February 2021 Develop PGH Bulletins: Pittsburgh City Council votes to limit evictions, over landlord objections

Below: 'Massive' Oakland apartment proposal delayed

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Ebony Long, 35, of Perry North sits on the staircase of the rental house from which her landlord is trying to evict her. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Ebony Long, 35, of Perry North sits on the staircase of the rental house from which her landlord is trying to evict her. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Develop PGH Bulletins updates you on the Pittsburgh region's economy, including close coverage of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, City Planning Commission and other important agencies. Please check back frequently, sign up for the Develop PGH newsletter and email rich@publicsource.org with questions, tips or story ideas.

2/24/21: New eviction rules in Pittsburgh clear first vote

Pittsburgh City Council took an initial step toward adding a new set of hurdles to eviction but will likely spend the coming days weighing possible amendments to further protect tenants.

Council voted, without dissent, for legislation that would:

  • Largely bar any landlord action from evicting tenants, within the city, who are behind on rent due to loss of employment or medical expenses
  • Bar landlords from terminating tenants’ leases or refusing to renew them
  • Carve out exceptions if a tenant is engaged in criminal activity or presents an “imminent threat” to the health or safety of other residents, or violates building codes or health ordinances
  • Fine landlords as much as $10,000 for violations
  • Expire either when the city lifts its current disaster declaration or council terminates the protections.

The vote came after lengthy discussion about proposed amendments that could:

  • Explicitly extend protections to tenants who are defendants in eviction cases that are already pending in court
  • More clearly bar evictions except for “good cause,” which would not include expirations of leases
  • Give the city Commission on Human Relations a role in enforcement.

Members led by Councilman Ricky Burgess suggested that they wanted to meet with the Law Department before approving any amendments. Council could amend the bill and vote finally Tuesday.

In the hours before council’s vote, landlords told PublicSource they are concerned with the legality and the effects of the legislation.

Preston Moore, a landlord with 13 properties, including six in the city, said he has several tenants who have stopped paying rent. “As long as the tenants can’t be evicted, once you take that off the table, there’s no motive for the tenant to do anything” to address mounting overdue rent, he said.

By compelling landlords to renew expired leases, council is “now creating a new contract” between the landlord and the tenant, said Robert Moncavage, president of the board of the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh. He questioned council’s authority to compel private entities to enter into contracts.

He asked, rhetorically, if the city would waive property taxes for any landlord whose tenant is not paying rent.

During council’s meeting, Councilwoman Erika Strassburger said she had heard concerns from landlords, especially those with small numbers of properties. But their concerns were trumped by the plight of tenants.

"I'm interested in helping the most vulnerable, and those are people who are at risk of losing their homes,” she said. “Being without a home can result in a spiral ... of various health and safety issues that perpetuate the pandemic."

A federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order curbs evictions through March but does not entirely halt them. An Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas order has compelled district judges to postpone eviction hearings.

2/23/21: Commission delays vote on massive Oakland apartment, but affirms that students are human

The potential collision of two Oakland developments — one including as many as 300 student-friendly apartments, the other designed for medical patients and their families — led the City Planning Commission to delay a contentious vote for one month.

Chicago-based CA Ventures seeks commission approval to build a 10-story building at 3500 Forbes Avenue, formerly the site of a gas station.

That’s next to a McKee Place site owned by Family House, which accommodates families contending with medical crises while members are getting treatment in Oakland. Family House plans to demolish an existing house and build a new facility there.

The student and patient "populations are not compatible," Family House Executive Director Jennifer March told the commission. She said the “fortress-like design of the CA Ventures project” and potentially disruptive activity in a proposed pedestrian walkway could stress “medically fragile Family House guests.”

CA Ventures’ team, led by attorney Kevin McKeegan, countered that the proposed apartment building fits all requirements in the city code and added that numerous concessions have been made to neighborhood concerns. A planned generator was moved from the outside to the inside of the building, the Forbes frontage has been designed to integrate with a coming Bus Rapid Transit station, and the developer has offered to restrict nighttime access to the pedestrian walkway.

Other speakers during the public comment portion of the commission’s hearing worried about the effect of the sizable building on Oakland’s main commercial strip. “Monolith is the word that I would use as well,” said Wanda Wilson, executive director of Oakland Planning and Development Corp. She said it had the potential to create “a canyon effect on Forbes Avenue.”

An artist's rendering of Forbes Avenue after the construction of a proposed 10-story apartment building draws thoughtful looks from members of the City Planning Commission, a city planner, and members of the development team, during a commission meeting conducted by Zoom on Feb. 23, 2021. (Screenshot)

An artist's rendering of Forbes Avenue after the construction of a proposed 10-story apartment building draws thoughtful looks from members of the City Planning Commission, a city planner, and members of the development team, during a commission meeting conducted by Zoom on Feb. 23, 2021. (Screenshot)

While some commission members urged more talks between CA Ventures and Family House, commission Chair Christine Mondor deflected concerns that students couldn’t live near medical patients and their families.

“I want to believe that students are also human, that young people are human, and a space like this can attract activity that isn’t necessarily negative,” she said.

She also reflected the commission’s angst.

“I think we all struggle because we want more student housing so that students don’t have to live in lesser quality housing,” she said. But the proposed size is “kind of intruding” on Oakland’s scale, and the site plan includes “hardly any place for people to get to the ground and hang out.”

The commission closed testimony, but will hear from the CA Ventures team again on March 23 and could vote on the proposal then.

2/23/21: More proposals to curb front yard parking may be coming

"Parking reform" may become part of an ongoing effort to craft a comprehensive plan for the City of Pittsburgh, Planning Director Andrew Dash told a key city panel.

Dash's comments came as the City Planning Commission discussed — and then unanimously approved — new rules for developers of townhouses and rowhouses. If approved by Pittsburgh City Council, the rules will require that developers of new attached houses put garages and driveways in the back, or on the side, wherever possible.

An example of the kind of front-yard driveway-and-garage design that would be strongly discouraged under "parking reform" approved by the City Planning Commission on Feb. 23, 2021.

An example of the kind of front-yard driveway-and-garage design that would be strongly discouraged under "parking reform" approved by the City Planning Commission on Feb. 23, 2021.

Several community organization leaders, mostly from East End neighborhoods, spoke in favor of the proposal prior to the commission's vote. One of them, Lawrenceville United Executive Director David Breingan, requested "that the city again go further.” He'd like restrictions on front-yard driveways and garages on new single-family detached homes, too.

Commission members seemed intrigued by that idea.

Front-yard parking was the subject of a commission hearing last year, at which a similar cadre of neighborhood advocates urged reductions in curb cuts, blaming them for unsafe interactions between cars and pedestrians, plus changes to the characters of neighborhoods that have long featured stoops and street trees.

“We heard the community, I think loud and clear, at the commission hearing around that, around going a little further" to reduce curb cuts, Dash told the commission today. He said the ForgingPGH planning process, expected to run through this year, may include “larger potential parking reform.”

2/23/21: Pitt starts months-long march toward new plan approval

The University of Pittsburgh began the process of presenting its proposed new Institutional Master Plan to the City Planning Commission, a run-up to an as-yet-unscheduled public hearing and vote.

The new plan aims to update an existing blueprint, and guide the university's growth through the coming decade. Pitt is planning on growth of 5% to 10% over that decade.

That growth expectation drives plans to add 2,400 new student housing beds, while removing 1,625 beds, for a net gain of 775. University officials told the commission that they are aiming for more affordable housing choices within the university's boundaries.

Despite the planned increase in students and beds, the university wants "no net new parking on campus," according to Owen Cooks, Pitt's assistant vice chancellor for planning, design and construction. That could be achieved through more cycling, transit and shuttles, he said.

Commission Chair Christine Mondor noted the "tension" between the campus and some longtime residents, and said that she'd like to hear more about "the qualitative way you’re thinking about the campus," so that it can be considered in conjunction with “a kind of shared vision for Oakland.”

Oakland is currently the subject of a neighborhood planning process.

The presentation of the 500-plus-page plan is likely to continue at commission meetings on March 9 and 23.

2/23/21: Planners consider housing with preference for residents displaced from Penn Plaza

The City Planning Commission is reviewing a proposal for a 42-apartment building in East Liberty that would cater, in part, to residents displaced from Penn Plaza.

Trek Development wants to build a four-story building on North Beatty Street, between Ansley and Harvard streets, on the current site of a parking lot. All but 10 of the apartments would be priced for households earning between 20% and 60% of average median income for their family sizes.

City Planning Commission members consider an artist's rendering of TREK Development's proposed new 42-unit apartment building on North Beatty Street in East Liberty, presented to the commission, via Zoom, on Feb. 23, 2021.

City Planning Commission members consider an artist's rendering of TREK Development's proposed new 42-unit apartment building on North Beatty Street in East Liberty, presented to the commission, via Zoom, on Feb. 23, 2021.

Thirty-three apartments would be one bedroom, and the other nine would have two bedrooms, according to Tonya Markiewicz, the architect. The plan involves 30 parking spaces and 16 bike racks.

Janelle Kemerer, a project manager with TREK, said the developer has been working with several neighborhood groups, including the Penn Plaza Support and Action Group and East Liberty Development Inc. She said the proposal is consistent with ELDI's desire for "mixed-income development in this transitional zone" between East Liberty's commercial core and its residential sections. She added that former Penn Plaza residents would get "preference" for the apartments.

Penn Plaza once housed 200 people, but was emptied and demolished in one of the seminal events in the displacement of many low-income residents from East Liberty.

The commission could hold a hearing and vote on the proposal on March 9.

2/19/21: Rental registration decision likely more than a month away

An online hearing on whether the City of Pittsburgh can charge landlords as much as $65 per unit per year, and compel them to register their holdings and local representatives, ended Friday morning without an immediate decision.

Starting Tuesday, lawyers for the city, the Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, the Landlord Services Bureau and several landlords led witnesses through testimony focused largely on whether the fee reflected the actual anticipated costs of the registration plan. If it’s higher than the costs, the landlord entities argue, then it’s an illegal tax.

The city has tried, since 2008, to impose registration and fees on landlords, but the effort has been tied up in court and never implemented.

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Joseph James said the parties should request transcripts of the hearing, and that upon receipt they have 30 days to write briefs explaining their positions. After that, he said, he’ll try to rule  “as quickly as possible.”

The former Fifth Avenue High School, in the Bluff neighborhood of the City of Pittsburgh, is being transformed into loft apartments. It's another entry in a growing rental housing market that the city is trying to regulate through registration. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

The former Fifth Avenue High School, in the Bluff neighborhood of the City of Pittsburgh, is being transformed into loft apartments. It's another entry in a growing rental housing market that the city is trying to regulate through registration. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

2/16/21: Pittsburgh’s bid to regulate landlords faces court test

The City of Pittsburgh first tried to compel landlords to register their holdings (and pay per-unit fees) in 2008, and 13 years later that concept is the subject of a four-day hearing that pits Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration against the Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh [AAMP] and its allies.

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Joseph James is presiding over the hearing, which could go a long way toward determining whether, and how, the city can regulate a rental property market that now houses an estimated 55% of Pittsburgh households.

The city’s not-yet-enforced ordinance demands that all landlords with property in the city register annually with the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections [PLI], provide the addresses and numbers of units within each property and list local representatives responsible for operating and maintaining the buildings.

Under the ordinance, PLI is charged with inspecting each unit every three to five years, with results made public online. The landlords are to pay the city $65 per unit annually, with discounts to $55 or $45 for larger properties, and a 50% discount after the first passing inspection. Operating an unregistered rental property could result in fines of $500 per unit per month.

The Landlord Services Bureau and several landlords sued the city in 2015, seeking an injunction preventing enforcement of the ordinance, and asking the court to declare it unconstitutional. AAMP and the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh later joined the case.

In his opening statement, city attorney Larry Baumiller argued that rental registration is needed because the city currently has no consistently effective means of finding the owners of rental properties when it wants to enforce code violations and ensure safety.

“Rental properties can be owned by LLCs [limited liability companies] which have a P.O. box rather than a street address, rendering them, in some cases, impossible to track down,” Baumiller said. That translates into “almost a zero percent compliance rate” with citations.

He added that there are properties that are around a century old which “the city has never been inside of,” and some of which could be unsafe.

Baumiller said the $65 fee is “reasonable and well-supported” and will be reviewed nine months after implementation, and adjusted if warranted.

Attorney Lawrence Fisher, representing AAMP, said the city’s math is “riddled with contradictions that cannot support fees charged by the ordinance.”

He added that the city’s estimate that its boundaries contain around 40,000 rental units are dramatically different from the plaintiffs’ estimate of 67,000 units. That alone undermines the city’s calculations, he said.

While any decision by James could be appealed, the hearing, scheduled to run through Friday, will at the very least be a fresh chapter in a very long story.

Pittsburgh City Council passed a rental registration ordinance in 2007, which Mayor Luke Ravenstahl signed in 2008. It contemplated a $6 per year, per unit fee.

AAMP sued in 2009, and enforcement was stayed pending negotiations between the parties. Council efforts to pass a new ordinance were abandoned in 2010, and the case was eventually terminated by the courts.

Finally, in 2015, council passed a new version, which Mayor Bill Peduto signed. Representatives of the landlord community promptly sued again.

The landlord community’s numerous objections to the ordinance were eventually whittled down, by James, to one question: whether the $65 fee is proportionate to the cost of administration of the registration program, or is actually a tax falling only on one class of property owner, and therefore unconstitutional.

The city maintains in its pretrial statement that when you count overhead costs including insurance, payroll, billing, collection and administration, the per-unit fee is appropriate. Attorneys for the plaintiffs indicated in their opening statements that they will also challenge the city’s right to regulate businesses.

The city’s rental housing market has, arguably, never been more important.

More Pittsburgh households now rent than own their homes, and landlords control a growing share 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.

2/11/21: Penguins development team and Hill District group at odds over meeting

A behind-the-scenes clash over the community process regarding the Lower Hill District redevelopment surfaced at the Urban Redevelopment Authority board meeting, as a Penguins-related team goes on offense and a neighborhood group defends its goals.

The Penguins’ development team shepherding a proposed $1 billion in work on the 28-acre site of the former Civic Arena has asked for a neighborhood Development Activities Meeting [DAM] regarding its plans to build an office tower on the Downtown side. The City Planning Commission typically requires that developers conduct a DAM before proposals come before it for hearings and approval votes.

Lower Hill District parking lots, north of PPG Paints Arena. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Lower Hill District parking lots, north of PPG Paints Arena.(Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

But that’s premature, according to Hill Community Development Corp. Executive Director Marimba Milliones, who wrote a three-page letter that was read to the URA board during the public comment section of its monthly meeting. (The URA is involved in many aspects of the financing of the redevelopment effort, and board Chairman Sam Williamson read the letter to the full board during its public comment period.)

Milliones wrote that the Penguins’ development team hasn’t yet gotten passing grades from the neighborhood’s Development Review Panel, which hasn’t received some requested documents. At this point, she wrote, “the scheduling of this DAM will be at the objection of the Hill CDC,” which, as the city-registered community organization for the neighborhood, would normally be at the center of the process. Milliones wrote that the objection was based on “the lack of compliance with our community plan and the community benefits agreement” governing the improvements the Hill is to receive from the redevelopment.

In response to PublicSource’s request for comment, Penguins Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel Kevin Acklin wrote that it’s “very unusual for a community development organization to try to block a development team from having an open and transparent public meeting with the Hill District community.” He added that the team “won’t let politics get in the way of delivering family sustaining jobs, transformational benefits and wealth creation for residents of the Hill District.”

2/11/21: Tenants facing eviction will have access to legal help

With curbs and delays on evictions potentially expiring at the end of March, the Urban Redevelopment Authority board voted to spend as much as $800,000 to pay lawyers to represent threatened tenants in Pittsburgh.

The funding comes from the Housing Opportunity Fund, a pot backed by the deed transfer tax which has previously been used to aid in the development, rehabilitation, preservation or stabilization of affordable housing. The URA plans to issue a request for proposals from attorneys willing to take cases. Advocates have said that tenants facing eviction often have no legal representation.

The board debated, at length, whether to restrict the program to tenants who are being evicted for non-payment of rent. Currently, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order largely prevents the eviction of tenants who can’t pay due to the pandemic.

Board member Lindsay Powell said she’d heard that, in order to circumvent the order, “landlords are using whatever they can to get non-paying tenants out the door,” including filing evictions based on “having a pet” or “playing your music too loud.” Other members said they’d heard similar stories.

(PublicSource recently chronicled an eviction based in part on non-payment of rent, but also citing an off-premises incident that resulted in criminal charges, grilling and noise.)

“I think we want to be able to help as many people as we possibly can and avoid as many evictions as we possibly can,” said board Chairman Sam Williamson. He added, though, that he did not want to make any changes to staff-drafted guidelines, which were already approved by the Housing Opportunity Fund Advisory Board, if that would delay the program.

Sam Williamson, chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority board, participates in the panel's Feb. 11, 2021 meeting, conducted via Zoom. (Screenshot)

Sam Williamson, chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority board, participates in the panel's Feb. 11, 2021 meeting, conducted via Zoom. (Screenshot)

URA staff said that the program can be administered to give the hired lawyers wide discretion to represent tenants who are having trouble paying the rent, even if the landlord claims the eviction is about something else. The board then voted to approve the program. Staff said they hoped to have it up and running by the end of March.

2/11/21: URA board votes to back 85 affordable apartments in two neighborhoods

Apartments planned for Squirrel Hill South and California-Kirkbride won the backing of the Urban Redevelopment Authority board, which took the opportunity to discuss the lack of family-sized units in one of the development plans.

The board approved $850,000 in loans to Northside Properties Residences, which plans to spend $15.7 million building a 30-unit apartment building and six duplexes in California-Kirkbride. Most of those units will have one or two bedrooms, but a dozen will feature family-friendly three- or four-bedroom layouts.

Artists renderings of apartments proposed for California-Kirkbride, in a slide presented to the Urban Redevelopment Authority board on Feb. 11, 2021. (Screenshot)

Artists renderings of apartments proposed for California-Kirkbride, in a slide presented to the Urban Redevelopment Authority board on Feb. 11, 2021. (Screenshot)

Board member Lindsay Powell praised the mix, saying the URA “would love to see more multi-room units at affordable rates” in the other affordable apartment buildings it finances.

The next project on the board’s agenda  provided counterpoint. Flats on Forward will be a 43-unit apartment building at the corner of Forbes and Murray avenues, close to Allderdice High School. Nonprofit developer ACTION-Housing plans 37 one-bedroom units, with the rest having two bedrooms.

A rendering of Flats on Forward, an apartment building proposed for Squirrel Hill South, presented to the Urban Redevelopment Authority board on Feb. 11, 2011. (Screenshot)

A rendering of Flats on Forward, an apartment building proposed for Squirrel Hill South, presented to the Urban Redevelopment Authority board on Feb. 11, 2011. (Screenshot)

Asked by the board why there were no family-sized units in the plan, ACTION Real Estate Development Director Lena Andrews said her organization knows there’s “very high demand” for affordable family housing in Squirrel Hill. “We try to maximize the number of two-bedroom apartments that we can put in our buildings,” she said, but the small Flats on Forward footprint “just wasn’t the best site for three- and four-bedrooms.”

The board approved a $750,000 increase in URA lending to Flats on Forward, bringing the agency’s involvement to $2 million, out of the total project cost of $25.7 million. The cost has been inflated by the $1.2 million cost of repairing Maeburn Road, which runs behind the site.

All units in both developments will be locked in at rents affordable to households making less than 60% of average median income, with some pegged to lower income levels.

2/9/21: Navigating the future of a 'geode' of a campus

Chatham University is asking the City Planning Commission to approve a new master plan, and the Shadyside campus’ leadership may have to address navigability and accessibility questions before a potential vote on March 9.

Chatham is expecting growth in both student and faculty numbers of just over 10% over 10 years, university officials told the commission at a briefing. To handle that, the university wants to add around 240 dormitory beds; build classroom capacity, laboratories and athletic facilities; plus improve the 37-acre campus’ connection to Fifth Avenue and enhance stormwater management and sustainability.

Commission members were most concerned with the accessibility of the sloping campus with its winding roads and omnipresent staircases.

“Chatham is like a geode,” said commission Chair Christine Mondor. “Once you get into it, it’s pretty amazing, but finding ways into it is difficult.” She asked Chatham to develop a map of routes through campus for people using bicycles or non-automobile wheeled vehicles.

The university’s plan includes more visibility for the entry points into campus, university officials told the commission.

Getting around the campus has always been a challenge. “There are just simply certain areas around campus that are really difficult because of the slopes,” said Walter Fowler, Chatham's vice president of finance and administration.

A photo of part of Chatham University's campus provided in a submission by the school to the City Planning Commission on Feb. 9, 2021.

A photo of part of Chatham University's campus provided in a submission by the school to the City Planning Commission on Feb. 9, 2021.

Fowler told the commission that the university and the Department of Justice had “a long engagement” a few years ago regarding accessibility of the campus. That resulted in a consent decree which has led to more ramps and mechanical equipment to help mobility-challenged students to get around.

Chatham plans to further encourage bicycling and discourage the use of cars on its narrow internal roadways, by limiting parking passes, providing free bus passes, and barring freshmen from parking on campus.

2/9/21: Does the future feature front-yard parking?

Front yard garages and driveways would become the exception, rather than the rule, in new Pittsburgh housing, under a developing set of proposals moving through the City of Pittsburgh's approval process, according to a briefing provided to the City Planning Commission.

Curb cuts in front of rowhouses and townhouses are already severely restricted in riverfront zones that cover parts of Highland Park, Upper Lawrenceville, Central Lawrenceville, Troy Hill, the South Side Flats, the Bluff, Elliott, Sheraden and Esplen, City Planning Department staff told the commission members.

In those zones, developers of new townhouses or rowhouses have to put garages and driveways in the back, or on the side, of homes, wherever possible. When that's not feasible, they are encouraged to create shared driveways with just one curb cut.

That rule is meant to preserve the feel of neighborhoods that have historically featured front stoops and street trees, and to reduce the safety hazards created when cars are pulling and backing across sidewalks into neighborhood streets, planning staff said.

This slide presented by Pittsburgh Department of City Planning staff to the City Planning Commission on Feb. 9. 2021, shows the street trees and on-street parking that many neighborhood advocates prefer over front-yard driveways and garages. (Screenshot)

This slide presented by Pittsburgh Department of City Planning staff to the City Planning Commission on Feb. 9. 2021, shows the street trees and on-street parking that many neighborhood advocates prefer over front-yard driveways and garages. (Screenshot)

A proposal that will be subject to a commission hearing and vote on Feb. 23 would expand the riverfront rules to new townhouse and rowhouse construction citywide. It appears to have support on the commission.

“I think it’s an important initiative to move forward, maintaining the character of our neighborhoods in a way that’s safe," said Commissioner Rachel O'Neill.

Planning staff did not present data on the locations of townhouses and rowhouses citywide. The commission wants to see a map of those housing styles at the hearing.

Pittsburgh City Council would ultimately approve or reject the proposed change.

The crusade against front-of-house private parking may not be over. Planning Department staff said the city is continuing to talk with community groups about additional measures which could extend to new stand-alone houses.

2/9/21: Developer, URA to back workforce, housing in Larimer

Developer Walnut Capital will give $1 million to back workforce development efforts sought by the Larimer Consensus Group, and will team with the Urban Redevelopment Authority to finance another $1 million in affordable housing in that neighborhood, according to a City of Pittsburgh press release.

The resulting workforce development center would be run by Pittsburgh Community Services Inc., with URA assistance. The number of for-sale affordable homes to be developed was not specified in the release, but they would be clustered on Mayflower Street near its intersection with Auburn Street.

The URA board is scheduled to meet Thursday. Walnut Capital is the developer of the Bakery Square complex in Larimer.

2/5/21: State rent relief plan passes legislature, gets Gov. Wolf's signature

Both houses of the General Assembly unanimously approved rent relief legislation, sending a broad mandate for spending some $850 million in federal funds to Gov. Tom Wolf and his Department of Human Services.

Senate Bill 109 does not include some of the provisions that hamstrung Pennsylvania’s 2020 rent relief effort. That CARES Rent Relief Program put a $750 monthly cap on rental assistance, demanded that tenants document their loss of income, and required cooperation between landlords and renters. It did not cover utilities costs. The state’s requirements prompted Allegheny County to rely largely on its own, less restrictive program starting in late October.

An application for rental relief, submitted by DaJuan Davis of Penn Hills and his landlord in July, was rejected. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

An application for rental relief, submitted by DaJuan Davis of Penn Hills and his landlord in July, was rejected. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

This year, with $850 million in federal money coming solely for rent relief and a September deadline to spend 65% of it, the General Assembly is attaching far fewer strings to the new Rental and Utility Assistance Grant Program.

  • There is no monthly cap on rent relief.
  • Aid can also cover back rent, utilities bills and other expenses directly or indirectly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Landlords and utilities aren’t required to accept the aid as full payment of the tenant’s bill.
  • If a landlord or utility provider does not cooperate with the program, the payment can go directly to the tenant, who is required to use it to cover the bills.
  • The Department of Human Services, rather than the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, is administering the program.
  • Counties can use a fraction of the funds for housing stability services and to cover administrative costs.

Still, some renters will not be eligible. U.S. Treasury Department guidance — which could change — says the money can only be given to households which:

  • ‌Include someone who either qualifies for unemployment or has lost income or suffered financial hardship due to the pandemic
  • Face some risk of homelessness or housing instability
  • Earn 80% or less of the area median income for their family size.

The money is set to flow to the state’s 67 counties, according to population. Allegheny County’s portion, though, will be reduced by the roughly $36 million in rent relief funds that the county and the City of Pittsburgh are receiving directly from the federal government. The county and city announced this week that they are pooling that funding to create a local rent relief program.

The counties have to report back, by July 31, on their completed and planned rent relief spending. If some counties prove unlikely to spend all of the money, some of their shares will be reallocated to areas in which available rent relief funds are falling short, according to the legislation.

Unlike the money that flowed to the state under last year’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security [CARES] Act, this year’s federal infusion can’t be redirected to other uses. Any portion of the $850 million that isn’t spent on the rent relief program must be returned to Washington.

It’s as yet unclear how quickly the state can construct the program and when relief will start flowing.

In a late afternoon press release, Wolf’s administration reported that he signed the bill, adding: “Every day that these federal relief dollars remain idle does a disservice to Pennsylvania residents and landlords impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

On Monday, PublicSource and WESA explored rent relief in the first stories of the Tenant Cities series.

2/4/21: Affordable apartments set for Squirrel Hill get boost from hesitant board

A reluctant Housing Opportunity Fund [HOF] Advisory Board approved a $750,000 increase to subsidies for a coming low-income apartment development at a key corner in Squirrel Hill.

Pittsburgh’s HOF, which is funded via the deed transfer tax, was already on the hook for $585,000 in funding toward Flats on Forward, planned for the corner of Forward Avenue and Murray Avenue. That project by nonprofit ACTION-Housing involves 43 affordable apartments, mostly one-bedroom, and is expected to cost more than $23 million, coming from multiple governmental, philanthropic and private sources.

In recent months, ACTION has faced an unforeseen challenge: To build one wall, the developer needs to shore up a closed section of Maeburn Road that sits above an underground vault, according to Linda Metropulos, a consultant working on the project. The city is normally responsible for roads, but has declined to take on the repairs estimated at nearly $1 million, she said.

So ACTION wants its allocation of HOF funds increased to $1,335,000, and has the support of Councilman Corey O’Connor, who represents the area. To do that, the HOF Advisory Board, and then the Urban Redevelopment Authority board which meets next week, need to shift funds from a Housing Stabilization Program for struggling tenants and homeowners, to the Rental Gap Program which backs new apartments.

Sara Shore, an Urban Redevelopment Authority lending analyst, presents information on the Flats on Forward proposal to the Housing Opportunity Fund Advisory Board, during a remotely conducted monthly meeting held on Feb. 4, 2021. (Screenshot)

Sara Shore, an Urban Redevelopment Authority lending analyst, presents information on the Flats on Forward proposal to the Housing Opportunity Fund Advisory Board, during a remotely conducted monthly meeting held on Feb. 4, 2021. (Screenshot)

Downsides: Reducing the Housing Support Program’s resources could limit aid to renters and homeowners who might not be able to get help from other, emerging relief programs. Also, the amount sought by ACTION is above the Rental Gap Program’s usual $1,250,000 limits on total subsidy for any given project, and on per-unit funding.

A mitigating factor: The HOF usually relies on a $10 million annual allocation, but this year has an extra $1,958,000 from the city, courtesy of a budget amendment shepherded through by O’Connor.

Update budgetary information presented to the Housing Opportunity Fund Advisory Board at its Feb. 4, 2021 meeting, held virtually. (Screenshot)

Updated budgetary information presented to the Housing Opportunity Fund Advisory Board at its Feb. 4, 2021 meeting, held virtually, by Jessica Smith Perry, the Urban Redevelopment Authority's director of residential and commercial lending. (Screenshot)

“This is just such a large increase from the first proposal that I think it’s important for us as a board to discuss parameters related to significant changes in an original application,” said board member Adrienne Walnoha, at the board’s monthly meeting, which was conducted virtually.

Board member Jerome Jackson added that a vote for the increase could be seen by the city as a precedent that it can shunt infrastructure costs on the HOF.

“This was the last resort. We have tried many, many, many different avenues,” said Metropulos. She added that if the increase was not approved this month, the delay would jeopardize other parts of the Flats on Forward financing plan.

Several members noted that this funding comes from the additional city allocation, rather than the HOF’s core $10 million budget. In a voice vote, around seven members approved the added subsidy for Flats on Forward, with four abstentions and zero no votes.

Metropulos said she hopes construction can start “within the next two to three months.”

02/02/2021: Allegheny County, Pittsburgh to team up on rent relief

As eviction filings continue to mount, two big local governments are pooling federal funds in a joint program to help struggling renters.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald jointly announced a plan to muster nearly $36 million to help with rent and utility payments. While the Emergency Rental Assistance Program isn't yet ready to make payments, the county is inviting tenants in need of help to express their interest here.

The funding comes from Pennsylvania's share of a federal rent relief allocation approved late last year. The county has $27 million, the city $8.9 million. Peduto's administration today introduced legislation to Pittsburgh City Council, permitting the city's use of its share in the joint effort, and noting that 10% of the money can be used for administrative costs, housing stability services, case management, and other services, with 90% reserved for direct assistance for tenants.

The city and county plan to partner with ACTION-Housing and the Dollar Energy Fund.

“People all around the Pittsburgh region continue to be hurt by COVID-19 in ways that go far beyond the health catastrophe of the pandemic, as they are stuck at home contending with employment uncertainty, educational worries and emotional distress," Peduto said in a press release.

The plan comes on the heels of 2020 rent relief efforts which ended up helping roughly half of Allegheny County applicants, and just 1/3 statewide.

“In 2020, we were able to help many in our community, but also know that despite our efforts, massive need still exists,” said Fitzgerald, in the press release. The release noted that "learned lessons from the first program will lead to a smoother, more expedient process for applicants."

The release notes that 65% of the federal rent relief allocations must be spent by the end of September, and that the Peduto administration is asking for a quick council vote.

Federal rules governing rent relief aren’t yet finalized, and the state General Assembly is considering legislation that could also affect the program.

While a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order restricts evictions, and a local court order puts hearings on hold, landlords filed 366 new eviction cases last month.

PublicSource and WESA this week launched Tenant Cities, a joint exploration of the COVID-afflicted rental housing market at a time when it shelters a growing portion of the city and county populations.

January recap:

News from the City Planning Commission, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh and more

In limbo no more: New construction to begin on remaining lots of Garden Theater block

The pandemic cost public transit dearly. Will Pittsburgh-area riders return in 2021?

21, 20, 19 … As Pittsburgh counts down to a new year amid the COVID-19 economy, 2020’s development questions await 2021’s answers.

Develop PGH archives

Tenant Cities: Rent relief didn’t get to those who needed it. Will Pennsylvania get it right the second time?

Tenant Cities: Going it alone in Allegheny County

House hunters: How an anti-blight law has become a tool for ambitious landlords in Allegheny County

All on board? Powerful Pittsburgh-area panels are more diverse, but progress is uneven

December development coverage

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.

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