[Photo: Great Pumpkin, Michael Goodin/Flickr]

It was the very first sentence of a February 2016 Post-Gazette article that stuck with me long after reading it.  Diana Nelson Jones wrote: “Affordable housing is abundant citywide, but market forces in a handful of neighborhoods are creating shortages for low and middle incomes.”   This statement aims to tell us three things about Pittsburgh’s housing market – about abundance, geography and income – but instead raises questions about these things.

This is in no way meant to impugn Ms. Nelson Jones or her article.  In fact, I’m glad she wrote what she did because it is an accurate reflection of the public’s often-misunderstood view of Pittsburgh’s housing market.  This lack of clarity contributes to widespread confusion about the current problem at hand, and what to do about it.

My first drafts of this story sucked, frankly.  After the eighth rewrite, it still sucked.  Explaining our city’s rapidly evolving housing market is a daunting endeavor, especially when such a vast expanse lies between common perceptions and available data.

Click images below for previous parts of this series.

Attempting to unravel these perceptions resulted only in an unravelling of the story itself.  Making a story out of data was like trying to tell the story of Pi.

There are a lot of perceptions about our housing situation out there.  Of those who personally know the immense suffering it can inflict.  Of those who know how to develop affordable housing through complicated LIHTC (low income tax credits) applications.  Of those who know how these things play out in countless other cities.  Of those in the media whose fixation on East Liberty has created blindspots as to what’s transpiring elsewhere.  Of those who know nothing of the above but have unshakable opinions about it anyway.  All of whom shared their points of view with me.

There’s a lot of data out there, along with a lot of people who were willing to help me interpret it.  We can see where residents are paying disproportionately high percentages of their income towards housing, and where the highest and lowest incomes reside.  We can see breakdowns of rental costs, mortgage costs, demographics of all kinds, and where people move from and to.

What is the difference between affordable housing and cheap, substandard property that is of little use to anyone?

We can plainly see where below-market real estate is scattered all across the city.  And yet we can’t discern the physical condition of any of it, at least not in any meaningful way.  As housing specialists made evident to me, including Nicholas Fedorek, a planner with Mullin and Lonergan, there’s no reliable data to tell us what’s salvageable and what’s not.

I set out to illuminate this rapidly evolving situation, but thus far have only arrived at a place where questions still gather like clouds, leaving me to wonder where it will rain next.

What is the difference between an “abundance of affordable housing” and an abundance of cheap, substandard property that is of little use to anyone?  What does census data tell us about where affordability problems are in relation to what our eyes tell us?  Similarly, to what degree are housing burdens contained within moderate- and low-income neighborhoods, and not spreading towards higher-income enclaves?

I’m not kept awake at night knowing that the percentage of cost burdened renters in Mt. Lebanon is comparable to their City of Pittsburgh counterparts (about 50%).  But I am rather curious about what this means about our region, given that one can substitute any number of less affluent municipalities for Mt. Lebanon, and get similar results.  My biased concern towards those living on the edge is well-known, but in this part of the series I’m putting that aside.

If I’m drawing any conclusions at this point, it’s only that affordable housing is not a city problem, or even a county problem – it’s bigger.  If you’re like me, you read stories about this issue and subconsciously think it’s about “them” – those who earn little money, or live in those neighborhoods.  To be clear, ‘them in those neighborhoods’ must be put at the front of the line; a line which is growing longer and snaking out the door, around the corner and down the road.

Two weeks ago, Pittsburgh’s Affordable Housing Task Force presented it’s recommendations to City Council, many months in the making, with the hopes of informing a comprehensive strategy to recalibrate a housing market that has lit up like a newfangled pinball machine.  This presentation followed a press conference, organized by Homes for All Pittsburgh, outside of council chambers.  The latter was passionate and, at times, raucous, while the former was deliberative and sober.  In between was a public comment period that was a mix of both. (WESA has two audio pieces on it here.)

I’m not well-suited to analyze the merits of the day nor the task force’s preliminary recommendations. Those in the audience were poor, working poor, housing professionals, neighborhood experts, community organizers, advocates for a variety of causes, and so on.  As far as I know, none of the more than one hundred people in attendance were mere curious taxpayers.

My takeaway was that there is chasm of unreconciled perspectives, and it’s a wide one; wide enough that, if it’s not closed, may swallow this effort whole.  And that doesn’t even take into account Joe Public’s in absentia perspective, which matters, especially when big numbers like ten million dollars are proposed as an annual allocation to an affordable housing trust fund.

Whatever gains and losses occur behind closed doors, in public proceedings and in street actions, how it all is presented to a public that seems to be equal parts sympathetic, hostile and confused, will matter.  In the end, ten elected officials will decide what course Pittsburgh will take in the face of this challenge.  Many people spoke to the political will needed to right the ship, which implies that many of those officials must make decisions without the wind at their backs.

Reasonable people can disagree on what to do in the weeks ahead, but a public that is uninformed or confused is not part of the reasonable people category.  Yet they will hold great influence over these ten elected officials.  What I witnessed in the press conference and subsequent council meeting was a showdown that was at times disagreeable and inflamed, but earnest across the board.  The press conference speakers made loud and informed statements.  Council members and task force chair people solemnly grappled with hard questions.  It was all a meaningful effort.  If the future corrective policies, programs, and funds were to be determined solely by those present that day, the results would be imperfect but good.

Now the media must do its part and match that effort.  This crisis has been building for more than a decade, but too often are the unfolding present-day events depicted with more that a few months worth of context.  East Liberty, which Mr. Fedorek pointed out to me, represents two percent of Pittsburgh’s housing supply, but commands a wildly disproportionate amount of news ink dedicated to housing-related matters.  While more severe, urgent and interesting, East Liberty is only one of many neighborhoods (including suburbs) with high rental housing cost burdens, including Upper St. Clair. (Now ain’t that a kick in the pants?)

After all, Pittsburgh’s collective mindset leans towards the provincial.  As a New York City native who was worked as a planner in cities throughout the country, Mr. Fedorek’s perspective on Pittsburgh is particularly valuable.   With that broader context he observed that in Pittsburgh people view affordable housing as the domain of the poor – seniors on SSI and families receiving welfare benefits, whereas in places like Seattle, it’s for teachers and firefighters.  “By the time moderate-income people become concerned about affordable housing, the problem is already severe, and policy changes tend to be more reactive than proactive,” he said.  Mr. Fedorek’s wider vantage is balanced by his time working as a staffer for State Senator Jim Ferlo, where he saw many of these issues up close.

Before really get into it, now seems like a good time for a quick story:

Years ago, I was summoned to a Northside neighborhood to assess the feasibility of renovating a few neglected properties that could be sold to middle-income families.  With me was my colleague, Breen Masciotra, and we met a community organization representative on-site who boasted that these houses had ‘good bones.’  From the curb, the man (whose name I’ve since forgotten) remarked, “Everyone sees blight.  I see an abundance of opportunity.”  We appreciated his optimism.

Plywood was nailed over the front door, so the man led us to the back of the house.  He hoisted himself upon an oil drum, and climbed through a broken window with such little effort it was obvious he’d done this before.  Breen and I looked at each other and shrugged.

On second thought, I’ll return to the story in Part Four.