The East Liberty Presbyterian Church, known as the “Cathedral of Hope,” looms over the former Penn Plaza site, while speeches were given at the conclusion of a protest march on April 1, 2017. Photo: Citizen Vrabelman
In Part One of this story we met Frank Hastings. The 74-year old retired baker has been asked to vacate his apartment. The average rent in his neighborhood is $810, but Frank lives on less than $1,400 per month. Part Two provides a look at his options, and the maze in which low-income people enter when seeking housing.
Frank Hastings hasn’t been on anyone’s radar for quite some time, living in a seam of “naturally occurring” affordable housing. How much of this unsubsidized, below-market rate housing exists in Pittsburgh is hard to quantify. Having never applied for a Section 8 housing voucher or other forms of public assistance, people like Frank—previously self-sufficient and unfamiliar with the maze of public and private support networks—are also hard to quantify. If any of us has a grandparent, aunt, or brother, living in one of these undetectable seams throughout the city, we should expect Pittsburgh’s housing market to force them out soon.
The deal I made with Frank was to write his story, and in return, help him understand his options and formulate a strategy to navigate the complex process ahead. He’s a private guy, and though the idea of a mid-rise senior housing residence made him uncomfortable, he was willing to go anywhere that he could afford. The unusually low rent Frank’s been paying—$250 per month—complicates how much he thinks he can afford.
Into the Maze
Frank hasn’t been sitting around waiting for someone to solve his problem. As he enumerated the calls he had made to various agencies and the many rental applications he had submitted, I attributed the frustration in his face to what seemed like a scattershot approach.
I began by calling the dozen project-based Section 8 buildings oriented towards seniors, but they were all full. York Commons, only two blocks away, has a one-year waiting list; and A.J. Demor Towers, seven miles away, offered the shortest wait of six months. Mixed-income buildings (that offer both Section 8 and market-rate units) were another option to consider, and the Fairfield Apartments in East Liberty (behind Target) provided valuable insight into Pittsburgh’s housing market. Built as “replacement housing” for demolished low-income high-rises, this development currently has one vacancy— a 1-bedroom unit renting for $1,025 per month. The waiting list for Section 8 units at Fairfield is 7-10 years.
Frank’s challenge is two-fold: he needs a place he can afford to move to immediately, until he reaches the top of a waiting list that could provide a long-term affordable option.
“The waiting list for Section 8 units at Fairfield is 7-10 years.“
My next move was to call a lawyer to educate me on eviction proceedings, should it come to that. Then I called the venerable Chuck Keenan, housing coordinator at the Department of Human Services for Allegheny County (DHS). Mr. Keenan was patient, and within minutes loaded me up with information, including agencies to call, and a spreadsheet of housing providers in the county—public housing, continuum-of-care facilities, nursing homes, and shelters. The document provided addresses, phone numbers, and numbers of units, broken down by numbers of bedrooms and accessibility. I stared blankly at the list of more than 600 entries for quite some time, concluding that Frank needed a professional case manager. But where does he find one?
Above: A concept rendering included in Milhaus’ proposal for luxury housing at the Shursave grocery story site 1,000 feet from Frank’s door. If it looks familiar, you might be thinking of the Eastside Bond luxury housing project pictured below (Photo: Peri Vrabel).
Frank doesn’t don’t know lawyers or Chuck Keenan, and because part of my goal was to understand this process through his eyes, I started over and returned to DHS. DHS directed me to CHS, Community Human Services, a non-profit organization that provides a variety of support services for issues related to housing, mental health, and substance abuse. CHS responded to my voicemail quickly, but informed me that their clients are referred by the Allegheny Link to Aging and Disability Resources. The “Link,” as it’s known, is part of DHS.
The Link staff person I talked to was patient and helpful, but because Frank’s situation is unique—he’s not disabled, is over age 59, and not yet homeless—Frank needed to appear in person. In the meantime, the Link provided me with another list of available apartments on both the public and private market.
Keeping in mind that Frank’s income is $1,400/month, the lowest-priced unit was $508, gas and electric included. I called to find that it was a typo, and the rent was actually $850. An efficiency in Squirrel Hill was $510, and one in the Banksville neighborhood was $525 (both included electric), but both had been filled earlier in the week. Eventually I found an available studio apartment in the Knoxville neighborhood for $550 (with gas and electric); when you add water and sewage, housing costs would exceed forty percent of Frank’s monthly income.
“Prioritizing luxury apartments over today’s affordable housing shortage is nothing more than a kind of trickle-down economics that’s palatable to the urban sophisticate.”
That this region has so many resources and knowledgeable workers is surely a blessing for a lot of people, but the process is confusing to navigate, even for someone like me, who set aside unlimited hours and is not personally threatened by displacement or homelessness.
I should mention that Chuck Keenan and CHS had also referred me to the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging. Here I made the mistake of thinking that was who I already contacted. But the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging, located on the city’s South Side, is different from the Allegheny Link to Aging and Disability Resources, located downtown.
“You’re done, bro.”
While sorting through all of this I checked in with Frank by phone a couple of times. His demeanor had changed noticeably, becoming increasingly pessimistic from one call to the next. When I told him that there was a single room available in someone’s house for $300, he seemed defeated. “$550 is the best we can do right now,” I said. Adding that it was only temporary and that something more affordable should be available later in the year didn’t help.
“I can’t afford that,” he said. “I don’t want to hear about $500 apartments anymore.” I realized that Frank had mistaken me for the person who would tell him that there were $300 apartments somewhere, but I was telling him what others had told him—they don’t exist anymore.
He seemed angry with me, and when I asked, he said, “I’m not angry with you, sir.” I wasn’t entirely convinced, and I asked if he still wanted my help. He said no. As for what he’ll do should an eviction process run its course, “I guess it’s under the bridge for me,” he said.
Patty, Frank’s niece, told me over the phone that this isn’t uncommon, and that his anxiety often becomes extreme. We agreed that I wouldn’t talk to Frank directly anymore. Patty was good-humored when she said, “I’m giving you a get-out-of-jail-free card…you’re done, bro.” Despite the circumstances, this made me laugh.
Like other Pittsburgh neighborhoods, Bloomfield’s rich texture and flavorful housing stock is becoming endangered. Photo: Citizen Vrabelman
This is Pittsburgh
In three days after it was published, The Baker from Bloomfield was shared on Facebook more than 300 times, reaching thousands of readers, some of whom contacted me. A local housing developer that specializes in affordable housing asked to be put in touch with Carol, the owner of Frank’s building. I received emails from residents of senior housing buildings, like York Commons, who shared their personal experiences, and opinions about which buildings are nice and which are not. “Frank would be very welcome here,” one of them wrote. They encouraged him not to be dismayed by the waiting lists, which are often not as long as first indicated. In a roundabout way, the Agency on Aging ended up contacting me. I learned that they can provide immediate assistance in emergency situations, and offered to assess Frank’s current situation.
This felt like the Pittsburgh I’ve always known—a caring and forgiving community rallying around an underdog, in the most circuitous manner possible.
You can’t there from here
Frank’s Medicare and supplemental insurance saved his life, but also added another layer to his already confusing housing dilemma. In Section 8 buildings, rent is set at 30% of a person’s gross income, and Frank said that he was told that the insurance payouts from his supplemental insurance counted as income. Knowing that traditional public housing, and many other forms income-qualified housing, do not count medical expenses as income, I assumed that to be true of the Section 8 program as well. But the person I talked to at the Link didn’t know for certain, nor did several other housing professionals, so I went straight to the source: the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh (HACP), which administers the Section 8 program.
Each call I made ended the same way, with a recorded message; and with no means of returning to a main menu, my options were to hang up and call back, or leave a message of my own. Wanting to talk to a live person, I grew more feverish with each call. Personally, I had nothing to lose or gain, but the system began to feel hostile. I called sixteen times, dialing nine different extensions, but to no avail.
R.E.M.’s 1985 song, “Can’t get there from here,” applies to houses like these and certain public agencies. Photo: Citizen Vrabelman
I again called the HACP a week later, and with no small amount of persistence, I reached a housing specialist. The woman was extraordinarily courteous and knowledgeable, and explained that Frank’s medical care would not count as income. To say this was much ado about nothing would be to miss the point that I spent four hours getting one question answered.
While we’re talking about something as rudimentary as telephones, let’s also talk about mail—the postal kind, because Frank doesn’t use a computer. The applications he fills out require a permanent address. That seems easy enough; but remember, Frank lives in fear of the eviction that could come any day. If Frank no longer resides at his current address when a notification about an apartment availability is mailed, he may never see it, unless he remembers to update his address with every single place he applied.
“The problem is when a city prioritizes future citizens over current ones.”
Frank rented a PO Box at the Bloomfield post office, which now costs him another $25 each month, on top of the $167 he’s paying a storage facility, and the postage costs for mailing applications. Combined, this $192 that would go a long way towards paying Frank’s rent is wasted. PO Boxes don’t count as permanent addresses, Frank learned, and because he can’t use his niece’s address without proof of residency, Frank’s back to using his current address. Because he mailed some applications on which he entered his new PO Box address, he needs to maintain it just in case.
While there is undoubtedly something needling about a retired senior with a flip-phone trying to find his way through this maze, this makes Frank neither unique nor alone. With him in the maze are working people who don’t have the luxury of taking time away from their job (or jobs) to make phone calls or go downtown; parents juggling school and daycare; and people with mental or physical disabilities.
Telling Frank’s story may provide a useful portrayal of what our citizens are enduring, but eventually we have to make sense of what it all means. Those familiar with my previous stories know that I don’t stay at a constant altitude for very long; I zoom in, I zoom out. We’re going to leave Frank here for a moment.
Is the Future Now?
There’s no shortage of opinions about Pittsburgh’s current trajectory. Even among those who are part of a growing resistance are many valid ideas about what’s fueling this transformation. A recent Richard Florida interview with Mayor Bill Peduto in CityLab, titled, “Pittsburgh Was Already a Decade Ahead,” offers us more to consider.
I won’t rehash the entire thing, but will summarize it this way: there’s the Pittsburgh/San Francisco question; the “authentic character” question; the university question; the university/robot question; the Uber question; and, the blue-collar v. innovation economy question. (Honestly, I didn’t see the “mayor as president” question coming.)
I read this interview while thinking about just how little of it would matter to Frank, except, perhaps, the bits about housing. Speaking to a national audience, most of which lacks intimate details about this city that was “already a decade ahead,” the mayor acknowleged that Pittsburgh hasn’t fully fused its blue-collar origins with the emerging innovation economy. He said, “There are those that look with negativity towards what the new economy has brought to Pittsburgh, even though the neighborhoods it has changed have gone from blight and crime to investment. In those same neighborhoods, we lost more people through disinvestment than we have lost through gentrification.”
“If the tech industry flatlines, will the populace that makes up the ‘new economy’ stay?”
That’s a lot to unpack. It’s hard to argue “more people” without numbers, but the bigger problem is the reduction of complex housing issues to investment versus disinvestment, because who doesn’t want investment? A working definition of gentrification is the arrival of a middle income class in a predominantly low income neighborhood, which often, but not always, results in displacement. Here, the mayor acknowledges that gentrification has resulted in displacement, but positions it as secondary to loss through disinvestment. In his lesser of two evils argument, the consequences of investment (displacement) are preferable to those of disinvestment (greater displacement).
By not distinguishing between types of investment, this logic is faulty, harmful, and highly contagious. The very communities that the mayor characterizes as gentrified have long asked, begged, and organized for investment that benefits existing communities. Instead, what has been delivered is investment that overwhelmingly benefits future communities, of which the existing community is less likely to be a part with each passing day.
In his next breath the mayor said, “Despite the backlash from some who hold a litmus test that is impossible to ever [reach], there is an optimism that Pittsburgh’s best days are still ahead.”
I wondered if I was one of those litmus testers.
If wanting to see equitable investment between present-day communities and those of the future is a litmus test, then yes I am.
If wanting to see an all-hands-on-deck approach to housing or job growth for existing communities that is comparable to the enormous effort to lure Amazon HQ2, then yes I am.
Neither of those is “impossible to ever reach.”
What’s the rush?
Laying blame at the mayor’s doorstep would be as reductionist as the investment v. disinvestment argument I maligned earlier. Mayor Peduto’s administration did not cause Pittsburgh’s affordable housing shortage; it’s been building for more than a decade. Nor did this administration cause Frank’s problems; Frank’s refusal, or inability, to accept reality contributes to his situation as much as anything else. What many in the fair housing community take issue with is a disconnect between city government’s rhetoric and action; between the acknowledgment of a crisis and a perceived lack of urgency towards ameliorating it.
Unlike the region’s Amazon HQ2 proposal, the mayor’s adoration of the tech industry is no secret. By itself, this is not a problem. The inevitability of technological advancement means that cities, routinely pummeled and hamstrung by their state legislatures, need to harness this tech sector energy to create workforce opportunities for their citizens as a means of survival. The problem is when a city prioritizes future citizens over current ones, and it would be unsurprising if this is what’s happening in Pittsburgh.
Broadly speaking, technology has always had futuristic overtones, underscored with inherent qualities of austerity and alienation. Is it possible that the open-arms embrace of the tech industry here has caused our regional leadership to drift too far into the future? Is a leadership that is unable or unwilling to see what’s transpiring today an explanation for the sluggish response to situations like Frank Hastings’?
Many of Pittsburgh’s new luxury apartments buildings are more than 30% vacant. Photo: Citizen Vrabelman
And while the “Pittsburgh Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation” seeks to bridge the digital divide by creating opportunities for longtime Pittsburgh residents, the effort will be continually undermined by housing insecurity, wherever it exists. Landing Amazon or the next multi-national corporation will increase regional population, median wages, educational attainment, and spending power—and again, who doesn’t want that? But this is a risky gamble.
All of the Frank Hastings of this city started with little to nothing—or for Frank, specifically, less than nothing—yet carved out decent lives for themselves, only to falter short of the finish line. In fairness, there are also CMU grads and tech workers from near and far that also started with nothing; but it’s safe to say they are few. Frank’s generation and the one that came after are proven commodities who survived Pittsburgh’s darkest days, which ironically came about after the industrial skies began to clear. When East Liberty resident Alethea “Lee” Sims and others say, “We lived here through the worst of times, we should be able to live through the best of times,” this is what they’re talking about.
Instead, Pittsburgh has bet big on the innovation economy, composed primarily of high-achieving millennials. The gen-x’ers before them (of which I’m one) led the first major wave of young people returning to cities, and are known as “early gentrifiers.” We invested money, started families, and entered into the school system. We exacerbated changing real estate markets, and later displacement, even if it wasn’t readily apparent to us at the time. All of this happened while neighborhoods still had levels of crime and blight that were quite high compared to the present day. My neighborhood of Lawrenceville (pop. 13,000, roughly), experienced 1,502 crimes in 2005 (the year after my family bought a house), compared with 432 in 2017. (Sources: 2005: Tableau Public; 2017: Allegheny County) The urban-oriented millennial newcomers, the “late gentrifiers,” who are now putting down roots, by and large, have not yet been tested.
If autonomous vehicles stagnate, Amazon doesn’t come, Google finds a new stomping ground, or the tech industry flatlines, will the populace that makes up the “new economy” stay? It’s easier to move an office than a factory. Will an unexpected spike in crime jettison them to the suburbs, where they’ll no longer be part of the city’s all-important tax base, or part of that future community we’re wagering on?
I’ve seen that fish before
Following the passage of National Housing Act of 1934, Pittsburgh was not exempt from the urban “white flight” that swept the nation. It started with opportunity—cheap land on which to build the new American dream of a house with the picket fence in the suburbs, and subsidized roads to get people there. But the Federal Housing Administration’s redlining policies, which led to blockbusting, deed restrictions, and protective covenants at the local level, made it evident that this opportunity was reserved for upwardly mobile white people of European descent, systematically excluding most everyone else.
It was in the newly hollowed-out cities that those who stayed behind made lives for themselves. Frank, whose ancestry is white European, was one of them. Despite having this recent history at our fingertips (Beryl Satler’s book, Family Properties, and Mindy Fullilove’s two books, Root Shock and Urban Alchemy, are excellent resources on this topic), we seem to be viewing the in-migration of the new urban middle class as if we’ve been inoculated against another large-scale urban exodus. That mid-century flight is too often seen as no more than a historical footnote to the surging city we now know.
A slide from Milhaus’ Shursave proposal tells us a lot about their vision for Pittsburgh.
Frank’s cohort is still here and their needs are dire. Prioritizing those who will comprise the city’s future innovation economy, by repeatedly and disproportionately advancing luxury housing and high-tech office space over today’s affordable housing shortage, is nothing more than a kind of trickle-down economics that’s palatable to the urban sophisticate. Our mayor travels the world telling our story and exchanging ideas. For his next excursion, I’ll not only suggest a meeting of the minds on San Francisco’s Mission Street—I’ll buy the plane ticket.
A homeless Frank, or a hospitalized Frank, is going to cost the city a lot more than the Frank we got. Still, it’s easy see Frank Hastings as someone who won’t play a major role in Pittsburgh’s future.
But Frank is part of the present, Goddamnit. And presently, Frank’s sleeping on the floor. Presently, Frank has $1,200 in Social Security and a $136.87 monthly pension. Presently, Frank has a $167/month storage unit and a $25/month PO Box. Presently, Frank has a third grade education and is confused about which agency is which, randomly calling numbers on his flip-phone, searching for apartments he can’t afford. Presently, Frank is ill.
Presently, there are thousands of people who care enough to read Frank’s story, most of whom are no more able to do anything about it than I. Presently, there is a city administration who is capable of doing something about it, but is preoccupied with other things, such as luring a company that promises 50,000 workers with an average salary of $100,000, and a top-heavy corporate structure that is almost entirely composed of white men.
Fielding demands from every direction is in the job description of every elected official. Potholes, bike lanes and the like may be of great importance, but never amount to crisis status. Perhaps with the exception of lead-contaminated water, I know of nothing that surpasses the urgency of Pittsburgh’s current housing situation. Most of those I know who criticize the current administration (including me) do so not expecting an immediate fix; we expect our leaders to say the buck stops here. We want a rough timeline and progress reports. We want direct communication. We want partners, not adversaries.
Pittsburgh is but one of many cities throughout the nation experiencing similar affordable housing shortages, but too often we present this as an excuse. Other cities can pinpoint rapid population growth as the primary cause for rising real estate values, and then examine housing supply-and-demand accordingly. Because Pittsburgh has not seen population growth means that we created this crisis on our own.
And so it goes
Earlier this month, the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority approved a plan to divert parking tax revenues to pay down a loan to the City’s Edge, a proposed mixed-use, mixed-income development in the Uptown neighborhood, near PPG Paints Arena. Of the 106 total units, 74 will be affordable to people earning 20-60% of the area median income. Though reported on by WESA, Post-Gazette, and the Pittsburgh City Paper, this project went largely unnoticed, even among housing advocates. If I’m to say we all need to do our part, that starts with me, by giving credit where it’s due.
The P-G reported that the developer, P. Nathaniel Boe, president and CEO of MidPoint Group of Companies Inc., said, “This parking tax diversion is really an innovative program the URA has in place. I don’t think other cities have a similar thing. This might be unique to Pittsburgh, which is a wonderful thing.”
Mr. Boe’s long relationship with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh has not been without controversy and scrutiny, and I don’t know if that factored into this deal. That aside, this project is what housing advocates have been calling for: a substantial number of units that will serve the lower half of the affordability spectrum, while being close to transit and other amenities.
Whether this model can be replicated in the future remains to be seen, this but kind of creative thinking matters in the present. That this tax-diversion-funded-affordable-housing strategy passed without much fanfare speaks to the ongoing communication issues between factions, which also feels uniquely Pittsburgh.
We know that Frank’s time here is short. We don’t know if City’s Edge represents a sea change or a mere anomaly. If it’s the latter, when Frank’s gone, he won’t simply be replaced by another Frank—he’ll be replaced with two Franks, and then four, and then eight.
Then, as Vonnegut said, “And so it goes.”
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