In Rehab | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Three years after East Liberty residents squashed a plan to move ex-convicts into a local apartment complex, the site has attracted some criminal activity anyway -- though neighbors say things could have been much worse.

Back in 2007, the apartment complex at 5620 Rippey St. became the subject of a contentious battle. Federal officials sought to use the building, which they seized from a convicted drug-dealer, as transitional housing for non-violent offenders being reintroduced to the community. But strong neighborhood opposition killed the plan in July 2007.

Later that year, East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI), a nonprofit community developer, bought the apartment complex from the feds for $250,000. The community group hoped to renovate the building as "cohousing" -- a type of residence where neighbors design and run their communities cooperatively. 

But despite attracting interest from roughly a half-dozen families, ELDI determined last fall that the plan wasn't financially viable. 

"There was a mismatch between the cost [of renovations] and the price range for people who were part of the cohousing group," says Kendall Pelling, project manager for ELDI. "There are significant extra costs" involved with cohousing.

For instance, he says, while the building has space for up to 20 apartment units, the need for common space in a cohousing project would limit the number of units to roughly 12. That meant "there are less units to spread the costs" among tenants, Pelling says. 

"The price was out of reach," says Pat Buddemeyer, a Rippey Street resident who helped coordinate the cohousing effort.

ELDI is now working to renovate the building into 17 market-rate apartments. Pelling expects to finalize construction costs by the end of August and begin construction by the fall.  

"We tried to reach for the brass ring," Pelling says, "but our fallback is feasible."

In the meantime, however, the building remains an eyesore. Its windows and doors are boarded up, and parts of its exterior are tagged with graffiti. "There's been some prostitute activity on the back steps," Pelling acknowledges. "But it's not like it's been broken into every week."

"It's unfortunate that the building continues to be empty," says Buddemeyer, a former ELDI board member. But she says she doesn't regret thwarting the feds' efforts. 

Among other things, Buddemeyer says, the community worried about the program's potential instability: Government officials planned to house the ex-cons together for a transition period of just three to nine months. 

"Sometimes having a vacant building for three years is a good thing," says Pelling. "The worst thing is if you have a bad use for the building."

Pelling says there will be no specific exclusion against ex-offenders interested in renting an apartment once 5620 Rippey is renovated. He says "credit and character" screenings will be conducted "to make sure you don't rent to someone who will deal drugs out of the building." But ex-cons who can show they'll be good tenants will be eligible to move in.

"We might have ex-offenders at 5620 Rippey once it's done," Pelling says.

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