Activists say Pittsburgh needs to find a place for more low-income families to call home | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Activists say Pittsburgh needs to find a place for more low-income families to call home

"Decent housing is becoming a little more difficult to find and afford."

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"The most recent lease-up rate for vouchers is only 59 [percent] (in other words, 41 [percent] of low-income people who were issued vouchers had to return them unused)," the report states.   

The report partly attributes voucher underutilization to the "lack of decent, safe and sanitary housing with rents at allowable levels."

"Vouchers may only be used in housing that meets HUD's housing quality standards and, with limited exceptions, have market rents that do not exceed payment standards ... within certain limits proscribed by HUD," it says.

According to Rohrer, the housing authority uses unused federal funds for other housing programs and projects. These include program-based voucher programs — a subsidized housing program where vouchers belong to housing units, not individual tenants.

Current projects include Skyline Terrace, in the Hill District, and new homes being built in Larimer. These projects differ from low-income public housing because they are only partly subsidized and tenants are responsible for a portion of rent.

"We can take that money and put it toward the development of additional housing units," says Rohr. "If the vouchers aren't in use, it's another way to put someone in a house they can afford."

Activists like Carl Redwood, of the Hill District Consensus Group, say housing shortages have increased as a result of the destruction of public-housing projects. Over the past decade, a number of low-income housing projects have closed, including the Penn Circle high-rise, in East Liberty, and St. Clair Village, near Mount Oliver.

"In the last year, we've lost over 400 families from Addison Terrace, which is a public-housing community in the Hill District," says Redwood. "Those people were given housing vouchers. And housing vouchers are essentially no good in Pittsburgh because no one will take them."

In light of the growing scarcity of affordable housing, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently asked cities receiving federal funds to create a new Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing report.

"In each one, they set a goal to develop more housing for people at 50 percent [of area median income] and below, but each year they do nothing to move toward it," says Redwood. "The problem's very clear — there's a severe critical shortage of affordable housing for very-low- and extremely low-income citizens in the city."

Redwood says the authority's voucher program has done little to alleviate the struggle of low-income families because the city simply does not have enough homes with affordable rents. Instead, he says, these families are being forced to move to suburbs like McKeesport and Clairton, where there are more affordable homes.

"So what's happened over the years is, since 1980, the black population has gone from 100,000 to 80,000 in Pittsburgh. We lost 20,000 people and that's mostly due to the destruction of public housing." (Pittsburgh's overall population decline dby a similar proportion during that time period.)

In order to reverse this population loss, Redwood says, the city must commit to subsidizing residential developments that include affordable housing. He has long championed affordable housing in the lower Hill District development on the former Civic Arena site, and was unhappy with the percentage of low-income housing in the final agreement with developers.

"One-third of all the housing the city subsidizes should be for very-low-income folks to try and deal with the crisis that exists," Redwood says.

City government has attempted to make strides in this area. Last year, Pittsburgh City Councilor Daniel Lavelle, who represents affected neighborhoods like the Hill District, Uptown and North Side, proposed legislation requiring developers to have at least 30 percent affordable housing in new developments.

"We need more affordable-housing options. I often laugh to myself that the majority of what's being developed, I can't even afford," Lavelle says. "But I think we have to specifically determine what that means. What I don't know is what the percentages should be, but I do know that a percentage of the housing being developed should be affordable."

Lavelle's legislation was ultimately scrapped and replaced with legislation to create an affordable-housing task force. The legislation passed last year, but Mayor Bill Peduto has yet to appoint members to the task force.

For his part, Peduto says the city needs to find innovative ways to leverage federal housing-voucher funds. He's advocated developments like Skyline Terrace and the new housing being built in Larimer.

"These are the kinds of programs we want to see," says Peduto. "The present system just doesn't work."

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