Proposed federal halfway house axed | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Proposed federal halfway house axed

A controversial proposal to house ex-offenders in an East Liberty apartment complex is dead, say neighborhood advocates and federal authorities.

The U.S. Marshals Service had hoped to use the building at 5620 Rippey St., which the federal government seized from a convicted drug-dealer, as transitional housing for non-violent offenders. But community opposition from the tight-knit neighborhood was widespread and fierce.

"People were so angry ... that no matter what I did, it was just going to shed a negative light on the building," says Ted Johnson, chief of U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System locally.

East Liberty residents who thought the project was destined for failure consider its termination a pleasant surprise.

"I'm relieved," says Rippey Street resident Pat Buddemeyer, who has been fighting the proposal with her neighbors for more than a month. "It's a nice wrap-up to the whole thing."

Johnson says he decided to stop the project on July 19 after hearing continuous resentment from the community over the past month.

The apartment complex is still owned by the U.S. Marshals Service, but according to Kendall Pelling, planning coordinator for East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI), it could be auctioned off to the highest bidder, which he hopes would be ELDI.

Concerns about the project had been mounting for months [see City Paper, Trust Issues, June 27; Information Lockdown, July 19], as residents felt officials in charge of the project were going to go forward with the plan in spite of their concerns. A July 12 meeting was billed as a chance for residents to learn more about the project from Johnson and Doug Williams, CEO of Downtown-based Renewal, Inc., which was expected to oversee the building and its tenants.

But residents exploded in anger at Johnson and Williams, who were unable to provide new information or a written proposal.

The July 12 meeting merely reiterated what they were told a month before: that about 20 ex-cons would be housed for roughly three to nine months in an apartment complex seized by the federal government last year. The cons would have to be crime- and drug-free, and they would have to hold down jobs.

Many East Liberty residents deem the project's demise as the best option for everyone involved.

"This decision is one that will benefit the community in the long term, and it will benefit the people targeted in the program," says Karl Thomas, 35.

Part of Johnson's reasoning behind ending the project was to avoid placing a group of ex-criminals into a neighborhood so opposed to their placement in the community.

"If [neighbors] were that angry, the treatment that [the ex-offenders] would have gotten would not have been safe, nor fair," he says.

"It's not like we're saying, 'Well, we're done with that,'" Buddemeyer counters. "We are open to a solution for re-absorbing these people."

Johnson says he is open to discussing ways to bring ex-offenders back into the community with ELDI and other neighborhood organizations. It's a chance, he says, for the people of East Liberty to prove they aren't just saying, "Not in my backyard!"

"I keep hearing that they are the most inclusive group," he says. "They can talk that talk, now I'm going to see if they can walk that walk."

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