thousand dollars was to incentivize people to not relocate to the high-rise that would remain – Penn Circle Tower – which contributed to the scattering of residents away from East Liberty.

The URA hired McCormick Baron Salazar, a for-profit housing developer that had worked previously in Pittsburgh, to lead the Liberty Park redevelopment. The first phases of it, called Fairfield, wouldn’t be completed until 2007.  According to East Liberty’s 2010 Community Plan,160 displaced residents (less than 20%) returned to the new housing that was available by then.

TCB was able to purchase the East Mall site from the URA after the building’s 2005 demolition.  The Great Recession killed off many real estate projects, but TCB persevered and completed East Liberty Place North and South, in 2010 and 2015, respectively.  Of the 109 combined units, ninety-nine meet some level of affordability requirements, and ten are market rate.

TCB also acquired the Penn Circle Tower site, which was eventually demolished in 2009.  It, along with some adjacent parcels, was then acquired by the Mosites Company, who ultimately redeveloped the site as a Target store.

My best guess, and it’s no more than that, is that East Liberty today accommodates fewer low-income households than it did a decade ago – perhaps one to two hundred less.  But that is not the main problem.  More affordable housing for the moderately poor will come eventually, but the thorniest dilemma is for the deeply impoverished who need housing that is priced comparably to Federal American Properties.  The federal funding that supported such projects no long exists at the levels it once did.

Part 6 of this series will cover whose housing needs are most likely to be met in the next decade, and why it won’t include everyone.

Now on the Twitter!  @downstream_city
A lot of factoids in this segment.  If my team of Harvard researchers got some things wrong, let them know, and we’ll try to correct it.

Photos: Peri Vrabel
East Liberty Place North and South