Neighborhood advocacy groups have joined a legal battle over an inclusionary zoning law that could shape future housing policies in Pittsburgh and across the country.
The underlying suit began more than three months ago, when the Builders Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, a nonprofit with a mission “to promote homeownership and the improvement of the residential building industry in Western Pennsylvania,” sued the city for approving an expansion to its existing inclusionary overlay zone so that it now includes Bloomfield and Polish Hill, in addition to Lawrenceville.
BAMP’s complaint labels the overlay an “unconstitutional, illegal, and confiscatory ordinance,” which it claims saddles builders and developers with the task of rectifying Pittsburgh’s housing problems.
“While this goal may be unobjectionable, and even laudable, it is improper for the City to task BAMP’s members with curing this deficit by placing unconstitutional conditions on their use of their private property,” the complaint argues.
But four neighborhood groups have now weighed in on the side of the city, arguing the ordinance is protecting their communities from further waves of investment and gentrification.
Those groups — Lawrenceville United, the Bloomfield Development Corporation, the Polish Hill Civic Association, and the Hill District Consensus Group — filed motions on Aug. 15 to intervene in the case. The filings argue the affected neighborhoods have borne the brunt of ongoing development efforts, requiring zoning interventions to reduce the number of residents being priced out of the market.
The overlay — signed into law by Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey on May 2 — requires that new residential developments allocate at least 10% of the units to low-income households. The ordinance defines low-income renters as households at or below 50% of the median area income and buyers with incomes at or below 80% of the median area income.
Judge Robert Colville of the federal court system has not yet ruled on whether the groups will be permitted to join the suit. Regional advocacy group, the Fair Housing Partnership, has also sought to intervene in the case.
The city’s motion to dismiss the complaint argues the claims against it are “speculative” and fail to show how any BAMP members would be directly harmed by the overlay.
“These challenges lack merit because the [inclusionary zoning ordinance] is a permissible exercise of the City's authority and police power to promote the public health and welfare by increasing the supply of affordable housing,” the motion claims.
Affordable housing has been a focal point of city policies during the past two mayoral administrations, where rental and home prices have risen sharply.
In January 2015, Councilor Daniel Lavelle (D-Hill District) introduced a bill creating an Affordable Housing Task Force. Two years later, former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto formed an exploratory committee “to establish a framework of recommendations for moving forward with an Inclusionary and Incentive program to increase the production of housing affordable for Pittsburghers.”
City officials maintain the overlay is a continuation of these earlier initiatives.
Lawrenceville, where the overlay policy was first piloted in 2019 before its permanent adoption last year, has been utterly transformed by development campaigns during the past two decades.
In terms of income, census data for the year 2000 shows the average Lawrenceville household lived off just under $28,000 in a year. Two census counts later, Lawrenceville incomes had virtually tripled, while citywide averages hadn’t even doubled.
Many point to the construction of UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in 2009 as a key turning point for the East End neighborhood, injecting hundreds of well-compensating jobs into the business district. Around the same time, artisans, baristas, and gastronomers began settling into Butler Street’s cache of stately Victorian storefronts.
“It’s really disheartening to know that the people who helped build this neighborhood and make it the awesome thing it is today can’t afford to stay here."
These economic and cultural draws put a premium on the community’s limited housing stock, forcing many long-term residents out of the market.
“The displacement has been extremely stark and inclusionary zoning is one tool to make it” less severe, says Dave Breingan, executive director of Lawrenceville United, a nonprofit community organization and early proponent of the zoning overlay.
Christina Howell, executive director of Bloomfield Development Corporation, says Bloomfield, which borders Lawrenceville to the south and east, hadn’t seen those kinds of economic pressures until relatively recently.
“For so many years, development and interested developers went around Bloomfield, and suddenly, it's like a whole lot of people discovered us,” Howell tells Pittsburgh City Paper.
Howell says the corporation took steps to flatten the spike of rising housing costs but acknowledges many families have still been forced to leave.
“It’s really disheartening to know that the people who helped build this neighborhood and make it the awesome thing it is today can’t afford to stay here,” Howell says.
Despite an inevitable continuation of displacement, Howell says the overlay would at least reduce its force, emphasizing that “there’s only so much we can do, market forces being a thing, but there certainly are some tools we can use,” she says.
In a court declaration stating her organization’s interest in the suit, Carol Hardeman of the Hill District Consensus Group expresses concerns about development pressures from Bloomfield and Polish Hill pressing into one of Pittsburgh’s largest historically Black neighborhoods.
“The Hill District is already facing significant displacement because of a lack of affordable housing and the increasing cost of living,” writes Hardeman, a supporter of the overlay. “With an uptick in new development, displacement is accelerating and increasing numbers of Black residents are being pushed out of the neighborhood and city by skyrocketing prices.”
In Lawrenceville, Breingan notes, decades of soaring prices disproportionately hit the neighborhood’s Black population, disrupting and displacing a long-settled community.
“It’s only reasonable that we insist that new housing into the neighborhood creates opportunities for everybody and the kinds of working-class families who have always lived in Lawrenceville and made it what it is today,” he says.
Should the overlay survive the legal challenges, city officials plan to expand it further. The Oakland Plan, passed in July, applies the same overlay to Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, while, Breingan notes, the 2017 Inclusionary Zoning Report ultimately recommended the overlay be adopted citywide.
Jonathan McJunkin, a spokesperson for the Public Interest Law Center, tells City Paper several comparable ordinances in other cities and states have withstood legal challenges, but this case is, unusually, being tried in federal courts, raising the stakes.
“Pittsburgh’s inclusionary zoning is in line with other policies around the country, some of which have also been challenged and upheld by courts,” McJunkin writes in an email. “This is an important case for the fair housing movement, and a result could have implications outside Pittsburgh, throughout Pennsylvania and in neighboring states should this make it to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers NJ and DE as well.”
Jim Eichenlaub, BAMP’s executive director, told City Paper in an email, “BAMP will respond appropriately to the motion to intervene in or response to both the city's and outside organizations who wish to join the suit.” He declined to comment further.