Rock and Cobblestones | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Rock and Cobblestones

One Oakland street edges away from its edge



"When I had undergrads living here, they were like way punk rock, very entertaining," says Michael Loomis, sitting on the porch of his Chesterfield Street home in Oakland. The graduate students who rent part of his house these days may not be as rowdy, but they probably aren't quite as much fun, either.



Loomis became a homeowner on Chesterfield nine years ago, when he and a friend bought an $8,000 house about halfway up the treacherously steep single block. The street sits next to the campus of Carlow University and UPMC-Presbyterian Hospital. Pitt's central campus is just blocks away.


Gesturing down Chesterfield, Loomis recalls the glory days of the street's punk scene. The song "Chesterfield Girls" by Pittsburgh punk legends The Ultimatics appeared on a compilation put out by radio station WXDX in 2000, and cemented the street as part of Pittsburgh punk mythology -- home to mythic basement concerts and would-be rock stars.


But punk rock kids have long shared Chesterfield with young families, college students and employees of nearby universities and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Chesterfield's cobblestones and commanding city views make it something of a hidden gem, as do purchase prices and rents lower than in many other Oakland locations.


"It's a unique street, one you don't want to see fall into disrepair," says Kelly Hoffman, real estate program manager for Oakland Planning and Development Corporation. But Chesterfield has been doing just that, thanks to absentee landlords and students.


OPDC, a nonprofit community development organization trying to maximize Oakland's potential as a residential and cultural hotspot, sees Chesterfield Road as a prime Oakland candidate for improvement.


The interior of most Chesterfield houses is nearly identical: Downstairs, there's a living room with a decorative fireplace in front, a kitchen in the back, and a small room used as either a dining nook or a bedroom, while upstairs is a master bedroom, two smaller bedrooms and a single bathroom.


The differences in maintenance and upkeep between individual houses, though, can be startling.


"The properties sometimes take a beating from renters and absentee landlords," Hoffman says.


In mid-May, flowers bloom on many of the lawns of the owner-occupied homes. One porch has a wrought-iron table and chairs with bright flowers nodding in the cool, late-spring breeze. A neatly wound hose hangs nearby on an iron sun sculpture. A child's shiny toy car sits on another porch.


But about two-thirds of the houses are rental units, home to college kids who throw parties and tend not to put down roots. An empty 40 of Olde English has been sitting on the front porch of one house on Chesterfield for at least a week. Another has a stack of musty twin mattresses in the yard.


The OPDC is hoping to foster even more home ownership on the street. The group has been rehabbing and reselling Chesterfield houses to new owner-occupiers for years, including many filled with trash or otherwise neglected. After the current phase of rehabbing and reselling is complete, owners will live in 37 percent of Chesterfield's homes.


OPDC's Chesterfield development project began in the mid-'90s. Then, only three of the 96 houses on the street were owner-occupied, more than 25 were vacant, and eight were deemed uninhabitable.


The development corporation bought 15 houses from UPMC, and by 1996 started selling the refurbished homes, marketing them to UPMC employees and the general public. All those units sold and have remained owner-occupied. Eight more homeowners bought houses on the street between 1996 and 2000, independent of the development corporation's actions - the ripple effect the OPDC was hoping for.


The OPDC estimates its latest rehabbed houses will sell for under $90,000.


The Urban Redevelopment Authority is also helping subsidize the project. The URA gives grants to OPDC, which generally takes a financial loss on buying, fixing and reselling the properties. The URA also offers special financing to lower-income buyers, in the form of a second mortgage with no interest that is deferred until the owner sells or transfers the home. Only owners who will occupy the homes and meet income requirements are eligible for the special financing.


In addition to improving the character of the street, the project is meant to help people who might not otherwise become homeowners. Tom Cummings, director of housing for the URA, says that people in lower-paying jobs at nearby universities and hospitals benefit from the convenient location and affordability of the homes, and can build up equity with a relatively small investment.


"The mortgage payment, even with taxes and insurance, is comparable to rent," Cummings notes.


Although the URA dictates that two of the four homes in the current rehab phase must go to homeowners who qualify for the second mortgages, Hoffman says the OPDC would be happy to sell them all to lower-income buyers. The previous phase of development saw all six houses go to such new owners.


More than 60 percent of properties on the street will still be owned by nonresident owners this year, even after the OPDC completes its latest project. Those who have been reluctant to sell their houses to OPDC, Hoffman says, may be holding out for a big payout from Pitt or UPMC. But neither institution, she says, is doing much of anything in the residential sector anymore.


Today, the OPDC-owned unit that shares steps and a plant-filled porch with Michael Loomis' home is getting a makeover, as are three others on the street. Next door, another OPDC-owned house's walls have been stripped to the studs, and contractors are carefully hanging drywall. These houses should be ready for habitation by the end of the summer.


Loomis says the project is a great idea, as it's cleaned up abandoned houses that he says may have been home to squatters or neighbors with less-than-savory habits. But he's not hoping for an exclusive gated community to spring up any time soon.


"I'd like for it not to get too clean," he says.

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