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4/30/21: Low-income families to get help finding rentals in well-off neighborhoods
The region’s two largest public housing authorities have won nearly $4.1 million in federal funds to help families with housing choice (Section 8) vouchers to move to neighborhoods with lower levels of poverty and more opportunity.
The Allegheny County Housing Authority and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh will share $4,089,540 and also get a total of 74 additional vouchers, each of which allows a low-income household to rent housing and pay the landlord 30% of their income, with the government covering the rest.
Leaders of the authorities said in September that they wanted to use federal funding to recruit new landlords to their voucher programs, ease the apartment hunting and moving processes for families with children, and cover counseling and other measures to help those families to get acclimated to new neighborhoods.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development included the authorities among nine mobility demonstration project awards nationally, totaling nearly $36 million and 666 additional vouchers.
The programs comes amid a growing consensus that growing up surrounded by poverty has many negative effects on children.
The Allegheny County Department of Human Services [ACDHS] released an analysis, in March 2020, indicating that around half of county voucher holders were concentrated in the 18% of census tracts that are categorized as highly or extremely disadvantaged.
ACDHS worked with the housing authorities to craft their winning joint submission to HUD. The department is now collaborating with the authorities to put together a set of services, to be paid for with the HUD funds and offered to more than 1,300 voucher-holding families, that could include:
- Funding to cover security deposits
- Help finding and visiting available rentals, and communicating with landlords
- Counseling to ensure families can get the children into schools, find services, secure child care and use transportation
- Payments to landlords to keep some units open until families are ready to move in
- Recruiting of new landlords to the voucher program
- Regular check-ins with both families and landlords over several years.
The families’ outcomes will be closely monitored for around five years as part of a study across all nine sites.
The funding comes as the Pittsburgh area’s affordable housing shortage makes it hard for lower-income renters to find apartments or rental houses for which landlords are willing to accept vouchers.
Between them, the two authorities have in recent months had nearly 10,000 households on waiting lists for vouchers. The county authority’s waiting list has been closed to new applicants for four years, and it plans to reopen it from May 5 to 7.
4/26/21: Bid to frack on U.S. Steel land apparently over
A 15-month dispute between a gas drilling company and East Pittsburgh has ended with a decision by U.S. Steel to nix a plan to frack on its Edgar Thomson Steel Works site.
Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Joseph James cancelled arguments that had been scheduled for Wednesday in a case Merrion Oil & Gas brought against East Pittsburgh’s Zoning Hearing Board. The cancellation followed a Friday filing in which Merrion’s attorney withdrew the case. A story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette indicated that U.S. Steel had exited an agreement under which Merrion would have leased land to drill as many as 18 wells to fuel the metals company’s Mon Valley facilities.
“The borough council and our mayor are extremely pleased with US Steel’s decision to end the unconventional fracking exploration on their property,” said East Pittsburgh Borough Manager Seth Abrams, adding that it reflected that the company was “looking out for the health of all of their neighbors.”
Though the wells would have been in North Versailles, East Pittsburgh became the focal point of the fracking fight in January 2020. That’s when its borough council voted to rescind a two-year-old permit to allow some drilling-related operations on seven acres within its borders.
Merrion took the matter to the borough’s zoning board, which ruled that council was within its rights to rescind the permit. Merrion then took the board to court, saying it spent nearly $2.7 million on testing and permitting related to the drilling proposal.
4/20/21: Could a billion-dollar development stall on a long-gone stretch of street?
The future of Wylie Avenue emerged as the biggest speed bump in the Penguins’ drive to begin Lower Hill District redevelopment, as the hockey team’s chosen developers briefed the City Planning Commission for the first time.
The meeting marks an important step in the Penguins’ effort to remake the 28 acres formerly occupied by the Civic Arena and its parking lots into a $1 billion complex of offices, residences, stores and entertainment venues.
The Penguins’ chosen developers, Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG], want to start construction with a 26-story office tower and 1.35 acres of landscaped public space. The plot, totaling 2.07 acres, is near the Hill’s border with Downtown. It’s bounded by Washington Place, Bedford Avenue, Logan Street and what had been the western end of Wylie, before it was erased in the process leading up to the 1961 opening of the arena. First National Bank has signed on as the tower’s anchor tenant.
First the commission has to certify that the developers’ intentions are consistent with a preliminary land development plan for the site, approved by the commission with neighborhood sign-off in 2014.
Commissioner Becky Mingo pointed out that the 2014 plan calls for fully restoring historic Wylie Avenue’s long-severed connection to Washington Place, the new proposal counts on a pedestrian-only connection. That idea might have “a lot of merit,” Mingo said, but voting for something that’s inconsistent with the established plan might set a bad precedent.
“Wylie Avenue no longer worked after the cross-town highway [Interstate 579] was built,” said Kimberly Ellis, a Hill-based historian and owner of Dr. Goddess Arts, which is working with BPG. Centre Avenue is now the neighborhood’s commercial core, and pedestrian Wylie can “honor the legacy and the history while we are building this new development.”
Mingo asked if the 2014 plan could be promptly revised to reflect the change in plans for Wylie. But the development team’s attorney, Bill Sittig, said that wasn’t necessary to approve the tower and the open space, would entail an extensive neighborhood process, and could entail delays that could undermine investor confidence in the arena site effort.
Commission Chair Christine Mondor said the panel can check with city Planning Department staff regarding procedural options.
After nearly two and a half hours of presentation by the development team and questioning by the commission, Mondor noted several other areas of interest that the developers should address before a potential May 4 public hearing and vote. The commission wants more information on:
- Plans to ensure that pedestrians can safely cross Washington Place
- Proposed transit and bike infrastructure
- Materials and color schemes chosen for the tower
- Investments in the Middle Hill and Upper Hill that would emerge
- Reflections of the Hill’s culture and identity in the development.
The coming public hearing could bring out continuing friction between the development team and some Hill institutions.
Last month the Hill Community Development Corp. told attendees at a neighborhood meeting that the Penguins were failing to comply with their commitments to spur development throughout the Hill District in connection with their heavily subsidized project. The development team responded with a term sheet outlining what they characterized as $34 million in current or planned neighborhood loans, grants and other benefits — a figure they now say they’ve upped to $44 million. The Hill CDC has said the development team is counting redirected public subsidies and loans in its totals.
Discussions between the developers and the community have also been soured by news that the team successfully pushed for the redrawing of census tract boundaries, and complicated by the emergence of new claimants including the Bethel AME Church.
4/20/21: City approves next decade of Pitt growth
The City Planning Commission gave its approval to the University of Pittsburgh’s new master plan, a blueprint for 5% to 10% growth of the student population on the Oakland campus over the next decade.
In four briefings starting in February, Pitt officials told the commission about plans to add 2,400 new student housing beds, while removing 1,625 beds, for a net gain of 775. They plan no net new parking, but hope for more affordable housing choices within the university’s boundaries.
The plan includes potential expansions of many buildings, including Lothrop, Crabtree, Posvar, Victoria and Scaife halls, the University Club, the Hillman Library, the O’Hara Student Center and the Gardner Steel Conference Center, plus some potential new buildings.
The final commission step, a public hearing, saw university officials emphasizing the little things — new respite spots for people climbing Oakland’s hills, natural “character zones” with landscaping ranging from urbane and manicured to rusticated and “sylvan,” and plans to add public art.
The plan won endorsements from the Oakland Planning and Development Corp. and the Oakland Business Improvement District. Just one public speaker expressed concerns, saying that she feared older buildings would be lost. Commission Chair Christine Mondor noted that any demolition of historic buildings would have to first win the approval of the city’s Historic Review Commission.
The commission approved the plan without dissent. Pittsburgh City Council must vote on the plan before it is permanent and becomes the measuring stick against which upcoming Pitt development proposals are measured.
4/19/21: Can housing authorities do more to reduce evictions?
Public housing authorities have long been, and remain, among the biggest filers of eviction cases in Allegheny County. One organization representing private landlords is asking whether the authorities can do more to reduce evictions, by educating more of their tenants on the basics of financial literacy.
The county’s three housing authorities all told PublicSource that they have taken steps to promote financial literacy, only to see the COVID-19 pandemic change the process.
Some tenants get into trouble with the rent because they don’t have experience or training in budgeting and prioritizing spending, wrote Bob Moncavage, president of the board of the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, in an email exchange with PublicSource. Moncavage, who is a landlord, wrote after reading a report by The Pittsburgh Foundation on evictions in Allegheny County.
He added that homebuyer preparation programs include financial literacy components, but tenants who aren’t looking to buy homes many never get a class in basic budgeting. “You can’t force the private market to undertake educational requirements but it’s pretty easy to require any tenant in public housing or using a housing choice [Section 8] voucher to complete some type of training,” he wrote.
The county’s three public housing agencies may not actually be able to compel participation in financial literacy programs. Compulsory training would necessarily entail some kind of sanction for failure to comply, and housing authorities have few penalties at their disposal short of eviction, noted Frank Aggazio, executive director of the Allegheny County Housing Authority [ACHA].
- The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh requires that residents who are in special programs, geared toward employment or other improvements, attend workshops on budgeting, saving and credit management. Residents who aren’t in those programs can also attend the workshops, offered by eight different agencies or banks. Last year, 54 residents finished workshops, down from 72 in 2019. This year the programs have gone virtual, and residents can access them on tablet computers that the authority provides, authority spokespersons told PublicSource.
- In pre-COVID times, a significant percentage of ACHA residents would attend four-hour financial literacy courses offered by banks at authority properties. Incentives included mugs, pens and the offer of a no-fee checking account, even if the resident had a checkered checking history. The authority hasn’t yet created a system to alert all voucher-holding tenants to the courses. The courses have been put on hold because of the pandemic, but will start again as soon as face-to-face events are safe, according to authority officials.
- The McKeesport Housing Authority offered financial literacy classes years ago, offering light refreshments and small raffle prizes as incentives, but “we could not get our tenant population to attend the programs,” the agency’s top officials told PublicSource in email responses to questions.
4/13/21: Allegheny County and the state have $847 million in rent relief and need applicants
Pennsylvania and Allegheny County officials are urging tenants facing pandemic-driven financial challenges to apply promptly for help with the rent and utilities.
Since opening its rent relief program four weeks ago, Allegheny County has received 5,033 applications and has paid nearly $1.1 million in rent relief on behalf of 263 tenants.
But that’s just a tiny fraction of the $80 million the county could dish out. Erin Dalton, director of the county’s Department of Human Services, told reporters that the county wants to “get additional applications into the system. We can process them. There is funding available.”
The county did not immediately provide data on the number of applications denied or pending.
Dalton said that the county may have to do some targeted outreach. “We’ve seen less than 3% of our applications coming from people age 65 and older,” she said, adding that this year’s rent relief rules may make many seniors eligible.
State Department of Human Services (DHS) Secretary Teresa Miller did not provide a tally for rent relief applicants statewide, noting that some counties have constructed their own systems while others are using the state’s portal.
She did lay out the stakes.
“It has the potential to stabilize the lives of millions of Pennsylvanians in vulnerable housing situations,” she said. On the other hand, if the program does not reach tenants who are falling behind on rent, the effects could fall most heavily on small landlords, who she characterized as typically more apt to work closely with their tenants. “If smaller landlords are not able to continue to operate, that hurts people who pay rents.”
Rent relief programs rolled out by the state and by Allegheny County in 2020 denied more applicants than they accepted. The programs were hamstrung by requirements imposed by federal and state legislation.
This year, there are fewer strings attached to $847 million in federal funding flowing to Pennsylvania for rent relief, of which nearly $80 million could go to Allegheny County. There is no limit on the monthly aid, it can cover overdue and upcoming rent and utility bills, and tenants don’t have to gather documents to prove that their circumstances have been worsened by COVID-19.
Miller noted that the program still requires that households certify that they’ve suffered financial hardship due to the pandemic, and that they risk homelessness or housing instability.
Any funds that the state can’t pay to tenants or landlords by a deadline which could be as early as Sept 30 must be returned to the federal government.
Landlords now control around 37% of the housing market countywide. COVID-19 is testing the health of this market, bringing eviction curbs, rent relief and a revived tenants’ rights movement. PublicSource and WESA are exploring these changes and examining the governmental and civic responses to the emergence of Tenant Cities.
4/9/21: Attorney for October Development pledges narrower conservatorship effort around East Allegheny
A petition seeking conservatorship over nearly 100 North Side properties will be withdrawn, and a narrower bid to address blight in and near East Allegheny will be filed, according to the attorney representing the would-be steward, October Development.
A March 5 petition by October Development, filed by attorney Dan Friedson, asked the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas to give the company control over 97 parcels now owned by the city, a community group and a slew of private owners. The petition was filed under the state’s 13-year-old conservatorship law, which allows the temporary takeover of vacant, blighted properties by court-approved stewards, who can later file liens and sometimes take ownership.
The petition prompted some of the owners of the properties to file answers alleging that the properties were occupied, not blighted or subject to ongoing redevelopment efforts.
“I didn’t just blindly file this petition,” said Friedson. “I did walk the neighborhood myself, personally, for three months.”
He told PublicSource that October Development included some of the properties because it required limited access to them in order to stage work on neighboring, blighted houses, and others because they were being used as parking rather than the preferred use for housing.
He said he recognized that some of the private respondents listed in the petition – including at least one resident – viewed the petition as hostile, when it was meant to spur collaboration to improve the neighborhood.
“If in my first filing I have overstepped, I apologize. If there’s blight around you, we’re here to help,” Friedson said. “We are going to scale back considerably to ease the concerns of the neighborhood.”
He said he’ll settle matters with some of the property owners and likely file a new petition, focusing on property controlled by the city and the Community Association of Spring Garden and East Deutschtown [CASGED]. The petition included 29 properties owned by the city, two by the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA], and eight by CASGED.
4/8/21: URA board passes on talks with Garfield developer, approves other housing proposals
In a meeting focused largely on affordable housing, the Urban Redevelopment Authority board approved resolutions to aid development plans in three parts of the city, but passed on a proposal to negotiate the sale of 11 vacant lots in Garfield to a home builder.
Module Design Inc. wants to buy publicly owned lots on Garfield’s Rosetta Street and Broad Street, to build around a dozen townhouses, including three or four priced for sale to modest-income buyers.
URA staff asked the board to approve a six-month period of exclusive negotiations between the agency and Module, during which no other offers for the property would be entertained.
The homes that once occupied the 5100 block of Rosetta have been torn down and the area has become “a dumping site” said Richard Snipe, a deputy director of the URA-affiliated Pittsburgh Housing Development Corp. He said successful redevelopment by Module could be duplicated elsewhere, especially in Garfield, where the median home sale price is now around $225,000.
URA Deputy Executive Director Diamonte Walker noted that developers have been targeting Garfield properties via conservatorship. Selling properties to a developer like Module gives the URA the ability to ensure that some of the new housing is affordable, she said.
Questioned by the board, Module CEO Brian Gaudio said that he sold one new home elsewhere in Garfield for $395,000, and another “affordable” unit for $183,000, though other public assistance pushed that buyer’s cost down around $130,000.
Board member Lindsay Powell said the development could entail millions of dollars in public financing. “Obviously, high-quality housing is a lot of money,” she said, especially in light of recent increases in construction costs. “It does have a very steep price tag to do very few units.”
Sam Williamson, the board’s chairman, urged staff to ensure that it did not sell lots at bargain prices only to see them turned into market-rate homes. “If we can use the land sale prices to potentially get more of them at below market rates, I think that would be better for the neighborhood,” he said.
No board member seconded a motion to approve the exclusive negotiations, so the motion died.
Reached after the meeting, Gaudio said he was disappointed at the board’s non-vote, but hoped to continue discussions on buying the property and building houses.
“What we were hoping for was to be able to at least proceed with the exclusive negotiations, which would give us time to put a really exciting project together,” he said. “Pittsburgh has been trying to find a way to build affordable for-sale housing. … I’m aware of very, very few projects that have been able to do it.”
The board approved several items.
- $2,126,000 in loans for the third phase of the Larimer/East Liberty Choice Neighborhoods project, involving construction of 37 apartments and five townhomes.
- $481,000 in loans to Rising Tide Partners, for use in buying 35 properties — 31 vacant and 4 occupied — in East Hills, for rehabilitation and sale to owner-occupants
- Sale of 28 publicly owned parcels in California-Kirkbride, for $1 each, to North Side Associates, for construction of 42 new affordable apartments.
4/6/21: Commission votes to make affordable housing rule for Lawrenceville permanent
Pittsburgh’s City Planning Commission voted to make permanent an affordable housing requirement for new development in Lawrenceville, and recommended that Pittsburgh City Council consider steps that commissioners said would strengthen a two-year-old zoning rule.
The commission’s vote concerned a pilot inclusionary zoning program under which developers who build 20 or more houses or apartments in fast-growing Lawrenceville must ensure that 10% of them are affordable to households with modest incomes.
The commission’s lengthy deliberation and vote came after scores of letter writers and speakers, including Lawrenceville residents and community advocates from there and elsewhere, registered their support for making the rule permanent.
“Too many of our neighbors have had no other option but to leave Lawrenceville as home prices have escalated,” said Heather Sage, who moved to the neighborhood in 2004. Like numerous other members of the public, she advocated pushing the required number of affordable units from 10% of the total to 15%.
Some recommended taking inclusionary zoning citywide.
Commissioners seemed sympathetic to those ideas, but worried that changing key planks of the legislation in mid-hearing might invite legal challenges, while postponing their vote might make it hard to get the legislation to council before the pilot program expires in July.
Several commissioners said they were concerned that the affordable housing requirement might not have the desired effect of helping longtime residents to stay within neighborhoods as property values and rents rise.
Commissioner Sabina Deitrick said she feared that students from out of state could instead end up in the affordable rentals. She was also concerned about the prospect of “a project manager getting Cousin Jimmy in there,” rather than making affordable units widely available. “That’s why you need an auditing system.”
The commission voted unanimously to recommend that council make the zoning rule permanent in Lawrenceville, but also that the city consider, in coming months:
- Tightening rules on resale of affordable for-sale houses created in Lawrenceville as a result of the rule
- Requiring not only affordability but also accessibility for some of units
- Creating an auditing system to ensure that property managers are complying with the affordability rules
- Exploring training or other means of ensuring professional management of the resulting housing
- Lifting the required affordable share of units to 15%
- Adding flexibility to a provision that can allow developers to convert off-site units to affordability if it’s not feasible to include them on a new development site.
That review could come in conjunction with a housing needs assessment expected by autumn. The recommendations are not binding on council, which is expected to vote on making inclusionary zoning permanent in Lawrenceville in May or June.
4/1/21: Eviction filings jump in March, despite orders and rent relief
Landlords filed at least 455 eviction cases against tenants in Allegheny County in March – a marked increase to levels last seen in October – despite efforts by Pittsburgh City Council to curb displacement during the pandemic.
On March 5, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto signed council legislation that added new hurdles to evictions. After that date, landlords continued to file eviction cases in the city, according to data assembled by Anne Wright, chief technology officer of RentHelpPGH and a project scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. Council has introduced legislation that would charge the mayor with naming a city department, bureau or officer within the city who would be charged with enforcing the ordinance. That legislation was approved tentatively by council and could see a final vote April 6.
Countywide, the pace of eviction cases has been slowed since March 2020 by a series of measures, including a recently revised Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order that now runs through June, and an order by Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark.
Data analyzed by Wright shows that:
- Of cases filed since Sept. 1 and completed, landlords won 54%, with most of the rest withdrawn and just 4% decided in favor of the tenant.
- There are now 1,350 active eviction cases in the county court system, though action on some has been postponed until summer.
- Some cases continue to proceed to the final step, the issuance of orders for possession, which allow for forcible removal of the tenant. Countywide, district judges granted 59 orders for possession in March, including 23 in the city after council’s legislation was signed.
“Evictions are largely being used as a revenue collection tool,” Wright said, despite the curbs and despite a second round of rent relief launched by the county in March. “Some of the bulk filers are still bulk filing,” she said, and most of those cases list only overdue rent or the expiration of the lease term as rationales for eviction, she said.
The monthly evictions remain “a relatively small number” relative to the rental housing market, said John Petrack, executive vice president of the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh. Census data shows 206,000 tenant households in the county, and prior to the pandemic monthly eviction filings regularly exceeded 1,000.
He said that some of those subject to orders of possession could be commercial tenants, or “people unfortunately breaking the law or damaging the property.”
The county’s rent relief program could help because landlords can apply directly on behalf of rent-delinquent tenants, he said. But landlords are continuing to face misunderstanding, on the part of some tenants, of the various eviction curbs.
“Some tenants just don’t understand that these [rent] monies are still going to be owed at the end of this pandemic, or when the moratorium is lifted,” he said. Some owe many thousands of dollars in back rent. “That’s what scares me the most.”
Data on evictions this year assembled by PublicSource indicates that the largest concentrations of cases are in the following ZIP Codes:
- 15227 (Baldwin, Brentwood and parts of nearby communities) – 80 cases
- 15132 (McKeesport) – 76
- 15235 (Penn Hills) – 55
- 15221 (Wilkinsburg, Forest Hills) – 53
- 15210 (Carrick, Mt. Oliver and other city “Hilltop” neighborhoods) – 52
- 15236 (Whitehall, Pleasant Hills and parts of nearby communities) – 52
- 15212 (Parts of the city’s North Side) – 40
- 15137 (North Versailles) – 38
- 15136 (McKees Rocks, Stowe, Kennedy) – 33
- 15146 (Monroeville) – 31
Ten landlords have filed more than 10 eviction cases in the county this year:
- Brandywine Agency – 90 cases
- Whitehall Place Holdings – 47
- Leland Point Owner (The Alden South Hills) – 46
- McKeesport Housing Authority – 27
- Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh – 25
- Forward Management – 16
- HAR Management – 12
- Arkham Realty – 11
- Frank Marko – 11
- Prudential Realty Company – 11
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only .01% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.