Housing | BLOGH: City Paper's Blog |
Thursday, April 21, 2016

Posted By on Thu, Apr 21, 2016 at 2:46 PM

According to a report released this week, Pittsburgh was ranked second among metropolitan areas where African Americans spend the greatest proportion of their income on energy bills. The report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) coalition ranked Pittsburgh among the top ten cities where energy burdens were found to be greatest for low-income households.

"No community needs this type of high energy burden," says Adrianna Quintero, executive director of Voices Verdes, a Latino coalition. "We're willing to take steps to tackle this problem and support energy efficiency measures." 

The new report found that on average, low-income households spend 7.2 percent of their household income on utilities—more than three times the amount that higher income households pay. In Pittsburgh the rate is 9.4 percent.

"We do see this as a civil rights issue," says Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP's Environmental and Climate Justice Program. "Given the disproportionate impact of energy on communities of color, we absolutely see this essential to our civil rights agenda."

The report also looked at the health effects for families living in homes struggling to pay utility bills. It found that the burden increases financial stress, cases of asthma, respiratory problems, heart disease, arthritis, and rheumatism.

"Improperly heated homes or homes that are sporadically heated can aggravate certain respiratory conditions," says Ariel Drehobl, research analyst and lead report author. "In warm climates, extreme heat can also be a problem for people with respiratory conditions who have trouble breathing." 

Among the report's recommendations is increased investment in energy efficiency programs. This would include "targeting multifamily buildings with energy efficiency investments; using demographic data in program evaluation; and strengthening low-income targets and goals for utility programs."

"We don't quite know what the causes of high energy burden in specific cities are," says Drehobl. "These policy recommendations that we put forward, cities should look at these and determine what works best for them in relation to utility programs. Look at what cities provide, if these programs can be improved to make sure they're reaching the most overburdened households." 

The results of the study are being looked at by Voices Verdes, the NAACP and other organizations in an effort to help address the burden utility bills have on low-income and minority communities. 

"The results of this study have to be taken in the context of the affordable housing crisis we're facing today," says Khalil Shahyd of the Energy Efficiency for All coalition. "Even while rents are increasing, energy costs are increasing a lot faster. The rates also track very well to rates of poverty in these cities." 

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Friday, April 1, 2016

Posted By on Fri, Apr 1, 2016 at 12:25 PM

From left to right: Bill Bartlett, Janice Brown and Angel Gober of ACTION United - PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
Photo by Ryan Deto
From left to right: Bill Bartlett, Janice Brown and Angel Gober of ACTION United

When more than 200 tenants at Penn Plaza received 90-day eviction notices last July, it was community advocacy group ACTION United who helped the residents organize a tenant council. Since then, the nonprofit, which has its Pittsburgh offices just blocks away from Penn Plaza in East Liberty, has held rallies and press conferences reminding city officials of the ongoing affordable housing shortages in the East End, and holding them to their promise to relocate every last tenant.

And at a press conference this week, the organization is asking the city to institute policies to ensure crises like Penn Plaza don't happen again. The group is calling for the city to require landlords provide at least 18 months notice in situations similar to Penn Plaza.

"Penn Plaza never again," said Angel Gober, an ACTION United community organizer, at the press conference. "You cannot put people out in the streets in 90 days, especially if they are disabled and seniors."

The group's 18-month proposal would only apply to market-rate rental housing that has more than 20 units and any structure that receives public subsidies or is about to have its public subsidies expire. The proposal also requires advance notice if a sale or transfer results in tenants' leases being terminated and if neighborhood displacement will occur. ACTION United emailed City Paper their proposal, and it states: "This policy is designed to give residential tenants in Pittsburgh a reasonable amount of certainty and stability in their housing."

Kevin Quisenberry, lawyer for the Penn Plaza tenant council, also suggested the need for significant advance notice in situations similar to Penn Plaza, in a recent CP story.

The press conference was held at Kingsley Association in East Liberty right before the city held its last affordable housing community meeting, where residents were allowed to ask questions and give input to the city's affordable housing task force. The city has said the task force should have affordable housing recommendations for city council some time this summer.

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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2016 at 5:02 PM

click to enlarge Councilor Darlene Harris - PHOTO BY MARK SCHWARZ
Photo by Mark Schwarz
Councilor Darlene Harris
Yesterday, Pittsburgh City Council voted to adopt a sewage facilities proposal for the Hillcrest Senior Residences, a new $15-million development in the Carrick-Brentwood area.

"This is the first multi-million dollar investment we've had on Brownsville road maybe ever," said Rudiak. "This is particularly in an area that needs to be stabilized, that right now has its share of blight. We're very excited to have our seniors living there and have more eyes on the road and more folks walking up and down the street and enjoying the amenities there."

Though the sewage facilities plan was approved by a resounding majority, some council members used the opportunity to discuss the issues of affordability and union participation in new developments. Councilor Darlene Harris asked whether the developers were working with union contractors.

"I've had conversations with the unions about this, and they have bid out to the spectrum of contractors that are union as well," said Councilor Natalia Rudiak, who represents the district where the new development is located. "They're putting out the bid to both, but I can't tell you who they have on contract to do the work. I have been in touch with the unions about this work, and they have been interested in the project. And I did connect Community Builders with the [unions] to make sure they were in the fold."

Community Builders is an affordable housing developer with some properties in the East End. 

Councilor Ricky Burgess did not share Harris' concern about union participation in the project and instead took the opportunity to highlight the lack of minority and women inclusion in the unions.

click to enlarge Councilor Ricky Burgess - PHOTO BY MIKE SCHWARZ
Photo by Mike Schwarz
Councilor Ricky Burgess
"I'll use this moment to say what I said to the unions collectively. I would be willing to support Pittsburgh being a closed shop like Philadelphia if the unions are willing to mandate a percentage of women and minority participation in their craft. The day when they guarantee X number of minority members in their unions, I would be willing to vote that Pittsburgh would be a closed shop. But until that happens, in order to continue to have diversity on work sites, you're going to need a combination of union and non union members." 

Councilor Burgess also asked that he be sent information on how many of the units will be affordable.

Rudiak said she doesn't have concrete numbers on the level of affordability, though she believes at least half of the 66 units will be affordable.

The development received a $1 million tax credit from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

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Monday, February 1, 2016

Posted By on Mon, Feb 1, 2016 at 1:18 PM

Pittsburgh’s first tiny house is finally ready to be someone's home. (A tiny house is usually between 100 and 500 square feet.) City Paper has covered the project since it was just an idea in developer Eve Picker’s mind, and then through some of its financial struggles. Unlike most tiny houses that came before it (which are usually placed on small trailers to avoid zoning regulations), the 350-square-foot home in Garfield was granted a zoning exception and is fully hooked up to the city's power and sewer grids. On Jan. 31, our photo intern Aaron Warnick visited the completed domicile as part of its open house and took photos which can be viewed in our slideshow.

CP was not alone in expressing interest. Dozens of Pittsburghers lined up for their chance to cram into the tiny space. Residents were able to see how amenities like a bathtub, oven, stove top and two mini-fridges all fit into the small space. The initial sale price for the home is about $109,000 (this large amount is explained in our news feature, here).

To see the tiny house yourself, visit the corner of North Atlantic Avenue and Broad Street in Garfield. With its boxy, modernist design and small stature, it stands out against the older homes of the neighborhood and even though it’s tiny, it’s difficult to miss.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Posted By on Thu, Nov 19, 2015 at 5:27 PM

Today Pittsburgh City Council held a  public hearing and post agenda meeting on a piece of legislation that would add  "source of income" as a protected class against housing discrimination.

"I think everyone should have housing choices. It always interests me that we say we want things to be fair for everyone, but we don’t want to do our fair share to make it inclusive," said Councilor Ricky Burgess, who sponsored the legislation. "Every time we try to change something to make it more livable, there are often cries from a minority that we do not want to sacrifice to make the city most livable for everyone."

The legislation would impact those who receive housing assistance vouchers. Many of today's speakers said landlords deny tenants who use housing vouchers, commonly referred to as Section 8 vouchers, as a way to exclude minorities. 

"Businesses don’t want regulation, and people and poor people need protection from bad businesses practices," said Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh United. "The vast number of [postings that say 'No Section 8'] on Craigslist points out the problem."

But other speakers, including James Eichenlaub from the Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh who opposes the legislation, said the housing choice voucher program has a lot of barriers for landlords that keep them from wanting to participate in the program. He said these barriers include lengthy wait times during the application process. 

While Richard Morris, director of housing for the Urban League agreed that the housing voucher system could be improved, he also said many of the hurdles associated with housing vouchers are necessary.

"Landlords claim the process is cumbersome, but I’ve found that if you go to the housing authority to raise your concerns they will listen," Morris said. "The rules that they say are so cumbersome are rules that you would want for anyone living in a home."

Another speaker, Paul O' Hanlon, a member of the City-County Task Force on Disabilities, cautioned the public not to think of this legislation in terms of housing choice vouchers alone. He said it would also benefit those with disabilities and others who receive housing assistance.

"I think it’s critically important that we have a protection for source of income," O'Hanlon said. "We have to remember that it’s not just Section 8 vouchers."

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Monday, September 28, 2015

Posted By on Mon, Sep 28, 2015 at 2:51 PM

This June, hundreds of residents living in the Penn Plaza Apartments in East Liberty were issued eviction notices with no explanation from management. In response city officials, including Mayor Bill Peduto, met with the anxious residents to explain the tentative plans of the buildings' owners, the Gumberg family, and to assure them that the city would be working to help the residents.

Peduto promised residents that they “would be respected” and vowed to use the occasion to make a “statement to developers that we do not do business this way.”

Now, after weeks of meetings between the residents' tenant council, the city and representation from the Gumbergs, an agreement has been reached that will provide financial contributions to offset the residents moving costs. 

According to Lillian Grate, of the tenant council, some residents will be eligible to receive up to $1,600. This money is provided by the Gumbergs and not all are guaranteed the full amount. Grate says there are conditions, such as when the resident decides to move out and their vulnerability status.

"If it wasn't for us working together as a team, then we would not have got this done," says Grate. She adds that since the building is privately owned, the owners legally did not have to give anything to the residents.

According to Grate, residents were also granted more time to move out. The building at 5704 Penn Ave., will be the first torn down and residents there have until the end of February 2016 to vacate. Senior residents and those with children might qualify to move from 5704 to the other building at 5600 Penn Ave. Residents of the 5600 building will be forced to vacate by March 2017, and will also receive contributions to help them move out, though likely less than those who move out by next February, says Grate.

Also part of the deal, the city has agreed to hire a consultant to assist residents finding a new home and is working to try to get those residents displaced from Penn Plaza into the future Mellon Orchard development to be located a couple blocks from the Penn Plaza lot.

However, Mellon Orchard, which could include a number of units with below market rate rents, is still years away from completion, according to East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI) deputy director Skip Schwab.

Alethea Sims, of the advocacy group the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty, thinks the agreement is not enough for the residents, considering average rent in East Liberty is now pushing $1000 for a one bedroom, and the wait list for affordable housing units In the neighborhood is more than two years long.

"You are dealing with people with their backs against the wall with few options [and] who are nervous," says Sims. "That's the best that anyone could offer? Can they sleep at night knowing that that is all they did?"

In the end though, Grate is satisfied with the agreement. "For what we had, we got more than we expected."

Look for more on this story in this week's print and online editions.

The city's full press release appears after the page jump:

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Posted By on Mon, Aug 24, 2015 at 1:24 PM

A crowd of 40 protesters rallied around tents in front of the City-County Building on the afternoon of Aug. 21. What looked like the potential second coming of Occupy Pittsburgh, was actually a rally for the residents of the Penn Plaza Apartments in East Liberty, who are facing a mass eviction if the owners are allowed to renovate the property.

The tents were put up to symbolize that continued loss of affordable housing in the city of Pittsburgh. One protester shouted “if we don’t have places to stay in East Liberty, I guess we'll just move into city hall.”

click to enlarge Protesters say Pittsburgh has lost 20,000 black residents in the last 30 years largely because of the loss of affordable housing. - PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
Photo by Ryan Deto
Protesters say Pittsburgh has lost 20,000 black residents in the last 30 years largely because of the loss of affordable housing.
In early July, residents of Penn Plaza, one of the last below-market rate apartment complexes in East Liberty, were issued 90-day eviction notices, with no explanation from management. Three weeks later, after addressing a crowd of hundreds of nervous residents, Mayor Bill Peduto said he was able to get the owners the Gumberg family, or LG Realty Advisors, to issue a 60-day stay on the evictions.

Since then, the evictions notices have been taken off the table while the mayor’s office negotiates with the owners on the future of the buildings. Peduto hinted back in July that the property would be renovated to become a combination of retail and mixed-income housing.

Elizabeth Young, who has lived in Penn Plaza for 18 years, spoke at the rally and said “the only color they are accepting in East Liberty is green.” Young says that she needs to stay in East Liberty because of the transportation options it offers. She relies on the late night bus service to East Liberty to get home from her job at Heinz Hall, which can let out as late as midnight.

“I want [the Gumbergs] to at least let us stay until we have another place that we want to go,” says Young.

While the rally was rumbling the plaza in front of the City-County Building, leaders from the recently formed Penn Plaza Tenant Council were meeting with Peduto’s chief of staff Kevin Acklin to discuss their wish list for the residents.

Randal Taylor, former Pittsburgh school-board representative and current tenant council leader, spoke to City Paper after the meeting and was pleased with the discussion. But, he says it was just the start of the process and that nothing specific was offered.

“Acklin was speaking a language we wanted to hear,” says Taylor. “There could be a path on the table for Penn Plaza residents to stay after renovations.”

According to Bill Bartlett of Action United, an advocacy group representing the Penn Plaza residents, the mayor’s office has shown commitment to working with the tenant council, but cooperation with the owners is a bit more up in the air. The Gumbergs were not present at the meeting on Aug. 21.

“We are having another meeting next week, and we expect the Gumbergs to show up,” says Bartlett.

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Posted By on Thu, Jun 18, 2015 at 1:21 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALEX ZIMMERMAN
Photo by Alex Zimmerman
East Liberty residents, businesses owners and activists gathered in Bakery Square this morning to protest a conference hosted in Pittsburgh by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, which is championing the neighborhood as a model of equitable development.

The goal of the conference, titled "Policy Summit on Housing, Human Capital, and Inequality," is to highlight "the latest research and field initiatives on topics related to equitable development." It will feature the voices of heavy-hitters in politics (including Mayor Bill Peduto, whose office did not immediately comment), academia, and the development community.

But some are raising concerns that the conference is treating East Liberty as the paradigmatic example of urban redevelopment and ignoring its history of displacement and larger affordable housing problems.

The conference includes a panel called "Reversing Decline: How East Liberty Became One of Pittsburgh’s—and the Nation's—Most Up-and-Coming Neighborhoods" and supports the idea that "economic revitalization strategies transformed this neighborhood" and "benefited existing residents while attracting new development."
click to enlarge Alethea Sims - PHOTO BY ALEX ZIMMERMAN
Photo by Alex Zimmerman
Alethea Sims

That narrative doesn't jive with Alethea Sims, an East Liberty resident who was displaced from the East Mall high-rise which was razed about a decade ago. "I can't shake the feeling that a lot of this is deliberate," says Sims, who adds that she was "fortunate" to stay in the neighborhood while many other tenants were not.

"When you're building housing [low-income people] can't afford, that's not a model," she says.

Sims was joined by roughly two dozen others who walked around Bakery Square, where summit members toured this morning.

Helen Gerhardt, who sits on the housing committee of the city's Commission on Human Relations and organized the protest, provided statistics from the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty that show that over the last 15 years in East Liberty, 764 "deep subsidy" units were lost and replaced "mostly with shallow subsidy, for-sale and market rental units."

click to enlarge Darrell Robinson, East Liberty resident - PHOTO BY ALEX ZIMMERMAN
Photo by Alex Zimmerman
Darrell Robinson, East Liberty resident
"We want development strategies that are truly equitable," says Gerhardt, who emphasizes that she doesn't speak for the commission. "We want to call out the institutions [and] developers who are making a profit ... we are calling in all of the people concerned about these issues."

Throughout the day, Gerhardt says, they will engage with members of the policy summit to share residents' stories about how development has affected them. There will be a second rally this afternoon at 5:30 p.m. in Mellon Square Park followed by a screening of East of Liberty, which captures "the most recent damages of East Liberty resident and small business displacement." The film, by Chris Ivey,  will start at 7:30 p.m., in the human services building, One Smithfield Ave., Downtown.

Update: After this story was published, city Housing Manager Kyle Chintalapalli responded to a City Paper inquiry through a spokesperson:

While we have made progress on affordable housing developments in Uptown and East Liberty, and the development momentum in our city has drawn national and international attention, we have much work to do to realign our approach to development in priority communities. Our administration is working to eliminate the long backlog of housing vouchers and to convert vacant and abandoned homes to livable neighborhoods. We are also collaborating with neighborhood partners before, during, and after development occurs. We look forward to having a robust, productive community discussion on these issues in the coming months through the work of the Affordable Housing Task Force in close consultation with the Building Inclusive Communities Work Group through the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.

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