After tragedy, Garfield leaders say they need housing resources | Pittsburgh City Paper

After tragedy, Garfield leaders say they need housing resources

click to enlarge Closely built houses in Garfield with West Penn Hospital and the Cathedral of Learning in the background.
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham

The Aug. 23 shooting that rocked Garfield also drew attention to housing precarity in Pittsburgh.

"We were deeply saddened by this tragedy," Joann Monroe, executive director of Garfield Jubilee Association, Inc., tells Pittsburgh City Paper. Garfield Jubilee is one of several organizations that have worked for years to improve access to housing and workforce opportunities for area residents. "It put a bad light on Garfield to make people feel that it's unsafe," Monroe says, "and it's not."

That the shooting started with eviction proceedings wasn't lost on some locals. In the hours and days following the incident, several Pittsburghers took to Twitter to decry what they saw as an unjust attempt to remove William Hardison, Jr. from a house at 4817 Broad St., which Hardison's father sold to an LLC connected to KLVN Coffee Lab owner Will Humphrey.

Speaking on behalf of 907 East Street LLC, Humphrey tells City Paper, "this unexpected and heart-wrenching incident has left us in shock." He says the LLC had worked closely with members of the Hardison family to legally acquire the home, and they turned to law enforcement only after failing to find a peaceful way to get Hardison, Jr. to vacate. At one point, Hardison allegedly ignored a welfare check neighbors had called in after witnessing him stockpiling gasoline canisters. As other outlets have extensively covered, Hardison had begun to consider himself a Moorish sovereign citizen in recent years.

The result was a firefight that left residents and community leaders shaken and Hardison Jr. dead.

A shifting market

Once a predominantly Irish neighborhood, Garfield began to suffer from disinvestment during the Great Migration-era influx of Black workers and white residents' departure for the suburbs. Those shifting demographics have left the neighborhood with a mix of owner-occupied homes, rentals in various states of repair, and vacant lots — prime territory for investors who may or may not have the neighborhood's best interests at heart. Some of these investors have sought to capitalize on Garfield's "up-and-coming" status and burgeoning arts scene.

Monroe says house flippers routinely scout the area for abandoned homes and report unkempt lawns, collapsing garages, and aging roofs to the city.

"Some of the houses that may be dilapidated, [investors] sometimes take advantage of that and purchase those homes, and they're not for the benefit of the community," Monroe says. "They're to benefit themselves in terms of selling houses for $200,000 or $300,000."

Pittsburgh has a plethora of old and vacant properties that can become a worthwhile investment for those with the money to afford extensive repairs. Humphrey, who has experience navigating the acquisition of derelict houses, says the Broad Street home bore telltale signs of abandonment, including overgrown vegetation, unshoveled snow, and window stickers that indicated a winterized foreclosure — banks or local authorities add these stickers to show that pipes have been drained, utilities cut, and windows sealed.

Confirming the house had been abandoned, Humphrey reached out to Hardison's father and other relatives to confirm its availability. They were able to reach terms once it was clear the original owner — Hardison's brother Joseph, who had died in 2021 — hadn't left a will.

But it's not just investors attempting to spruce up local homes. Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation (or BGC) has been active in the neighborhood since 1975. BGC's executive director Rick Swartz says deaths in the family, job changes, and inability to maintain properties can all take a toll. "No two people are facing the same set of circumstances, but increasingly, we're getting calls from people who are having lenders start foreclosure and have nowhere to turn," Swartz tells CP.

Swartz says many tenants live in substandard housing that continues to rise in cost: "They're spending 35 or 40% of their income [on rent]; their utilities are high because these homes are poorly insulated, and they find at the end of the month that there's no money for other uses. That's why we've been doing affordable housing [at BGC]."

Though Garfield Jubilee previously worked on public and affordable housing, including Garfield Commons, which is located where the old Garfield Heights high-rise previously stood, BGC has taken the lead on building new homes and renovating older ones. The organization has added 89 new or refurbished rental homes since 2012 and recently constructed 20 homes for owner occupancy that are a mix of affordable and market-rate.

Yet market-rate has quickly gotten beyond the reach of the neighborhood's poorest residents. Real estate brokerage Redfin currently puts the median sale price in Garfield at $317,500. Historic rowhouses that once served as working-class housing sometimes retail for more, with one attached brick home a block south of Broad St. listed at nearly $425,500. The homes on either side of the one from which Hardison and police exchanged gunfire have estimated values of $137,000 and $228,700 on Zillow.

Inheritance

Swartz says there are steps locals can take to keep wealth within Garfield. One of the most important is creating a will. This, on its own, can cost hundreds of dollars, but a will can ensure property stays within a family. The house at 4817 Broad St. hit the market in part because Hardison's brother hadn't left one, and the surviving family members never opened an estate in probate court. Intestacy meant the house went to Hardison's father, who had no interest in keeping the home.

Because of this, "the company that purchased it was able to find his father in Detroit and pay him a rather small sum of money, as well as paying off the mortgage and acquiring the title without any money passing to William Hardison," Swartz tells CP. He strongly recommends having a clear will so there aren't lingering ambiguities when a homeowner passes away.

Swartz encourages any locals who need help with housing or utility costs to contact BGC rather than try to work things out themselves. BGC has helped neighbors buy groceries and resolve disputes. Both BGC and Garfield Jubilee are active in job training programs, supporting locals who are between careers or struggling to stay on their feet. Garfield Jubilee also offers paths to GED completion as well as training in healthcare and construction. Monroe says construction training, in particular, empowers youth to fix up deteriorating property and helps neighbors see young people as "resourceful and capable of making changes."

Both Monroe and Swartz add that stronger local schools would further strengthen the fabric of the community.

BGC has worked with 907 East Street LLC in Garfield, and Swartz says the entity has been among the better investor groups active in the neighborhood. Humphrey confirmed to CP that the LLC is currently hoping to put the Broad Street house in an affordable housing land trust, though both he and Swartz say the process of sorting out liens on the home is ongoing.

"Blight is a systemic issue in the City of Pittsburgh," Humphrey says, "and we believed that rehabilitating and repurposing this property could contribute positively to the neighborhood."

Not everyone agrees that investor groups such as Humphrey's LLC are the best way to make Garfield better for longtime residents. Monroe says she's concerned for "senior citizens who have been in the neighborhood a long time," in particular those whose physical limitations may make upkeep of their properties a challenge.

But in the big picture, Swartz and Monroe say legal fixes, opportunities for young people, and more resources on the ground for housing are key to keeping Garfield both safe and affordable.

"I don't think we're going to create a perfect society in Pittsburgh … [but] we have to have a way to get people to housing when needed," Swartz says. "There has to be someone in local and county government focused on these issues." He says neighborhoods need to keep an open mind about solutions and that, in the short-term, the city needs more emergency shelters for Pittsburghers experiencing homelessness.

Monroe says that even as investors continue to watch the neighborhood closely — one recently inquired about buying her home — the tragedy on Broad Street has gotten community members to have some of these difficult conversations.

"I felt hopeful when I saw residents rallying around to talk about this incident," she says, "because they're looking at what can change, how can we as a community come together, help our community become stronger, and address some of the [problems with] housing and homelessness."

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