More than three years ago, to make room for new development, the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority displaced nearly 300 families from the low-income high-rises in East Liberty. Today, new housing is going up in the neighborhood, but city housing officials are wondering where the people are.
Former residents have first claim on the rent-subsidized units in the new housing complexes. They filled up the more than 30 units in Penn Manor, which opened in January at North St. Clair Street and Penn Avenue. But officials have lost contact with many of the displaced families -- about 150 by URA estimate. As more than 100 new housing units become available at the former high-rise sites by this fall, officials are anxious to hear from those who wish to return.
"We want to do additional outreach," says Collette O'Leary, the URA project manager who now oversees the East Liberty developments. "The goal is for as many people who want to come back to come back. We feel that it'll be successful if at least two-thirds of the residents come back." The URA plans to do radio ads and public-service announcements as well as hang banners in the neighborhood.
But these latest efforts to reach out might just come too late, say former residents and other housing advocates.
"This is a wake-up call to the URA," says Alethea Sims, president of the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty (COR), which represents the high-rise residents. "It's very hard to pick up a cold trail."
O'Leary says she believes it was COR's responsibility to track the residents, but Sims says her group's efforts to stay in contact with residents were stymied. The URA refused to share any resident contact information with the group on the grounds of confidentiality, Sims says, though the agency has helped distribute newsletters put out by the group to the residents.
Beyond that, city officials "weren't willing to invest anything in any resources to keep the displaced people engaged as part of the neighborhood ... to make sure no one falls through the cracks," says Ronell Guy, Pittsburgh-based field director of Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, who advocated for the residents during their relocation in 2003.
At the time, Guy, as well as researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, approached the city with a proposal to track the residents -- not just to keep tabs on their whereabouts but also their well-being. The proposal was never funded.
If the tracking were in place, "it [would be] a lot of easier to see if they're interested," says Sabina Deitrick, one of the Pitt researchers who made the proposal. Instead, "now three years go by, and the city says, 'Gee let's try to find them.' The point of remaking urban renewal in East Liberty was that these people would be able to come back."
Federal research shows that the percentage of original residents returning to a housing site after its renewal varies drastically. Nationwide, most sites report a return rate of less than 50 percent.
However, it need not be the case in East Liberty, say housing advocates, because residents from the three high-rises had formed a tightly knit community. "I do think it's the community's job to see that the residents return," says Guy. "All of us have to take some responsibilities."
Residents who were temporarily relocated in 2003 and are interested in moving into the new housing should contact the URA at 412-255-6672 to complete a pre-application.