Housing is transit-related.  And hunger-related.  Housing is a health care issue and an environmental issue.  It affects LGBTQ communities and realtor associations.  It’s a human right and an exclusive privilege.  It’s out of reach for refugees and American-born veterans.  Housing is the vast expanse of neglected structures throughout the city.  It’s the high-end apartments, subsidized with public dollars, that are where, as resident Mel Packer stated, “those who built the city, those who raised their kids here, populated our schools, built the working class culture that made me and so many others fall in love with Pittsburgh lived – on their stomping grounds, on their playgrounds, on the memories of their ancestors who lived there before them.”

It’s a housing night in Pittsburgh.

For the many who have struggled for fair housing, it’s been a long road.   The public hearing for the City’s proposed Housing Opportunity Fund last Wednesday was not the end of that road, but a way-station, and drew an energized, full-capacity crowd to City Council’s chambers.  The only vacant seats in the house were a few at Council’s table.

Public Hearing for Housing Opportunity Fund
Photo: Pittsburgh United

During the three-hour hearing that ended after 8 P.M., more than fifty people provided testimony for legislation that is needed to advance many of the recommendations put forth by the Affordable Housing Task Force earlier this year.  These recommendations are the blueprint for alleviating the housing cost burdens affecting nearly half of Pittsburgh’s residents, and include suggestions on how to fund it.

The diversity of those who spoke in support of the Fund was too great to summarize properly, but included residents from nearly every demographic and corner of the city.  As Tim Stevens, representing the Black Political Empowerment Project, observed, “It’s not a black thing. It’s not a white thing. It’s a people thing. And if we want our city to reflect who we say we are, our housing stock needs to do that as well.”

A city employee needs a housing voucher to survive, and still cannot find safe, affordable housing for herself and her three children.

But the most moving testimony hit notes of hope, despair and everything it between.  Billie Vaughn is a young, single woman who came to the podium with one of her three children at her side.  She spoke softly as she described her struggles to find stable housing, even with a Section 8 housing voucher.

Ms. Vaughn is not unemployed.  In fact, her employer is the City of Pittsburgh, and she was testifying in the very same building in which she works.

“I work very hard, and I love my job,” she said.  “But I have nowhere to live.”

Ms. Vaughn’s job is part-time, pays $13/hour, and reflects the dilemma many working people are facing in Pittsburgh’s housing market: higher wages and full-time positions may put people over the income limit for housing assistance, but below what’s needed to afford rent without it.  Ms. Vaughn delicately told Council that she recently had to turn down a $16/hr job for this reason.  Even in her neighborhood, which she described as predominantly Section 8, a good paying job doesn’t cover the rent for a 3-bedroom apartment.

Such a job would provide less than $30,000/year after taxes; market-rate rental housing could exceed $20,000/year.  Not long ago, no one would’ve turned that job down for that reason, but if we need yet another example of how rapidly our housing situation is spinning out of control, there it is.

Outside the walls of Council Chambers, throughout every district in the city, is a common perception that affordable housing is for those too lazy to work, too irresponsible with their life choices, and that those who need it should be happy with the handouts they get and not ask for anything more.  Council members will get an earful from their constituents who hold these views.

But those constituents didn’t show up Wednesday night.

They didn’t wait for hours to speak on the public record.

They didn’t schedule off work or pay for childcare.

They didn’t face their fellow citizens who struggle on a daily basis against this mostly invisible hostility.

Showing up matters.

It’s worth saying again: a city employee needs a housing voucher to survive, and still cannot find safe, affordable housing for herself and her three children.  Ms. Vaughn commanded the attention of every person in the room, but her voice, and others like hers, simply have to find their way into the deaf wilderness that exists beyond the walls of city hall.

The only opposition came from a handful of realtors who limited their objections to how the program would be funded (most likely through a 1% increase to the Real Estate Transfer Tax).  To their credit, they showed up.  They sat and waited to say what they knew would be unpopular amongst a crowd whose passions were running high.  That takes some courage.  Without hubris, judgement or disrespect, they made their statements and sat down.

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After the last person testified, each Councilperson made statements reflecting a mix of enthusiasm and caution, but were generally earnest and positive across the board.  But it was the speakers who owned the night.  Not to take anything away from them, there were some absences that are worth noting.

This potentially long list includes representatives from most community development corporations, technical intermediaries, the authors of the recently released All-in Pittsburgh” report (fully titled, “Equitable Development: The Path to an All-in Pittsburgh”), architects and developers, foundation officers, along with a few Council representatives. In no way is this a criticism, nor does it question their commitment.  Rather, it speaks to a missed opportunity, as the people in the room would have benefited from what these groups have to offer.

Billy Vaughn testifies before Council
Photo: Pittsburgh United

Better coordination is needed to ensure the kind of All-in participation that our city needs.

The All-in report argues for the implementation of all of the recommendations put forth by the Affordable Housing Task Force, which includes the Housing Opportunity Fund.  The Fund stipulates ‘community control’ over redevelopment activities supported through it.  With some exceptions, this redevelopment will require neighborhood organizations or other non-profits to be active partners, and many speakers attested to the importance of this component.

It would have been for the good of the room to hear from those community-based organizations who will fill that role, many of which can speak to decades of on-the-ground experience with successful equitable development efforts.  Similarly, technical and financial intermediaries (such as the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, GTECH Strategies, Neighborhood Allies, Design Center, Sustainable Pittsburgh, etc.) work across neighborhood boundaries and possess extensive knowledge about systematic forces that impact our communities, both good and bad, that are integral to bringing about a more equitable city.

All of these groups have been indispensable in bringing about the positive changes we’ve seen in Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods over the past two decades.  They helped the communities that had some momentum to sustain it, while keeping others from falling into an abyss of disinvestment. They invested their time, money and knowledge to advance community visions for change.  They’ve had their share of failures, too.

Rarely do policy reports have the potential to alter a city’s center of gravity, but All-in Pittsburgh does.  PolicyLink, Neighborhood Allies and Urban Innovation21 – the team that issued the report – put forth a vision, based on a year’s worth of interviews, for a community-driven rebalancing of citywide goals.  It’s well-known that high level policy work doesn’t mingle comfortably with the grassroots work of advocacy, activism and implementation.  As but one example, the call for “community control” of the housing fund will mean very different things to different people; we have no shared definition of what that is.

Sarah Dieleman Perry, Program Manager for Economic Opportunity at Neighborhood Allies, said that her organization and groups like Homes for All Pittsburgh have different roles to play, but “can do a better job of supporting one another” as this effort moves ahead.  Just as Homes for All, Pittsburgh United, the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing turned out residents and grassroots organizations for the hearing, Neighborhood Allies has a similar role to play.  “Someone should be expanding the participation of those in community development who have common goals towards affordable housing and equitable development,” Ms. Perry said, and added, “That’s something we can do.”

Some community groups I talked to didn’t know about the hearing; some learned about it only hours before; some chose not to attend.  Similarly, many in the grassroots community were not included in either the unveiling of the All-in report or the Affordable Housing Task Force.  This speaks to the growing pains of organizing around complex issues such as fair housing and equitable development.  Because this effort remains very much decentralized, there is no single point of contact for communications.  While this allows for information to flow from all directions, better coordination is needed at key moments – from the on-the-ground organizations to the Mayor’s Office – to ensure the kind of All-in participation that our city needs.

None of this takes away from the currents of hope, compassion, outrage and wisdom that prevailed at this crossroads for Pittsburgh’s future on Wednesday night.  There are those who can make equitable development a reality, and those whose lives depend on it.  Often they are the same.  But even when they’re not, the Homes for All Pittsburgh and #allinpittsburgh campaigns speak to solidarity, and all those who wish for it to succeed need to be together – in the same room – when future opportunities arise.

The following excerpts from the hearing have been edited for clarity (with time markers for each speaker). The entire hearing can be watched below. (Due to some technical glitch on the City’s video, Council President Kraus sounds like a robot for the first thirty seconds.)

Molly Nichols, Pittsburghers for Public Transit (01:05:10):
“New developments, especially those near transit hubs, have to include affordable housing. Mosites Eastside Bond development, at the East Liberty Transit Center on the busway, includes 360 units of market rate housing.  Not one is affordable. The people of East Liberty can’t live there. This needs to include units that residents from East Liberty can live in. The residents need and deserve the best access to the transit system, but instead they’re being denied it.”

Silas Russel, Service Employees International Union (01:46:25)
“When there are seven people crammed into a one-bedroom apartment, that’s a housing issue but it’s also a health care issue. Because when one person gets sick, everyone gets sick.  When a person is paying 60% of their income for housing, that’s also a health care issue when they don’t have enough money to go to the doctor.”

Ciora Thomas, Proud Haven (01:22:55)
“I was a homeless teenager in this city.  I lived on Liberty Avenue as a child.  I want to know that when they get out of shelter, [the LGBTQ community] have a permanent place to call home. While we’re doing our job at Proud Haven, I need you guys to do your job as well, and allow our LGBTQ people that live in Pittsburgh to thrive in permanent housing.”

Mark Masterson, Northside Community Dev. Fund and Affordable Housing Task Force (01:29:12)
“Federal and state funds have been cut dramatically. Fifteen years ago we received 21 million dollars a year in community development block funds. This year you guys approved a budget with 13 million from the feds. We got 7 to 8 million dollars a year from the Dept. of Community and Economic Development out of Harrisburg. Now we get zero. Those monies were used for neighborhood development projects and for affordable housing.  We need to get this money out on the street now.  We’ve got a crisis that’s happening right now.  We can’t afford to wait.”

Aweys Mwaliya, Resident Northview Heights (02:12:51)
“I came here as a refugee from Kenya. I have been here for almost 10 years.  I lived in Lawrenceville, but today there are not any refugees living there because of the rent. Our young children are still going to Arsenal Elementary school because we love the neighborhood but we couldn’t afford to pay the rent over there.  To this day, there are still refugees coming and they don’t have appropriate documents to apply for housing assistance.  With the housing rent going up, how can we as a community support them? Why are we settling them here when we can’t even put them in houses?”

Charlene Haislip, Real Estate Agent (00:23:42)
“We don’t believe that increasing the cost of a house is the answer to making housing more affordable. It’s just backwards. That’s exactly what your proposed transfer tax would do.  The transfer tax in Pittsburgh is currently 4%, which is double that of its surrounding neighbors.”

Robert Damewood, Mount Washington resident, Attorney (01:39:10)
“Severe housing cost burdens put people at greater risk for eviction. Evictions have been linked to a wide range of social ills, including job loss, the onset of depression, increased substance abuse, increased domestic violence, and decreased academic performance. So it’s not only a moral issue. It’s not only the right thing to do to invest in affordable housing, it’s actually good public policy.”

Ronell Guy, Northside Coalition for Fair Housing (02:01:40)
“The Housing Authority at the City of Pittsburgh and other big management companies have abrogated their responsibility to care for their units and people are living in complete squalor, with their kids.”

Click to read more testimony.

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