Return to Towers Tougher Than Expected 

After being displaced nearly three years ago, former residents of three federally subsidized high-rises in East Liberty returned in droves in late June, hoping to stake their claim to replacement housing planned for the neighborhood. But they faced a "pre-application" and other hurdles that for some may make return impossible.


About 100 residents from the high-rises that once dominated the neighborhood's skylines ... East Mall and Liberty Park, since demolished, and Penn Circle, which is temporarily housing some displaced from the other two towers ... turned up over four days starting June 21 to "pre-apply" with the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority for the new housing, some of which will become available by fall.


After years of waiting and moving from apartment to apartment, residents finally caught a glimpse of their housing future. They pored over pastel-colored renderings and floorplans of 38 new apartments in Penn Manor, a low-rise development under construction at the corner of Penn and Negley avenues. The apartments are being offered as rent-subsidized units by developer The Community Builders, which currently manages Penn Circle. Other affordable units will be built on the former site of Liberty Park and scattered across the surrounding streets, such as Mellon and Rippey.


But some applicants said they also got a taste of the bureaucratic hoops they'll have to jump through. The pre-application process requires residents to report, among other things, their current income, credit history and any recent brushes with the law. The income ceiling for re-entering is unlikely to be a barrier, but if applicants are behind in utility payments where they currently rent, they may be barred from renting in the new East Liberty units

"They said, 'You can come back, but we're going to put down all these stipulations,'" says Debra Phillips, who relocated to Penn Circle from Liberty Park in 2004. "I felt like we should be able to move back in. It doesn't make sense. It seems to me they're trying to make it harder."

Collette O'Leary, URA development manager, did not respond to questions about the situation by press time. But the pre-application is to "give people the resources and the time to address these issues so that they can return," says Becky Foster, a consultant to McCormack Baron Salazar, developer of the new Liberty Park complex, the first phase of which will be completed by next summer.


Some issues, of course, cannot be resolved: Former residents will be banned from returning if they've been convicted of a felony during the past three years. And as many as 37 of the 150 residents who have expressed interest in returning still owe the URA back rent. After she filled out the paperwork Thursday, Phillips was told that she owes $534 to the URA, which owned Liberty Park before its demolition. But she maintains that she paid rent the whole time.

Housing advocates from such statewide groups as Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania and Regional Housing Legal Services are helping former residents challenge the rent claims by filing grievances.


In May 2003, nearly 300 low-income families living in the high-rises were told to vacate as quickly as possible to make way for new developments. Residents, some of whom had lived in the high-rises for decades, received a voucher for the federal Section 8 rent-subsidy program, which can be redeemed with eligible landlords in any neighborhood, plus cash for help with moving expenses. Some tenants formed a group, the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty (COR), and sued the URA and the city Housing Authority. Residents demanded reasonable relocation accommodation.


The suit was settled in 2003; residents were assured of the right to apply to the new housing, provided they've remained current on their rent.


"They thought we would take the voucher, take the money and take a hike," says Alethea Sims, a former East Mall tenant and the lawsuit's lead plaintiff, who now leads COR. "We didn't do that."


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