Nobody is ever happy with the housing market, because it puts a definitive cost on living, and that’s never fun to think about. Even a fairly inoffensive statement like “Pittsburgh is still a pretty cheap place to live,” is likely to go badly.
Why is that? Well, it’s vibes, mostly. Median rent in Pittsburgh is somewhere around $1,043 (Niche) or $1,400 (Zillow). Show that to a New Yorker or Bostonian and watch them weep. But some things are true:
- America doesn’t build enough housing in places people want to live, for many reasons
- Pittsburgh, until recently, wasn’t one of those places people wanted to live
- Rents tend to go up in places people really want to live
- Salaries are a little lower here, which makes everything seem more expensive
So, yes, there are places in Pittsburgh that were once super cheap, that now are not: East Liberty, the Strip, Lawrenceville, et cetera. And barring some unforeseen calamity, rents are going to keep going up.
However…Pittsburgh has 90 neighborhoods. Perhaps 5-10 are seeing upward pressure on prices, and are moving out of reach for the typical working-class Pittsburgher. The others are not, or there’s still time. Plus, there are even more municipalities just outside city limits (municipal fragmentation is kind of our thing) that haven’t caught on with the archetypal Google engineer moving from California or wherever. Many of them are pretty great!
So, instead of fretting about condos with $3,000/month rents in East Liberty, it’s probably a good idea to just look around. Here are some good places to start.
Squirrel Hill is literally “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (he lived there), where long-standing Jewish traditions, infinite college students, and every kind of Asian food imaginable collide harmoniously. That said, it’s fairly expensive for Pittsburgh. However, next door is Greenfield, which is within walking distance of amenity-packed Murray Avenue and Schenley Park, yet retains its own distinctive personality. It’s topographically a Kennywood coaster, with hills and steep ravines, sidewalks and streets turning into stairs without warning, and stunning vistas as your reward for making it to the top. It’s steeped in the Eastern European flavors that give color to so much of the Pittsburgh region. Greenfield is filled with single-family houses on very small lots, built around the 1950s – each probably gave an immigrant steelworker the first piece of America to call his own. There’s a Giant Eagle, a newish whiskey bar, two Ukrainian delis, and Pittsburgh’s weirdest art gallery, Alternate Histories (if you need a historic print of King Kong climbing the Cathedral of Learning). Necromancer Brewing is coming soon, as well as the Greenhouse Co-op, which promises hard cider and, well, plants.
Median rent: $1,115 (Niche).
If Mount Oliver was in Brooklyn or Boston, it would be romanticized in innumerable coming-of-age movies and ill-fated attempts at the Great American Novel. Instead, this ornery little borough – completely surrounded by the city of Pittsburgh, but technically independent – is obscure even to most Pittsburgh residents. Hey, it’s literature’s loss. Go to visit Pittsburgh’s best coffee/breakfast/ornamental metal fabricator combo, Echt Coffee House – stay for elevated eats at The Finer Diner, Flavor of Puerto Rico, TC Homemade Chocolate Candy, and a small, walkable business district surrounded by rugged little $50,000 homes with million-dollar views. If there’s a place where the urban precariat can find purchase, and grab a small piece of the American dream, maybe it’s here.
Median rent: $966 (Niche).
All the inconvenience of a suburb, and all the taxes of the city! No, really, Banksville’s low profile actually works in its favor. It may be missing a few important things – walkability, foremost – but it has some advantages too. It’s quiet and has lots of parks and green space, and easy access to employment centers on the other side of the tunnel (Moon, the airport, Parkway West). On a typical summer night at Banksville Park, you’re likely to see the Pittsburgh architects’ softball league, kids playing dek hockey, and a dedicated South Asian crew playing cricket – sometimes all at once. Without much notice, this part of town is getting quite diverse, reflected in the delicious cuisine nearby: kebabs, curry, arepas, barbecue, and, uh, cold cheese thrown on pizza (for some reason) at Beto’s. Housing ranges from single-family suburban, to gigantic apartment towers.
Median rent: $1,040 (Niche).
Homestead, West Homestead and Munhall are all kind of hopelessly commingled in Pittsburghers’ minds, so we’ll throw them together here – and add in that giant blob of retail and parking lots, The Waterfront, which has pretty much everything, from Target to Barnes & Noble, to the region’s biggest movie theater. But venture across the tracks to the Eighth Avenue corridor, and you’ll find a fascinating neighborhood in transition. Homestead was the beating heart of Andrew Carnegie’s worldwide steel empire, and he literally went to war with the city and his own employees in the Homestead Strike of 1892. Carnegie felt pretty bad about it later in life, and started rehabbing his reputation by putting massive, ornate libraries everywhere. The one in Munhall is one of the best, a true community center with a stunning concert hall and swimming pools in the basement. Homestead has some unusual cultural assets like Rivers of Steel and breweries and taprooms in restored buildings (Golden Age, Voodoo). The monolithic columned former Monongahela Trust Co. bank now houses an escape room complex, an axe throwing arena, and the Co-Sign Speakeasy, decorated in ornate Prohibition-era style. Housing is all over the map, from turn-of-the-century mansions up the hill surrounding the library, to long-abandoned houses that are clearly past the point of no return. Homestead has a lot of rental options, including several historic former schools redeveloped into attractive condos and apartments.
- Median rent: $832 (Niche).
Pittsburgh seems like it has an infinite supply of self-contained, peculiar little neighborhoods hidden away among the verdant hilltops, terrifyingly steep ravines, and bridge-trolls that demand you name four Steelers linebackers – past or present – before passing. But it doesn’t. Troy Hill is a perfect example of this particular type of neighborhood, a quiet, semi-forgotten ethnic enclave (German), beginning to welcome outsiders after 100-plus years of unintentional seclusion. It somehow contains one of Pittsburgh’s best and most ambitious restaurants, Scratch (don’t sleep on their pop-up nights), and St. Anthony’s Chapel, with more astounding religious relics – like purported splinters of the True Cross and scraps of the Virgin Mary’s veil – than an Indiana Jones side quest. Housing is mostly single-family rowhomes, considerably older than the median house in Pittsburgh, with some impressive Victorian-era details underneath the ubiquitous aluminum awnings and Insulbrick siding. If you want to commute by bike Downtown, you’re in luck. If you want to ride back up Troy Hill at the end of the day, well, good luck.
- Median rent: $850 (Niche)
A place with a rich industrial heritage – the hometown of Heinz – and a future that finally seems as bright as the past, Sharpsburg points the way forward for a lot of riverfront factory towns. It’s never going to look as postcard-perfect as Aspinwall, but it’s got character to spare and a price point (not to mention, top-notch Fox Chapel schools) that’s hard to match. Plus, there’s that intact, walkable business district, which seems to be adding amenities with startling rapidity, from excellent breweries (Hitchhiker and Dancing Gnome) to vegan ice cream (Sugar Spell Scoops), to coffee (Redhawk). For a long time, the Allegheny River was treated like an industrial sewer, and the riverfront is as good a place as any for a giant scrapyard, but that’s rapidly changing. There are plans in place for bike trails, green space, housing and retail, connecting Sharpsburg with the river for the first time in a hundred years or so.
- Median rent: $873 (Niche).
Okay, so Allentown is pretty well known by now, at least among those who like black coffee and black metal. Yes, Onion Maiden, the diner that made vegans wail like Ronnie James Dio, is closed for the moment, and Black Forge recently turned into Grim Wizard Coffee. However, there are also two weird and macabre curiosity shops, The Weeping Glass and Dr. Tumblety’s Apothecary, and the venue Bottlerocket, which has some of the wildest programming anywhere – from psychedelic cumbia from Colombia (Meridian Bros., July 20) to national touring comedians, to the unclassifiable puppet/video-driven mayhem of Everything is Terrible (Aug.9). There’s also excellent no-frills Caribbean food at Leon’s and old-school high-end Italian at Alla Famiglia. Houses and apartments range from small to very small. Rents are going up, of course, but that’s coming from absolute rock bottom a decade or so ago.
- Median rent: $832 (Niche)
An urban suburb, with a lot going on at the fringes. On one side, there’s the lively, walkable Regent Square business district, with beer mecca D’s Six Packs & Dogz and new restaurants like Hemlock House. It also borders Edgewood Towne Centre, a large suburban-style retail strip with a Giant Eagle and Planet Fitness, and another small business district with a great new Indian spot, Bombay to Burgh. Towards Rankin, there’s battleship-sized sandwich spot Triangle Bar & Grille. Most residents are renters, but there are a number of mid-century houses on the hills behind the big shopping center. Bonus: you’re on the way to Kennywood!
- Median rent: $915 (Niche)