March 2021 Develop PGH Bulletins: ‘Hostile takeover’ or ‘best practice’? Attorney explains massive North Side conservatorship bid

Below: Grant to plan in Fineview could bring major public housing changes

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A map showing the area in which October Development is seeking to take on conservatorship of 97 properties, taken from the company's petition filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

A map showing the area in which October Development is seeking to take on conservatorship of 97 properties, taken from the company's petition filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

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03/30/21: Attorney explains bid for conservatorship of 97 properties

A former City of Pittsburgh attorney who has filed an ambitious conservatorship petition said that it was driven by a developer’s desire to improve a neglected part of the North Side amid slow progress by a community group and government officials.

Dan Friedson, who was an assistant city solicitor from 2014 through late 2019, filed a March 5 petition on behalf of East Allegheny-based October Development, seeking conservatorship over 97 properties in and around that neighborhood.

Of the properties, 29 are owned by the city, two by the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA], eight by the Community Association of Spring Garden and East Deutschtown [CASGED] and the rest by an assortment of individuals and apparent businesses or nonprofit entities.

Conservatorship, created by the General Assembly in 2008 to help fight blight, allows for the court-monitored takeover of abandoned buildings by a responsible steward, called the conservator. It can also lead to the eventual transfer of the property to the conservator or to an entity allied with the conservator. It has become a tool both for community groups and developers.

The October Development petition appears to be unique in Allegheny County in terms of the large number of properties sought. Friedson told PublicSource that the scope would allow October Development to apply economies of scale to its coming effort to stabilize the houses and return them to habitable condition. He said that multi-property conservatorships should be considered “a best practice.”

“Because when you go one at a time,” he said, “... it’s impossible. … Guess where the raccoons and the rats and the mice go? To the next abandoned house on the block.” October Development, he said, can fix an entire block of abandoned houses more efficiently than eight separate entities could.

Both CASGED and Mayor Bill Peduto’s office declined comment, citing the pending litigation. 

The petition has upset some in the neighborhood, said Leeann Younger, of East Allegheny, who is the pastor of the Cityview Church. She is not a member of CASGED’s board, and neither she, nor her church members, are involved in the litigation, she said.

“Filing to take over 100 properties at one time, in this manner, feels like a hostile takeover,” Younger told PublicSource. “There may be some that need some work, but it’s not 100 parcels of uncared-for land.”

She said she attends CASGED meetings and believes the group is trying to put together a plan to redevelop vacant properties. “It’s just not moving at the speed or at the economic profit-making impact that October Development is seeking,” she said.

Friedson said that abandoned property sits too long in the hands of the city, the URA and community development groups.

He said October Development would be happy to work with the private owners whose properties are listed in the petition, if they have plans to rehabilitate them.

So far, neither the city nor CASGED have filed answers to the petition. Six of the involved private owners for whose properties October Development seeks conservatorship have filed answers. They make a range of arguments, including:

  • That some of the properties are not blighted, and thus aren’t eligible for conservatorship
  • That some house tenants
  • That one is an owner-occupied house
  • That some are the subjects of rehabilitation plans
  • That some are the subjects of other conservatorship filings
  • That some are vacant lots, or are used for parking
  • That state law does not permit such a sprawling conservatorship bid.

Last week state legislators from the Democratic caucus held a policy hearing to discuss ways in which the conservatorship law could be modified to curb abuses.

3/25/21: Bigger apartments, rehabbed houses could be part of Choice Neighborhoods plan

A virtual kick-off meeting for a bid to redo the Allegheny Dwellings public housing community, and improve surrounding neighborhoods, brought out a wide range of options for the aging and isolated 175-apartment complex.

“We're looking for ways to rightsize and make it proportional for meeting the needs" of residents, said Monique Pierre, chief development officer for the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP], which is one of the partners in a bid for federal funds. "It may be expanded.”

The Fineview Citizens Council, whose territory includes Allegheny Dwellings, teamed up with that community's tenant council and the HACP in a successful bid for a $450,000 planning grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]. If the plan that emerges from two years of meetings meets HUD's approval, it could mean a $30 million grant to redo Allegheny Dwellings, plus add social services and improvements to the broader area.

Along with the public housing complex, the area subject to the planning process includes Fineview, Perry Hilltop, California-Kirkbride and the Charles Street Valley — neighborhoods in which gentrification is a concern, and where some advocates have pushed for home ownership opportunities.

A map of the proposed Allegheny Dwellings Choice Neighborhoods zone, posted by the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh on its website.

A map of the proposed Allegheny Dwellings Choice Neighborhoods zone, posted by the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh on its website.

Allegheny Dwellings now includes 157 units with just one bedroom each, and another 18 units with two bedrooms. That's in spite of the presence of more than 120 children.

That could warrant creation of two- and three-bedroom units, noted Christina Mortensen, a HUD neighborhood specialist who participated in the meeting.

The site's steep slopes creates some challenges. But HUD neighborhood specialist Unisa Barrie seized on the fact that the Fineview Citizens Council has recently rehabilitated vacant houses, turning them into affordable rentals.

"That can be part of your strategy," Barrie said. "You are going to be forced to look at where to rehab, where it is best to do demolition and new construction.”

HACP Executive Director Caster Binion said he was open to many options.

“Do we integrate rehab and scattered sites?" Binion asked, rhetorically. "Do we build small complexes? In a couple of months, we’re going to be looking at that.”

Allegheny Dwellings residents asked questions and made comments not only about unit sizes, but also about accommodating seniors in redevelopment, combating drug crime and whether HACP plans to fill the 20 vacancies in the complex in the interim. (It does.)

Those who spoke seemed to want to stay in the complex, or to return following rehabilitation. They reiterated that they want to remain involved in the process.

“We’re going to make sure that we are the ones that are going to have, not just a say-so, but that we are included in everything that is going to happen," said Cheryl Gainey, the tenant council's president, who also sits on the HACP board.

3/25/21: Consultant to work on Section 8 program

The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] will pay a consultant to work toward “streamlined, efficient operations” in a Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) program that has, in recent years, been unable to address the needs of thousands of families.

The HACP board approved a one-year contract of $270,400 with CVR Associates, which is asked to “eliminate errors [and] inefficiencies and increase productivity” in the program.

Marsha Grayson, the authority’s chief operations officer, said CVR can “assist us to get where we need to be and to keep ahead of the goals that we’ve established for the department.”

In December, HACP Executive Director Caster Binion told PublicSource that he was "throwing everything against the wall" to add affordable housing in the city, including efforts to attract more landlords to the voucher program. Late last year, there were 7,140 households on waiting lists for vouchers, while 5,486 city households had vouchers.

The authority has a long history of working with Tampa-based CVR, which specializes in affordable housing.

3/23/21: Commissioners scrutinize Pitt’s sloping sidewalks, outdoor spaces

University of Pittsburgh development officials may need to see Oakland from the pedestrian perspective if they want City Planning Commission approval for their expansion plans.

Pitt’s proposed new institutional master plan would cover the next decade of growth, during which the university projects a 5% to 10% increase in student population. The commission heard the third of four planned briefings on the plan.

The parts of the plan presented to the commission in this briefing include 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.

Commissioners said they were concerned with the potential narrowing of sidewalks that could accompany some expansions, and were especially interested in seeing improvements to pedestrian infrastructure in the medical district which Pitt shares with UPMC.

Commissioner Becky Mingo suggested that the plan gives Pitt an opportunity for “fixing some of these very difficult sidewalk crossing public realm things that are not working super well right now.” She noted “unbelievably steep” streets northwest of Fifth Avenue, with some — but not nearly all — buildings connected by pedestrian bridges.

“I think there is something to be said for expanding that existing network of bridges and things” through the medical district, said Owen Cooks, Pitt's assistant vice chancellor for planning, design and construction. “Obviously we’ll have to work with our partners at UPMC.”

Commission Chair Christine Mondor suggested development of covered, outdoor “respite zones” adjacent to sidewalks, especially for people pushing wheelchairs or strollers, along steep sidewalks. Cooks pledged to explore that with his team.

Map showing areas of the University of Pittsburgh campus about which Pitt officials briefed the City Planning Commission on March 23, 2021.

Map showing areas of the University of Pittsburgh campus about which Pitt officials briefed the City Planning Commission on March 23, 2021.

Mingo said she was concerned that the building expansions, taken together, threatened the campus’ outdoor public space. “Is there a plan to put back public space somewhere else?” she asked. “Right now, it feels like there’s a net loss of outdoor space in this plan.”

Cooks said the university doesn’t contemplate “one-for-one” replacement of outdoor space. “But quality of open space is also a meaningful measure,” he said. Pitt is looking at improving some green space, including slopes that are overrun with invasive species, he said.

Pitt’s final briefing is set for April 6 and a commission hearing and vote could occur on April 20.

3/23/21: Oakland apartment plan wins approval after deal with Family House

A proposal to build a new 10-story apartment building on Forbes Avenue in Oakland got the City Planning Commission’s OK after the developer made concessions to Family House, which owns an adjacent property.

Chicago-based CA Ventures wants to build some 300 apartments on the site of a former gas station at 3500 Forbes Avenue. But on Feb. 23, the commission withheld its approval, largely because of objections from Family House, which plans to build next door.

Family House accommodates people with medical needs and their families when they need to be close to the Oakland hospitals. Executives with the nonprofit feared that their planned new building would be overwhelmed by the larger apartment structure, and that their guests could be bothered by students moving through a pedestrian walkway.

An artist's rendering of a 10-story apartment building proposed for Forbes Avenue, submitted by CA Ventures and Dwell Design Studies to the City Planning Commission on Jan. 26, 2021.

An artist's rendering of a 10-story apartment building proposed for Forbes Avenue, submitted by CA Ventures and Dwell Design Studies to the City Planning Commission on Jan. 26, 2021.

Attorney Kevin McKeegan, representing CA Ventures, said the firm had reached an agreement with Family House. CA will reduce the height of a rear portion of the building by 20 feet, plus share some parking spaces and the pedestrian walkway with Family House, he said. A Family House attorney confirmed the agreement. McKeegan said some terms would not be put on the public record.

The commission approved the plan without dissent. The development team did not say when construction could begin.

3/16/21: Penguins detail $34 million in investments in Hill District

Following a lengthy community meeting Monday night, the Penguins’ development team released a list of the investments they’re willing to make in the Hill District, if their plan for a 26-story bank tower gets community support, wins city approval and doesn’t face court challenges.

The Penguins-affiliated Pittsburgh Arena Real Estate Development [PAR] and its chosen developer Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG] plan to go before the City Planning Commission to seek approval to build First National Bank’s new headquarters tower, plus around 3.5 acres of terraced open space. The FNB tower and the greenspace would occupy the part of the 28 acre site of the former Civic Arena that is closest to Downtown, adjacent to the Cap Park which is currently under construction.

Vaki Mawema, a managing director and principal at the design firm Gensler, shares a rendering of the proposed Lower Hill District redevelopment during a Development Activities Meeting on March 15, 2021. (Screenshot)

Vaki Mawema, a managing director and principal at the design firm Gensler, shares a rendering of the proposed Lower Hill District redevelopment during a Development Activities Meeting on March 15, 2021. (Screenshot)

The Monday night Development Activities Meeting, conducted by the Hill Community Development Corp.,  was a required step before seeking City Planning Commission consideration. The Hill CDC has said that PAR hasn’t done enough to satisfy pledges made in a 2014 agreement called the Community Collaboration Implementation Plan. That plan sets out seven areas of investment, ranging from cultural preservation to minority- and women-owned business enterprise [M/WBE] inclusion.

At the meeting, BPG attempted to answer that concern by referring to a new 27-page term sheet that it had proffered to the Hill CDC on March 12. After the meeting, Penguins’ Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kevin Acklin released the term sheet.

It lists around $34 million in proposed, ongoing or completed investments in the Hill associated with the FNB tower, plus a shorter list totaling $13.5 million financed via another part of the site, on which a Live Nation concert venue is slated to be built.

Here’s what the term sheet promises in relation to the FNB site:

Planned investments:

  • $7.5 million for the Greater Hill District Reinvestment Fund, to be paid up front and via a loan from FNB, which will be repaid with half of the windfall from a tax abatement, and for which the development team will pay the closing costs of roughly $250,000
  • $3 million, estimated, for housing investments throughout the Hill, financed from diverted parking taxes
  • $2.5 million estimated value of 3.5 acres of public space
  • $2.1 million on M/WBEs, reflecting some “30% MBE and 15% WBE participation in project”
  • $500,000 for kiosks for small M/WBEs, to be included in the public space near the FNB tower
  • $400,000 for unspecified projects that FNB and/or the Urban Redevelopment Authority are underwriting in the Hill
  • $25,000 to cover grant writing services to help the Hill CDC to fund improvements along the Centre Avenue Corridor.

Ongoing investments:

  • $17 million by FNB in the Hill, including loans and grants for the Centre Avenue YMCA, plus loans unspecified loans and tax credit investments
  • $250,000 on establishment, with Partner4Work, of a hiring center, plus provision of building trades training and connections for residents to jobs in building services and hospitality within the development
  • $50,000 or more in Riverside Center for Innovation to help M/WBEs to expand.

Completed investments:

  • $525,000 in recent donations by FNB to Hill organizations
  • $100,000, by FNB, into the Hill District Federal Credit Union.

The term sheet also touts a central selling point of the project: its aim to extend Wylie Avenue through the site, creating “an important visual, pedestrian, cultural and commercial connector” between the Hill and Downtown.

Map showing proposed activity on various "blocks" of the site of the former Civic Arena, presented by Hill CDC President and CEO Marimba Milliones at a community meeting on March 15, 2021. (Screenshot)

Map showing proposed activity on various "blocks" of the site of the former Civic Arena, presented by Hill CDC President and CEO Marimba Milliones at a community meeting on March 15, 2021. (Screenshot)

The investments related to the concert venue site include $4.2 million for the Greater Hill Reinvestment Fund, another $2.5 million worth of greenspace, $1.6 million for a minority business incubator, $1.2 million for a medic station, $1 million for public art and $100,000 for the Ammon Recreation Center.

Hill CDC leaders did not have immediate comment on the term sheet.

3/15/21: Meeting with Hill goes into overtime, but game not over for Penguins’ developers 

The Penguins' development team asked for the Hill District's support for a proposed new First National Bank tower and nearby open space on the former Civic Arena site. But the plan ran into skepticism from Hill leaders and residents in a meeting ahead of a key approval vote.

A team led by the Penguins-affiliated Pittsburgh Arena Real Estate Development [PAR] and their chosen developer Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG] painted a picture of shimmering glass and inviting greenspace near the Hill's border with Downtown, which they said would knit the neighborhoods back together for the good of all.

“We’re incredibly proud of the project itself and the impact it will have on the surrounding community and the City of Pittsburgh, and its chance to repair broken connections," said Chris Buccini, co-president of BPG.

The team emphasized a design which would extend a freshly landscaped Wylie Avenue through the 28 acres once occupied by the arena, pledging to use it to transform the entire Hill.

Peter Stubb, a principal at design firm Gensler, shares with Hill District leaders and residents a map of plans for the redevelopment of the former Civic Arena site, in a Development Activities Meeting on March 15, 2021. (Screenshot)

Peter Stubb, a principal at design firm Gensler, shares with Hill District leaders and residents a map of plans for the redevelopment of the former Civic Arena site, in a Development Activities Meeting on March 15, 2021. (Screenshot)

“No project in the Lower Hill will be successful unless the entire Hill is successful," said Amachie Ackah, founder of Clay Cove Capital, one of the investors in the development. “We want to engage the entire community, and with that we’re only going to have a deeper and richer project.”

A virtual audience that approached 200 on Zoom, and likely others watching on Facebook and YouTube, pressed hard for specifics on both the process and the payoff for the community. They did not get many specifics, though some lie within a 27-page proposed term sheet the development team provided to the Hill Community Development Corporation on Friday.

The proposed terms were not detailed in the meeting. Hill CDC President and CEO Marimba Milliones said Hill organizations need time to review the term sheet.

“We want to see development, too, but it’s got to be right," she said. “It is time for us to go to work. But if we don’t have the proper accountability in place, we will think we are going to work, but we will not be going to work.”

Buccini and his team closed the meeting by teasing a few items from the term sheet, including $400,000 in grants for small businesses, $6 million to $7 million in investments in open space, diversion of half of new tax revenue to Hill redevelopment, and minority- and women-owned business contracts of $5 million and counting.

The Penguins asked for the evening Development Activities Meeting [DAM], which is a required precursor to any effort to get City Planning Commission approval. Felicity Williams, the Hill CDC's programs and policy manager, said PAR plans to seek commission approval for their plan for FNB's proposed 26-story tower and nearby terraced open space.

As the area's registered community organization, the Hill CDC was required to conduct the DAM upon PAR’s request. But Milliones noted that the team's plans have been given grades of E and F in the Hill's longstanding Development Review Panel process, which scores them against their compliance with the neighborhood's master plan and a seven-year-old community benefits agreement.

Buccini said that the timing is driven in part by the desire to take ownership of the land, from the current public sector owners, and start building in time for FNB to move in before its existing leases expire.

Kaiya Price-Dennis, a resident participant in the meeting, called for "real dollars that will change lives, that will improve communities," demanding "a contract that can be backed in a court of law. ... Put pen to paper. Sign a contract. Put dollars behind the contract."

Buccini said there’s “only so much that we can do, financially, to make this work," adding that the term sheet lays all of that out. "We’re ready to countersign that tonight.”

The Hill has been a subject of intense debate for well over half a century, and the latest chapter has gone on for seven years.

In 2014, PAR, the Hill CDC, Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald signed the Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan [CCIP], detailing the process of sharing the benefits across seven categories:

  • Minority- and women-owned business enterprise inclusion
  • Job creation, local inclusion and workforce development
  • Inclusionary home ownership and housing
  • Communications, reporting and tracking of progress
  • Wealth building
  • Cultural and community legacy preservation
  • Coordinated community development.

In May 2020, the Urban Redevelopment Authority board balked at providing initial approval for the FNB tower, citing community concerns with the pace of progress on the community benefits. The Penguins then announced that they would cease development operations. Within a week, the URA and the team reached agreement to tentatively move ahead on the bank tower.

Neighborhood leaders were again upset last month when they learned of a decision by the U.S. Census Bureau to adjust census tract lines. The change includes the development site in a Hill District census tract, rather than Downtown’s tract. The move allows the site to receive tax-deferred Opportunity Zone investments, but Hill CDC leaders are concerned that it could jeopardize neighborhood access to other funding.

That boundary change prompted the Hill's development panel to "raise the bar" and, as a result, lower the team's grades in the DRP process from C and D to E and F.

The meeting, originally set to run from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., was ongoing at 9 p.m.

3/11/21: Program touted by Peduto draws scrutiny from URA board

A home ownership and rehab plan touted on Wednesday by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto faced tough questions from the mayor-appointed Urban Redevelopment Authority board Thursday, but cleared a first procedural hurdle.

In the just-announced OwnPGH plan, Peduto’s administration wants the URA to borrow $22 million, via a bond issue, and work with banks to offer competitive loans to would-be owner occupants of houses in the city. The URA would also use $4 million it already has on hand to offer second mortgages, at no interest and with deferred repayment terms, of as much as $40,000 each to the same buyers, for use in rehabilitating the houses.

The program could help to put some 100 vacant houses into the hands of owner-occupants who might not otherwise be able to buy them, URA staff told the board at its monthly meeting.

URA staff asked the board to allow the agency to approve the $22 million bond borrowing, in principle. That would allow the URA to go to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency [PHFA], next month, to get approval to incur tax-free bond debt.

The board asked questions after URA staff shared very preliminary guidelines for the eventual loans. Among the details:

  • While the loans will be available citywide, the terms will be different in “targeted” versus “non-targeted” areas of the city, based on economic characteristics of the areas.
  • In lower-income, targeted areas, the loans could be made available to families of three or more people with household incomes of as much as $116,200, or smaller families with incomes as high as $99,600.
  • In non-targeted areas, the limits could be set as high as $95,450 for families of three or more, and $83,000 for smaller families.
  • Because of federal rules, borrowers would need credit scores of 660 or above.
A map showing areas that would be targeted (gold), versus non-targeted (grey), in Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto's Own PGH plan for financing home ownership and rehab, presented to the Urban Redevelopment Authority board in a meeting conducted via Zoom on March 11, 2021. (Screenshot)

A map showing areas that would be targeted (gold), versus non-targeted (grey), in Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto's Own PGH plan for financing home ownership and rehab, presented to the Urban Redevelopment Authority board in a meeting conducted via Zoom on March 11, 2021. (Screenshot)

Board member Jodi Hirsh said that in light of those rules, she wanted to “ensure this doesn’t become a tool that gentrifiers can use. … It’s something I’m deeply concerned about.”

Board member Ed Gainey, who is also a state representative and a challenger to Peduto in the Democratic mayoral primary, said a lot of residents of struggling neighborhoods “don’t see themselves invested in this program at this point in time.”

Gainey joined other board members in saying that the program should be structured to help address the gap in home ownership rates between Black and white Pittsburghers. Depending on the final guidelines, the program “could say ... whether we’re going forward or backwards” in addressing that disparity, he said.

Even Lindsay Powell, a board member who is also an assistant chief of staff to the mayor, said she has “a lot of concerns about this program.” She said that many abandoned houses in the city require more than $40,000 to be made livable. “How do we bring them back to usefulness and restore them?”

Lindsay Powell, a member of the Urban Redevelopment Authority board and key city hall staffer. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource0

Lindsay Powell, a member of the Urban Redevelopment Authority board and key city hall staffer. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource0

“I think we all recognize that this [program] is a single, this is not a home run,” said Greg Flisram, the URA’s executive director. The agency and city, he added, will need to “scale this up to the point where we can actually make more than just a dent in the problem.”

URA staff told the board that before any program rules are final and any money is borrowed, there will be a multi-month process and further board votes. Only after multiple board approvals would the agency borrow the money, possibly this summer.

The board voted unanimously to give its initial approval to the concept, allowing the URA to seek PHFA’s approval to incur debt.

3/11/21: URA board backs blight-to-rent-to-own plan in Garfield

Thirty lots in Garfield that are now either vacant or include abandoned houses will eventually become the sites of 25 new rental homes – and may eventually be owner-occupied – under a plan approved by the Urban Redevelopment Authority board.

Map of lots envisioned for new homes in Garfield, presented at the Urban Redevelopment Authority's March 11, 2021 board meeting, via Zoom. (Screenshot)

Map of lots envisioned for new homes in Garfield, presented at the Urban Redevelopment Authority's March 11, 2021 board meeting, via Zoom. (Screenshot)

The board voted to approve a $1.25 million loan from the Housing Opportunity Fund Rental Gap Program to a development team made up of the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation [BGC] and Gatesburg Road Development. That loan becomes part of a $9.4 million package – mostly low-income housing tax credits – that will cover purchase of the publicly owned properties and construction. 

Garfield is “being buffeted by market-rate activity that obviously we cannot control,” said Rick Swartz, the BGC’s executive director. The new homes will help to retain a mix of incomes and a balance of rental and home ownership in the community, he said, as well as “recycling a lot of city-owned property.”

To be eligible, would-be renters must have incomes well below area median incomes, and roughly half of the units will be reserved for households that are otherwise homeless or have special needs. When the new houses turn 16 years old, the tenants will have the opportunity to buy them at affordable prices, he added. They will not be obligated to buy.

The houses could be completed by late next year.

3/11/21: Allegheny County to take applications for second round of rent relief starting Monday

Tenants and landlords in Allegheny County who are waiting to apply for government help with rent payments can start submitting applications Monday, officials said in an interview with PublicSource and WESA.

The nearly $80 million program promises to be more streamlined than last year’s rent relief effort, according to Erin Dalton, director of the county’s Department of Human Services. “We’re staffed up to run the program from the beginning knowing this is a very large program,” she said.

Erin Dalton, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. (Courtesy of Allegheny County)

Erin Dalton, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. (Courtesy of Allegheny County)

Applications will be taken, starting at 8 a.m. Monday, via this web page. The county has, until now, used that page to collect contact information from people interested in the program, and around 3,000 have signed up for notifications.

Unlike last year’s rent relief bid, there is no limit on the monthly aid, which can cover rent and utility bills that are overdue and coming due. There is a monthly cap of 12 months of aid, but that can be extended in some cases to 15 months. Payments will generally go to landlords and utilities, but if those entities are not cooperative then payments can go directly to tenants. Tenants can self-certify that their circumstances have been worsened by COVID-19, and won’t have to provide the kind of documentation required last year.

The application process should be easier this time, with the creation of a web interface that allows tenants to create accounts to which they can return in order to submit more documentation, if that’s needed, according to county officials.

County officials were unable to provide a firm deadline for receipt of applications, saying that was subject to legislation still moving in Washington, D.C. They also declined to estimate the time it will take to start issuing payments, noting that could be affected by the volume of applications.

Last year the county attempted to run its own rent relief program alongside of one run by the state. While the state set a per-tenant maximum of $750 a month in relief, the county doubled that to $1,500, and added as much as $200 in utility aid. The county and contractor ACTION-Housing tried to direct applications to one program or the other according to need.

By early November, though, the county had accepted less than 11% of its applications, PublicSource and WESA discovered while reporting their joint series, Tenant Cities. The county eventually stopped trying to route tenants through the state program, relying solely on the county’s federal aid allocation. By January, with the application process closed, the county had granted $14.7 million to 3,623 households. That reflected 48% of the 7,572 applicants.

People who received rent relief last time, or were denied it, can try for aid this time, too, but must reapply.

This time around the federal government is allocating nearly $850 million to Pennsylvania. Of that, $27 million of that is slated for Allegheny County, $8.9 million to the City of Pittsburgh, and the state is contributing another $43 million from its allocation to the county. The county and city decided to pool their resources into a single program.

While the federal government, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, and City of Pittsburgh government have curbed evictions during the pandemic, some landlords continue to file such cases against tenants. PublicSource and WESA today reported on The Alden South Hills apartment complex, at which the landlord filed 37 eviction cases in January and February.

Dalton says the county has liaisons with the district judges who hear eviction cases, and is distributing information about the rent relief program in coordination with those offices.

The county is also funding seven drop-in centers at which people can get help applying for rent relief, and has created an online tool kit that organizations can use to get the word out about the program.

 

3/10/21: OwnPGH plan could spend $22 million to boost home ownership

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto announced a $22 million plan to fund home ownership and home rehab programs via the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA].

In a press release following a press conference, Peduto’s administration described the plan, called OwnPGH, to offer would-be owner occupants of homes loans at “competitive interest rates.” 

If the URA’s board approves the plan, potentially at its meeting tomorrow, that agency will borrow $22 million that it can then use to issue loans. It would pay off the debt using borrower repayments.

The URA would also lend as much as $4 million of the money as second mortgages with deferred repayment terms to borrowers who want to rehabilitate homes. Individual borrowers would be eligible for as much as $40,000, or 20% of the property purchase price, whichever is less. 

“Cumulatively these efforts of OwnPGH will not only get vacant homes and lots back onto tax rolls, but improve neighborhood quality of life and help Pittsburghers accomplish the dream of home ownership,” Peduto said in the press release.

A for-sale sign hang on the front porch of a home at 223 Robinson St. in West Oakland. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

A for-sale sign hangs on the front porch of a home at 223 Robinson St. in West Oakland. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The administration also announced attempts to revive the moribund Pittsburgh Land Bank, charged with putting abandoned, publicly owned properties into private hands. Diamonte Walker, deputy director of the URA, will also become the land bank’s executive director. Greg Miller, now a senior urban designer for the New York City Department of City Planning, will become its manager.

3/9/21: Chatham’s expansion plan meets resistance, but advances, with conditions

Chatham University’s 10-year expansion plan cleared the City Planning Commission, but with conditions spurred by neighbors worried about traffic, parking and transparency.

Chatham’s proposed new institutional master plan calls for the addition, over a decade, of around 240 new dorm beds, plus classrooms, labs and athletic facilities meant to accommodate 10% growth in the Squirrel Hill North campus – but just 11 more parking spaces. That’s in synch with the city’s drive toward less parking and more cycling, walking and transit. But neighbors are worried that students will end up parking on adjacent streets.

An artist's rendering of Chatham University's campus, presented to the City Planning Commission on Feb. 9, 2021.

An artist's rendering of Chatham University's campus, presented to the City Planning Commission on Feb. 9, 2021.

“We are already having difficulty parking in front of our own houses,” said Deborah Zuroski, one of eight residents of Murray Hill Avenue who testified at the commission’s hearing. “We will be walking a block and a half with our groceries.”

Vanessa Spiro, also of Murray Hill, called her street “a beautiful, historic, meandering road” that risks “being turned into an off-ramp for the school.”

Chatham owns three houses and several vacant lots on Murray Hill, and two of the five entrances to the campus come off of the short avenue between Fifth Avenue and Wilkins Avenue. Residents complained that they had not gotten a meeting about the plan with Chatham officials until the night before the planning commission hearing. Chatham’s development team answered that there had been public meetings before the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition and the Shadyside Action Coalition.

Urged by residents to delay their vote, commission Chair Christine Mondor said there was “a lot to like in this plan,” and instead led the panel to approve it – with conditions. The commission stipulated that the university must meet with Murray Hill residents and discuss traffic patterns, the futures of the Chatham-owned houses on the street and the creation or maintenance of buffers between the campus and its neighbors.

With that condition, and the unanimous approval of the commission, Chatham’s plan goes to Pittsburgh City Council for final consideration.

3/9/21: Commission considers making Lawrenceville development rule permanent

A pilot inclusionary zoning program has spurred the development of 40 affordable homes in Lawrenceville, according to Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning, which is asking the City Planning Commission to consider making the program permanent.

City Planning Commission member Sabina Deitrick, upper right, asks questions about a slide presented by the Department of City Planning showing 40 affordable homes developed in Lawrenceville, in a commission meeting on March 9, 2021. (Screenshot)

City Planning Commission member Sabina Deitrick, upper right, asks questions about a slide presented by the Department of City Planning showing 40 affordable homes developed in Lawrenceville, in a commission meeting on March 9, 2021. (Screenshot)

Inclusionary zoning is a set of rules that compel developers to make some new apartments or for-sale homes affordable, if they want to price the rest at market rates. In 2019, the city required that developers who want to build 20 or more houses or apartments in fast-growing Lawrenceville ensure that 10% of them are affordable to households with modest incomes.

Originally an 18-month program, inclusionary zoning was extended in January through July 25. If the commission and Pittsburgh City Council both vote to make it permanent, the city can also later consider extending the practice to other neighborhoods, said City Planner Christopher Corbett.

The commission expects to hold an April 6 public hearing, and then vote on whether to make the Lawrenceville program permanent. 

Commissioner Sabina Deitrick said she’d like some more data before voting. “How many units did we think were going to happen during this phase?” she asked planning department staff, during the commission’s biweekly meeting. She also asked to know, “what’s in the pipeline.”

If the commission approves, council could follow with a vote in May or June.

3/9/21: Commission says yes to affordable apartments in East Liberty

The City Planning Commission voted to approve a 42-unit apartment building that would welcome residents displaced from the demolished Penn Plaza apartments.

The building will front on 121 North Beatty Street, now the site of a parking lot.

An artist's rendering of a four-story, 42-apartment building proposed by TREK Development for a site that is currently a parking lot in East Liberty, presented to the City Planning Commission on March 9, 2021. (Screenshot)

An artist's rendering of a four-story, 42-apartment building proposed by TREK Development for a site that is currently a parking lot in East Liberty, presented to the City Planning Commission on March 9, 2021. (Screenshot)

Two weeks earlier, the commission had heard TREK Development and its architects describe the proposed four-story building in a briefing. John Ginocchi, vice president of TREK, reiterated that the project will “give a preference to former Penn Plaza residents” as tenants, and that low-income housing tax credits on which it relies will compel long-term affordability. No opposition emerged at this phase, the public hearing and vote.

3/2/21: Pittsburgh council votes to bar pandemic evictions, but questions remain

Pittsburgh City Council unanimously approved legislation that would largely bar the filing by landlords of eviction cases against city residents during the pandemic emergency, despite concerns on the part of some officials that the legislation may be difficult to enforce.

Councilwoman Deb Gross, who has been spearheading the bid for a citywide eviction moratorium, amended her own bill, requiring that landlords seek a waiver from the Commission on Human Relations before filing to oust a tenant. The commission could then grant the landlord permission to file for eviction if a tenant was a threat to themselves, or others, or was engaging in criminal activity.

“We should not be putting those tenants and those landlords into that process” of eviction hearings, blemished credit and possible ejection from housing, Gross said. Landlords who filed to evict city tenants without going through the process could face a $10,000 fine.

For more than two hours, council heard public comment on the eviction legislation and debated the amendment. Of the 16 members of the public to comment, 15 called for a strong ban on evictions. The other public speaker, representing the Pennsylvania Apartment Association, said the legislation could make it too hard for landlords to evict tenants who could harm others.

A handwritten note received by Ebony Long, mother of three, from her landlord, giving her "30 days to leave" the Perry North house which she now rents. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

A handwritten note received by Ebony Long, mother of three, from her landlord, giving her "30 days to leave" the Perry North house she now rents. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess asked council to delay consideration by one day, to consider another amendment proposed by Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration.

“We’re in that political season,” Burgess said. “But I’m always very fearful of giving false hope” by passing “legislation that we can’t enforce” and as a result giving “these very needy people no help.”

Burgess abstained from a vote on the amendment, but joined the other council members in voting for the amended bill. It now goes to Peduto, who can sign or veto it.

3/1/21: Evictions dip slightly in February, as City Council prepares to vote

Landlords filed 312 new eviction cases in Allegheny County in February, slightly down (in a shorter month) from the 366 filings in January.

The case filings continue amid a federal curb on evictions which expires at the end of March, new, temporary Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas rules for handling such matters and a likely imminent Pittsburgh City Council vote on more stringent rules that would restrict city landlords.

Council action would not affect evictions in the suburbs. Data collected by Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab indicates that since the pandemic, more than two-thirds of the evictions filed in Allegheny County have involved defendants that live outside of the city's boundaries.

PublicSource and WESA today published the second installment of their series Tenant Cities, which explores the region's changing rental housing market in the COVID-19 era.

3/1/21: Moribund land bank could get new clout at sheriff's sales

A Pittsburgh Land Bank which has done little, since its creation in 2014, to put publicly owned properties into private hands would get new powers under legislation being introduced in Harrisburg, Mayor Bill Peduto's administration announced.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, wants to allow the land bank to buy properties at sheriff's sale just by paying the outstanding claims and liens, even if another entity bids higher, according to a press release. Philadelphia's land bank has similar powers, according to the release.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, sits on the board of the Pittsburgh Land Bank. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, sits on the board of the Pittsburgh Land Bank. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

That could be an alternative to taking properties through the Treasurer's Sale process, which Fontana described in the release as "a selective, long, and faulty process." That process is subject to state laws and local procedures that result in years-long waits for people seeking to buy city-owned property.

The Pittsburgh Land Bank was meant to streamline such transfers. "Since its creation, the land bank has been having difficulty clearing titles on properties and has only been able to fully acquire few properties," the Peduto administration confirmed in its release. The mayor added that Fontana's legislation "is what we need to finally turn it into the powerful, blight-fighting tool we expect it to be."

Fontana indicated in a memo announcing the impending introduction of his legislation that 30,000 parcels in the city are vacant or distressed, costing the city $4.8 million in tax revenue.

February recap:

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

Crossing a line? A boundary change adds to tension between the Penguins and a key Hill District group

Affordable for-sale housing at the front door of the mayoral election

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

Develop PGH archives

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

‘A big elephant in the room.’ A McKeesport mother’s months-long battle to save her house has her home for the holidays, with a deadline looming.

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

January 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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