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1/28/21: Housing Authority bolsters synagogue rehab
Last month, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] pledged to be more aggressive and innovative in its efforts to spur affordable housing.
At its first meeting of 2021, HACP’s board provided an early example by increasing its investment in the pending conversion of the former Congregation B’Nai Israel synagogue, in Garfield, into housing.
The stately synagogue, on North Negley Avenue, was most recently an Urban League of Pittsburgh charter school, and is to be converted by a team of developers reportedly including Downtown-based Ralph A. Falbo Inc. and Boston-based Beacon Development. Earlier reports show plans for 45 rental units, and the HACP board resolution indicates that 38 are to be affordable for lower-income households.
The HACP board added to an earlier agreement to invest in the development, bringing its total to $1,095,000, up from $870,000. The new total will support construction of 13 apartments that will be reserved for households earning less than half of the area’s median income.
HACP Chief Development Officer Monique Pierre said investing in private development allows the authority to create more affordable housing “for a cost of $84,000 per unit, which is a fraction of what typically is invested in affordable housing these days.” The authority has, in recent years, spent as much as $400,000 per new affordable apartment.
There was no discussion of the construction timetable at the board’s meeting, conducted virtually. The board approved the investment unanimously.
1/26/21: Transit, pedestrian considerations could justify taller building in Oakland
The impending Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] project linking Downtown and Oakland is a factor in plans to build around 300 new apartments in Central Oakland, the City Planning Commission learned in a briefing.
Developer CA Ventures, of Chicago, wants to demolish a longstanding gas station on Forbes Avenue, between McKee Place and Semple Street. In its place, CA wants to build a 10-story building geared toward young professionals, medical workers and students, with built-in parking and a smattering of retail.
Height matters, because the site is between Central Oakland’s institutional and residential cores. “The site is transitioning from the commercial character of the [Forbes Avenue] buildings I described down to the residential level of McKee and Semple,” said Jay Silverman, managing principal at architecture firm Dwell Design Studio, which has designed the building, during his presentation to the commission.
Buildings in that zone are normally only allowed to be 85’ in height, but if they incorporate sustainability features, they can go to 102’. Part of CA’s pitch for height bonuses is the integration of a BRT stop into the site, along Forbes. Another part is a pedestrian walkway on the opposite end of the building, running between McKee and Semple.
Commissioner Becky Mingo called the plan for a pedestrian walkway “super thoughtful.” She was worried, though, that the design calls for a generator “right in the deepest, darkest corner of the pedestrian experience,” potentially creating a hiding place and compromising safety. The architecture team said they’d take a look at that aspect of the design, before returning to the commission for a public hearing and vote on the plan, in two weeks.
That’s when representatives of the fractious neighborhood can weigh in. CA Ventures’ submission to the commission indicates that it has met with Oakland Planning and Development Corp. and the Oakland Neighborhood Task Force.
1/26/21: Mount Washington developer would tame ‘fierce grass area’
A proposal to convert a former Mt. Washington school into apartments, which had faced tough landscaping questions from the City Planning Commission two weeks ago, won approval following the addition of shrubbery.
Without dissent, the commission approved the conversion of the former Saint Mary’s on the Mount Catholic School, on Grandview Avenue, into 34 apartments. Mindful Grandview LLC, run by Mindful Brewing owner Dustin Jones, plans to rent studios and two-bedroom lofts for around $800 to $1,200 a month.
The commission had concerns, at its Jan. 12 meeting, with the grassy slopes and retaining walls along Grandview and Amabell Street. Commissioner Becky Mingo then called it a “massive concrete wall with just a suburban, cut, fierce grass area.”
Architect Michael Bliss, with WAY Architecture, came prepared. The design now includes a perforated screen where once was a chain-link fence, a lighter stain on the concrete retaining walls, and “a new line of shrubs at the base of the wall” plus “some additional flowering ground cover,” he told the commission.
Mingo thanked him for reconsidering the landscaping prior to the commission’s vote.
1/21/21: Dems on housing working group float bills on evictions, homelessness
State House Democrats outlined a series of proposals meant to address housing insecurity during, and after, the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bills proposed by the House Democratic Housing Working Group would, among other things:
- Place a moratorium on evictions until 60 days after the pandemic-related emergency expires
- Require landlords to create payment plans for tenants that have lost income due to this, or a future, emergency, while barring late fees and creating a mediation program meant to avert evictions
- Allow for the expungement of evictions
- Financial aid mom-and-pop landlords to improve their properties
- Direct aid to students and veterans facing homelessness
- Cut mortgage costs and red tape
- Protect renters’ credit ratings
- Reduce overdue utility bills
- Allow for modifications of mortgages backed by the Pennsylvania
Housing Finance Agency
- Change the rules for renting mobile home lots.
Some of the bills are detailed here.
“To be rendered homeless in the middle of a global health pandemic would be catastrophic for our families and our state,” said Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, during a video press conference. “We know that without housing security and a safe, reliable place to call home, we endanger the lives of our neighbors, of our families, and of public health as a whole.”
Despite federal curbs on evictions, landlords had filed 198 new cases against Allegheny County tenants in the first 19 days of 2021, PublicSource has found through court dockets.
The working group’s bills were spurred by the pandemic, but are part of a bigger push to enshrine housing as a human right, representatives said.
“COVID-19 did not create the housing crisis in America,” said Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Lawrenceville. “This package of bills, again, is an immediate step that we must take,” during an ongoing “fight” for safe, affordable, energy-efficient housing and toward “ending homelessness once and for all across the commonwealth.”
Housing instability is especially prevalent for minority communities and for single-parent families, participants in the press conference said.
“I have seen years and years and years and years of just no sense with housing,” said Carol Hardeman, executive director of the Hill District Consensus Group. “A lot of the public housing complexes in my community and surrounding communities have been shut down. Thousands of Black and Brown people have been displaced.”
Both the state House and Senate have Republican majorities. Fiedler called on Republican leadership to allow the bills to come up for hearings and votes.
1/19/21: Garage banned? Private parking in front of new row houses may become a last resort
A City of Pittsburgh requirement that rowhouse and townhouse developers include off-street parking may soon be replaced by a rule that instead strongly discourages front-of-house garages and driveways for attached homes.
Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration introduced legislation that would compel developers to explore alternatives to the paved front yards that sometimes blend almost seamlessly with city sidewalks and streets.
Under the proposed ordinance, developers of new townhouses and rowhouses would typically have to put driveways and garages behind the units, or on the side, rather than in front.
If that’s not possible, they would be “encouraged” to design parking so multiple units share a single curb cut.
“This change further discourages breaks in the sidewalks in our rowhouse neighborhoods, better ensuring pedestrian safety by creating fewer points where pedestrians and cars intersect, and ensuring that less on-street parking will be privatized for driveways along streets in these neighborhoods,” city Planning Director Andrew Dash said in a press release.
Pittsburgh City Council is expected to refer the legislation to the City Planning Commission for a hearing and a nonbinding vote. It would then come back to council for a final vote.
In June, City Planning Department staff told the commission that the zoning code demands that new townhouse and rowhouse developments include at least one off-street parking space per unit. Later that month, the commission heard from neighborhood advocates who urged the city to eliminate that code requirement.
1/15/21: Froggy’s building owner loses court appeal of city decision preserving former bar
A judge this week nixed a bid to tear down the former Froggy’s building and potentially build a tower on its Firstside site, and the owner said he hasn’t yet decided how to proceed with one of 2020’s most controversial development proposals.
In a decision dated Monday, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Joseph James denied developer Troiani Group’s appeals of city decisions barring demolition of two low-slung brick buildings along Market Street. Both sit within the Firstside National Register Historic District. One of them once housed the iconic watering hole named for bartender Steve “Froggy” Morris.
Troiani Group came before the City Planning Commission in June, asking for authorization to raze the buildings, and saying he planned to clear the way for a 385-foot tower with 150 residences, offices and 300 parking spaces.
Historic preservationists said the buildings should be reused rather than razed. Troiani countered that they couldn’t be salvaged. The commission sided with the preservationists, prompting Troiani’s appeal to court.
In his six-page opinion, James wrote that the commission “found that Troiani did not adequately address the preservation of the historic structures or meet its burden of demonstrating that reuse of the existing buildings was unreasonable or uneconomical.” He added that he declined to “substitute [his own] interpretation of the evidence for that of the local agency.”
Troiani told PublicSource that the decision was “a disappointment of the scale, professionally and personally, that I never expected.” He said he submitted “hundreds of pages of evidence” that the buildings could not be economically reused.
He said his development and legal teams planned to meet promptly to consider next steps.
1/15/21: Public housing authority concerned about impact of eviction moratorium
Hundreds of public housing tenant families have apparently, and mistakenly, concluded that the current partial eviction moratorium is also a rent moratorium, said Allegheny County Housing Authority Executive Director Frank Aggazio, in an interview with PublicSource.
“There are some of our residents who think that the eviction moratorium means they don’t have to pay rent,” he said. Despite low rent payments, some are falling so far behind that they might not be able to catch up, he said.
Aggazio said hundreds of his agency’s tenant households — he did not have a precise number — are now at least several months behind on their payment of rent to the authority. Public housing tenants pay 30% of their incomes in rent, or a minimum of $50 a month. He said that most of the families that have fallen behind include children.
They can stay housed anyway — for now.
Evictions were largely barred in Pennsylvania from mid-March through the end of August. A nationwide Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order restricted, but did not entirely bar, landlords from evicting tenants for failure to pay, effective Sept. 4 and through Jan. 31. U.S. Attorney Scott W. Brady, who handles federal prosecutions in Western Pennsylvania, announced last week that his office is open to tips about landlords who violate the order.
President-elect Joe Biden has proposed extending the moratorium until the end of September.
An Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas emergency order also halts progress on eviction cases through the end of this month.
Aggazio said he was concerned that households will fall so far behind that they won’t be able to catch up and will have to be evicted after moratoriums expire. He added that they will have blemishes on their records that will follow them for years.
“There’s a lot of negative consequences if somebody gets evicted, for the family,” he said. “If you owe another housing authority money, you can’t get back in public housing unless that debt’s paid off. … You might have trouble securing a place to live. You might have trouble trying to get a job when they do a credit check. You might have trouble getting a mortgage some day.”
He noted that federal, state and county authorities are preparing to administer a second round of COVID-driven rental relief and suggested that rules could be written to facilitate use of that program by housing authorities and their tenants. For instance, housing authorities could be permitted to apply for their delinquent tenants en masse, rather than piecemeal.
Aggazio said just 16 of his tenant households used last year’s rental relief program.
During the first two weeks of January, Allegheny County landlords in the county filed 155 new cases that could lead to the ejection of the tenants.
The McKeesport Housing Authority filed six eviction cases on Jan. 14. That agency’s Deputy Executive Director Diane Raible wrote in an email response to PublicSource’s questions that they were all against tenants who had abandoned the units and skipped out on leases.
Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] Executive Director Caster Binion told PublicSource that he doesn’t anticipate a slew of evictions when the curbs are removed.
“We allow people to have payment agreements,” he said, in a December interview. He added that HACP, which provides or funds shelter for some 7,700 households, has partnerships with agencies that can provide tenants with aid to help them cover their portions of the federally subsidized rent. “I do not see a massive exit of residents that are going to be evicted.”
“Now, don’t get twisted — I will evict you [for illegal or improper health and safety related behavior],” Binion said. “But we’re going to have all the resources and partners and everything to assist a person. … Our mission is to provide housing. We will offer them payment plans and we’ll give them every opportunity to be successful in staying in their homes.”
HACP staff confirmed Jan. 15 that Binion’s December comments continue to reflect the agency’s posture on evictions.
1/12/21: Commission tells Grandview loft developer to be mindful of the neighborhood
A brewer who plans to turn an empty Mt. Washington school into 34 reasonably priced apartments should improve the site’s borders with the neighborhood, City Planning Commission members said as they got their first look at the proposed Grandview Lofts plan.
Mindful Grandview LLC, run by Mindful Brewing owner Dustin Jones, plans to convert the former Saint Mary’s on the Mount Catholic School into apartments that will rent for around $800 to $1,200 a month, Jones told the commission. The school has been closed since 2012.
The site is at the intersection of Grandview Avenue and Bigham Street, and also borders Amabell Street. It would preserve much of the school’s exterior and interior structure, and would feature a rooftop deck with a stunning view of Downtown.
Commissioners had concerns with the stark retaining walls and fences planned for the flanks along Grandview and Amabell.
“It just looks very like an old Catholic school, still. It doesn’t look like a cool, hip loft,” said Commissioner Becky Mingo. “It’s very much this massive concrete wall with just a suburban, cut, fierce grass area.”
“Having it just be a wall and a fence that looks like the neighborhood is unsafe is maybe not the image you want to communicate,” added commission Chair Christine Mondor. She asked designer Gregory Newman to take the concerns back to Jones.
Jones virtually attended the meeting, which was conducted by Zoom, but did not say anything about the landscaping concerns. The commission is expected to vote on the plan Jan 26.
Correction: Designer Gregory Newman’s profession was mischaracterized in an earlier version of this bulletin.
1/12/21: Target hits mark with window plans
The famous Kaufmann’s windows along Downtown’s Smithfield Street, long known for their Christmas displays, will be replaced with bigger ones that allow passersby to see into the coming Target department store, according to a plan approved by the City Planning Commission.
The large main panes have historically been transparent, but have not offered views of the interior, while smaller upper panes have been opaque.
Target plans to make them all transparent or translucent, which Target architect Doug Bartolomeo characterized as “spreading a little bit of Target brand and Kaufmann’s brand and the building’s brand across our new storefront.”
“Bravo for giving us view and sight both in and out of the building,” said commission Chair Christine Mondor.
Target has said construction on its 20,000-square-foot store could start this month.
“We feel that the revitalization of this building, which has sat empty for some time and holds such an important part in the history of Pittsburgh, is really big step forward” for Downtown, said architect Ryan Croyle, of Desmone Architects, who is working with Target.
1/4/2021: With hundreds of eviction hearings pending locally, lawmakers call for new moratorium
With a federal curb on evictions now set to expire at the end of this month, Democrats in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly are urging a more complete state moratorium that would bar forced dislocations through at least April.
A quartet of state lawmakers announced Monday that they were introducing legislation that would bar evictions and foreclosures until 60 days after the expiration of the state disaster declaration, which currently runs through February. That declaration does not bar evictions. The lawmakers said they want a new eviction moratorium to extend a few months beyond the end of the pandemic emergency, to allow for a gradual return to normalcy.
One of the four, Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Lawrenceville, said that evictions cause “unspeakable pain” for families, including those with children, and should not happen during an epidemic that has compromised peoples’ incomes and threatened their health.
“More and more families were living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic,” she said, “and now millions of them find themselves without that paycheck.” She cited research suggesting that, at a time when transience could contribute to the spread of COVID-19, every 60 evictions can spur one additional death. “It is a public health issue, and we need to take action as a legislature” to reduce it, she said.
She was joined by state Sen. Vincent Hughes and senator-elect Nikil Saval, and state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, all Philadelphia Democrats. They said they were distributing memos seeking cosponsors in both chambers, and were hopeful that they would be joined by some of the majority Republicans.
There was no immediate response to PublicSource’s inquiries to spokespersons for the Republican caucuses.
The Democrats said they had heard from landlords concerned about the effects of a ban, and believed that a combination of an eviction moratorium and an effective statewide rental assistance program would serve both sides of the rental housing equation. They said the federal government is sending the state $852 million that it can use for rental assistance and related services.
“The majority of landlords are small, mom and pop businesses,” said Innamorato. She worried that ineffective rental assistance could force some landlords to sell their holdings to large, corporate landlords. “I, for one, do not want that in my neighborhoods.”
Evictions were largely barred from mid-March through the end of August. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order restricted, but did not ban, evictions nationwide starting Sept. 4. An Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas emergency order also halts progress on some eviction cases through the end of this week.
As a result, evictions have continued, though at a lower level than was seen prior to the pandemic.
Foreclosures likewise remain far below historic norms.
In a separate interview, Anne Wright, a researcher with Carnegie Mellon University’s Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment [CREATE] Lab researcher, told PublicSource that there are now 469 hearings in landlord-tenant cases scheduled for next week before district judges in Allegheny County.
She called those hearings, which are typically held in-person, a potential “superspreader event” that could facilitate the spread of COVID-19.
Wright said some district judges are still issuing orders of possession, which allow the landlord to have the tenant forcibly removed from a property.
CREATE Lab has been working with a network of advocates and attorneys to help families facing eviction.
1/4/2021: Construction permitting down, but not out, in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh saw a dip last year in construction permit activity, apparently driven by the eight-week pause in the construction season that followed COVID-19’s mid-March arrival in the region, according to Sarah Kinter, the city’s director of Permits, Licenses and Inspections [PLI].
“Overall, we’re seeing a really strong construction market,” said Kinter, in an interview with PublicSource. She added that PLI responded to the pandemic by eliminating paper applications, and the all-electronic process and chat function available at the city’s permitting website have streamlined her department’s processes.
The city issues building permits, plus permits for electrical, mechanical, fire alarm, demolition and other types of work.
Overall, the city issued 9,107 permits last year, down nearly 12% from 2019 levels, she said. Commercial permit approvals were down 13%, while residential permit approvals dipped 11%, she said.
A measure of proposed construction activity is permit applications, some of which are never approved. Those were down nearly 15% from 2019 levels. A 24% plunge in commercial building permit applications which was partially offset by very stable residential building permit requests.
Kinter said some people apparently filed residential permit applications in hopes of improving their home-offices, but then abandoned those bids because they couldn’t find contractors with capacity.
She said that in 2020, her staff had to shift gears repeatedly, from enforcing a ban on construction in early spring to addressing a surge in late spring, while doing more work remotely.
She said the department expects “a spike” when the economy’s health rebounds.
Will her department be able to handle a spike? The city’s COVID-driven budget crunch has prevented PLI from filling two construction inspector positions and an application technician post, she said, and prevented some back office hires. If the federal government does not aid cities, she said, “there are some additional cuts we’d have to consider as of July 1, 2021, and those would really be harmful to our operations.” She had not yet mapped out the potential cuts.
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Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @richelord.
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