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9/28/20: Rental aid application deadline looms, and approvals are modest
An Allegheny County program to help people who are struggling with the rent because of the COVID-19 pandemic can accept applications only through Wednesday.
The Allegheny County CARES Rent Relief Program has, during September, nearly quadrupled the number of applications it has approved, from just 54 at the beginning of the month to 191 as of Friday afternoon.
That, though, is a tiny fraction of the requests for aid it has received. County Development Director Lance Chimka wrote, in response to questions from PublicSource, that the program had in hand 5,570 applications from tenants, and 2,885 from landlords.
In brief answers, Chimka blamed “changing & rigid requirements” and the “scale” of the program for the backlogs. He wrote that the county and its contractor are “working through cases with a targeted approach that has demonstratively improved our processes and production, and expect to continue to see increased production.”
The county hired ACTION-Housing to administer the program, which can provide as much as $1,700 per month to cover rent and other household related costs. Only households that are below the county's area median income for their family size, and that include a member who has become unemployed or has lost at least 30% of their income due to the pandemic, qualify.
The end-of-the-month application deadline is driven by state-imposed rules, which in turn reflect the federal requirement that money provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security [CARES] Act must be spent by year’s end.
9/24/20: Two housing authorities team to help families out of impoverished areas
The public housing agencies for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have joined hands in an unusual dual effort to win federal money to help low-income residents to move to lower-poverty areas.
The boards of the Allegheny County Housing Authority [ACHA] and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] have both, in the past week, voted to apply for a piece of the new $50 million Housing Choice Voucher Mobility Demonstration grant program offered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]. The program is meant to fund more housing vouchers and services to families moving to lower-poverty neighborhoods.
“If the program is successful, you’re helping families attain opportunities that they may not otherwise be able to — areas of higher employment, areas with better schools,” said Frank Aggazio, executive director of the ACHA, in an interview. He said he could envision families moving from the impoverished parts of the Mon Valley to “higher opportunity areas. You can go out west to Imperial, North Fayette, then you can go north to Ross Township. Then you have the south, Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon.”
If successful, the ACHA would like to add 100 housing vouchers (often called Section 8 vouchers) to a portfolio that is now straining to handle the demand for affordable apartments.
The HACP would use its part of any HUD award to help residents to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods within the city, said Marsha Grayson, the city authority’s chief operating officer.
Speaking to the HACP board at its monthly meeting, she did not say whether the authority is seeking more vouchers, but said it would like to fund “counseling, getting people acclimated to the [new] neighborhood, just making sure that there’s a clear understanding with both the landlord and the tenant, of the expectations.”
HUD’s program comes even as President Donald Trump tries to make his opposition to low-income suburban housing a campaign issue.
In its online description of the grant program, HUD says it’s offering $10 million to back new vouchers for families with children, and $40 million “for mobility-related services.” Families with vouchers pay 30% of their incomes in rent, and the government pays the rest to the landlord.
The program’s geographic spread, though, is limited by the landlords willing to accept the vouchers. ACHA has placed “some” voucher-backed tenants in places like Oakdale, Sewickley and Ross, the authority’s Housing Choice Voucher Program Director Kim Longwell said, but the tenants are often seniors, rather than families with children.
Helping 100 families with children to move out of areas of concentrated poverty and into better-resourced neighborhoods appeals to Longwell. “It’s been proven that children who attend better schools when they’re younger have more opportunities later in life, for jobs, for college, and we’d like to replicate that here,” she said.
The mobility services money, meanwhile, would back the hiring of staff to recruit new landlords into the voucher program, to help tenants find rental units, to ease the moving process and to counsel the families on the norms of suburban life, Longwell said. “What we want to do is talk to the schools, make sure [the families] acclimate to the neighborhood,” she said. “The whole goal is to keep them there.”
Aggazio, who has been with the ACHA since 1987, said this is the first time he can remember that the city and county housing authorities have teamed up to seek a grant. (The authorities do, though, have several contracts under which they provide services to each other.)
The ACHA board authorized the grant application Sept. 18, and the HACP board followed suit on Sept. 24. The authorities have until Oct. 13 to apply.
Aggazio said ACHA provides vouchers to 5,850 households, and has another 2,100 on a waiting list. In addition, there’s a 14,722-household waiting list to get into ACHA-managed complexes, which only include around 3,300 units.
Similarly, HACP supports 5,698 vouchers, and has 7,578 households on a waiting list for that program. For the HACP’s 2,305 low-income apartments, there’s a waiting list of 4,768 families.
“There is tremendous demand,” Aggazio said, and “the supply is not meeting demand.”
9/24/20: Census bid to count the displaced gets county help
U.S. Census Bureau volunteers are believed to be near completion of a three-day effort to count homeless individuals — a bid that, locally, got help from human service providers.
From Sept. 22 through Sept. 24, bureau spokesperson Susan L. Licate wrote in response to questions from PublicSource, “specially trained census takers” deployed to count people in shelters, soup kitchens, transit stations and outdoor encampments.
The encampment visits are “often at night,” Licate wrote. Census takers arrive “wearing reflective vests and carrying smartphones, flashlights and paper questionnaires,” but if they can’t question camp residents, they just count them.
Why enter encampments at night, when residents might be alarmed? “We do try to reach everybody when they're back at the location at which they are most likely to be staying,” Licate said in a phone interview. “The later hours of the day are usually the times when folks are settled down for the day."
She added: "We don't want to miss anybody."
The Allegheny County Department of Human Services [DHS] has been engaged, for months, in discussions with the Census Bureau about how best to count the homeless, county spokeswoman Amie Downs wrote in an email response to PublicSource’s questions.
“We want to ensure the safety and dignity of the people we serve, while also ensuring that the enumerators are safe in their efforts to count everyone,” Downs wrote.
The county told homeless services providers that their clients could be counted via the Census Bureau’s online portal, and “offered to train Census enumerators and to accompany Census enumerators within the community,” Downs wrote. “DHS has recruited three partner agencies to accompany Census workers into the encampments.”
One major provider of services to the homeless, Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net, confirmed that it was working with the Census Bureau to count people in camps.
“We are glad to see that the Census Bureau is being so proactive in securing a count of residents experiencing homelessness,” wrote Downs.
This year’s decennial Census — which guides everything from Congressional redistricting to many forms of federal funding — has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subject to controversial changes in its timeline, with local bureau offices told to complete their work by the end of this month. People can still respond online or by phone (844-330-2020) or by returning the paper forms they received.
9/15/20: ‘Disappointing’ Strip tower proposal nixed by city planners
There will be no “Lego office building” in the Strip District, the City Planning Commission decided after hours of discussion on a proposal to build a 20-story office tower on the 1500 block of Penn Avenue.
Commissioners voted to deny the proposal without prejudice, meaning New York-based developer JMC Holdings can revise it and bring it back. One commissioner, Dina Blackwell, abstained.
The vote came after two members of the panel blasted the design, which calls for street-level retail space, seven floors of parking, and a 12-story glass-and-steel box of offices geared to growing tech firms.
Calling it “a massive overtaking of the view” from every conceivable angle, commissioner Sabina Deitrick said she was “probably not the only person who thinks it looks like a Lego office building from Dallas or Houston.”
“This is not a building that says anything about Pittsburgh. It could be anywhere in the country,” added Commissioner Becky Mingo. “The building itself is going to look like a gigantic barrier.”
Preceding the vote, architect Brandon Haw defended his design at great length. He called the existing Wholey Building, constructed to store ice, “a derelict site” consisting of uninterrupted concrete walls, which encouraged “no street life. The streets are dark, they’re unoccupied and unactivated in its current form.”
He said the building he designed would have a “gentle, glowing activity within,” and that its lack of flair was an asset.
“One could argue, well, at what point do buildings become over-exuberant? At what point does a quiet politeness actually carry the day?” Haw asked. “Not every building has to be a landmark.”
The building’s leasing agent argued that its large floor plates were just what the Strip needs as its tech start-ups grow, and a representative of the construction management team said it would mean $45 million in union-scale jobs over two years.
The commission, though, was unswayed.
“This building is just really very disappointing,” said Deitrick.
9/15/20: Commission says Allentown church is historic
Acting against the expressed wishes of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, the City Planning Commission approved the historic designation of a long-dormant church that dominates the city’s Allentown neighborhood.
The St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Church, on Allen Street and Climax Street, is 110 years old and a product of the German immigrants that gathered on the Hilltop in the early 1900s, city Historic Planner Sarah Quinn told the commission. Towering over Allentown, it “is European, but distinctively Pittsburgh,” she said.
Sometimes known as St. George’s Church, the building is also known for its beautiful, leaded windows.
Matt Wittman, a Mt. Washington man who nominated the church for historic designation, said the measure “will protect the structure from improper exterior alterations such as the removal of the stained-glass windows, which the owner has initiated,” and will “protect this historic structure from demolition,” which he said was also in the diocese’s plans. “I hope that you will allow this beautiful structure to be standing for many years to come, and not to be cannibalized,” he said.
The diocese told PublicSource in July that it opposes the nomination, noting that the city’s code does not allow historic designation of buildings that are used for religious worship, without the consent of the owner. The diocese was not represented at the Sept. 15 meeting of the commission.
“We remain opposed to this nomination,” said diocesan spokesperson Jennifer Antkowiak, in a statement released in response to PublicSource’s questions. “A church building cannot be nominated without the consent of its owner. It is inappropriate that a religious institution should have to seek the approval of a government entity in the use of its sacred spaces.”
Another diocesan spokesperson said mass was last held in the church in 2016. The diocese’s response did not address PublicSource’s questions about its plans for the building.
The church hasn’t been used for active worship in years. The commission in July discussed the possibility that the lapse in worship could open the door to historic designation.
Historic designation would limit future changes to the building’s exterior.
The Historic Review Commission has already voted in favor of the designation. The City Planning Commission’s vote, which was unanimous, sends the matter to city council for its consideration, which is the last step in the process.
9/10/20: URA housing funds facing high demand
Two Pittsburgh programs meant to create or preserve affordable housing aren’t taking new applications until they get more funding, Urban Redevelopment Authority officials said at a meeting of the agency’s board.
The Homeowner Assistance Program provides interest-free loans of as much as $30,000 to fund home repairs for low-income residents. The URA had budgeted nearly $2.5 million for the program in 2020, up from $2.2 million last year and nearly $2.4 million in 2018.
But with 300 applications approved in the last year and a half, and 150 on the waiting list, the URA has put a stop to new applications, probably until early next year, when the city sends more money. Households on the waiting list will be served, a URA spokesperson said.
Also almost tapped out, for now, is the Rental Gap Program, which helps developers to build housing for low-income tenants. That program got $4.5 million this year, after receiving nearly $4 million in each of the prior two years. But with the URA committing around $6.7 million to proposed rental developments in Larimer, Hazelwood, Garfield, East Liberty, California-Kirkbride, West Oakland, the Bluff and Point Breeze, almost all of the available money is spoken for, said Jessica Smith Perry, the URA's director of housing lending and investments.
The demand for affordable housing help “continues to far outpace what’s actually being appropriated, be it from the federal government or the city government,” said URA board Chairman Sam Williamson. “Clearly the demand is pretty severe and not getting any better.”
The two programs are the biggest pieces of the URA-run Housing Opportunity Fund [HOF], which is backed by $10 million a year that the city raises through its deed transfer tax.
The URA has steered $1.5 million in HOF funds into a $4.3 million program to help city residents to make their rent or mortgage payments during the pandemic-driven economic downturn. (The balance of the funds come from private donors and federal and state sources.) Under that program, low-income renters or homeowners can get as much as $3,000, over three months, to help with housing-related expenses. With 875 applications since mid-March either approved or in process, the URA expects the available funds will last through the end of the year. Applications are still being accepted via the 211 human services hotline.
Allegheny County has a separate program for suburban or city residents struggling with the rent.
9/10/20: URA’s COVID-driven business loans to be minority-only
An Urban Redevelopment Authority business loan fund, which has helped hundreds of businesses to weather the shutdown’s storm, will undergo two major changes: The cap on loans will rise from $75,000 to $100,000 a year, and it will narrow its focus to minority-owned businesses.
Newly dubbed the Minority Business Recovery and Growth Loan Program following a vote of approval from the URA board, the program has already advanced funds to 277 city businesses, of which 123 are minority-led, Jessica Wilhelm, assistant director of the URA's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, told the board. Borrowers pay no interest for the first year, then 2% for the rest of the seven-year repayment term. There are no fees or prepayment penalties, and the money can be used to cover a wide range of business costs.
The goal now is to focus on the businesses most in need, and those are likely small enterprises that also face historic disadvantages, said Wilhelm.
“I think it's completely appropriate for the URA, given our history and given the moment in time we’re in, in America,” to focus the business lending program primarily on Black-owned businesses, said Sam Williamson, the board’s chairman.
All four of the board members in attendance voted for the change.
The program has loaned out $6.4 million of its available $7.9 million, Wilhelm told the board. The funds come from the federal Community Development Block Grant program, other URA sources and private donors.
9/1/20: CDC steps in to stop evictions
Landlords nationally can't evict most tenants for failure to pay rent, for the balance of this year, under a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order issued late Tuesday and meant to keep displacement from contributing to the spread of coronavirus.
The order appears to protect tenants who earn less than $99,000 — or $198,000 for two people filing jointly — from being evicted for inability to pay, the Associated Press reported.
They must, however, declare that their circumstance was caused by the coronavirus pandemic, demonstrate that they've sought government rental assistance, and affirm that they are likely to be homeless if evicted.
Pennsylvania's eviction moratoriums ran from mid-March through the end of August. The federal order appears to largely replace the expired state measures. The CDC claims broad authority to issue orders to prevent the spread of disease.
9/1/20: City launches planning process for all 90 neighborhoods
Pittsburgh may have a comprehensive plan, in around a year, to guide decisions on what gets built, and where, in all 90 neighborhoods, and how development affects residents, Mayor Bill Peduto announced.
Called ForgingPGH, the planning effort will include a public input process — surveys, mapping, evaluations of various scenarios — that will initially occur mostly online, in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Peduto called it the first truly comprehensive planning process in Pittsburgh’s history, and “an absolute necessity for the Pittsburgh that we are today.”
He said the city was “playing defense” on economic development during decades of population decline, and didn’t evaluate the wishes of every neighborhood. Now, he said, the city can “change the way we do urban planning … and play offense,” aiming for development that fits neighborhood sentiments and scores well on how it affects people, places, economic performance and the planet.
“We are at a critical time, also, because of the issues of today — the issues of equity, the issues of systemic racism, the issues that have plagued this city for decades,” he said.
Planning Director Andrew Dash added the city has, in recent years, devoted a lot of effort to studying its inequities. Now the resulting understanding will be incorporated into land-use planning, notably in neighborhoods in which residents are vulnerable to displacement.
After the plan is done, in around a year, investment by the city, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh should follow its precepts, city officials said.
As part of ForgingPGH, the city intends to hire consultants to reassess its affordable housing needs, and to evaluate the current state of economic development and workforce development in the COVID-19 era, planning officials said. The city may issue requests for proposals from interested firms as early as this week, and expects to spend around $100,000 on each of those studies, Dash said.
Peduto acknowledged that the city can’t mandate specific development. “You can’t say, this is what you have to do” to developers, nonprofits and other potential economic actors, he said. “But you can say, this is what the community will support.”
9/1/20: Plan for Hazelwood's riverfront could take a year
The future of Hazelwood's riverfront, dotted with industrial remnants, will be planned with public input starting this month, according to a press release from the owners of the 178-acre Hazelwood Green redevelopment site.
Hazelwood Green is a former mill site owned by Almono LLC, an entity owned by The Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. The site includes 1.3 miles of Monongahela River frontage, covering 21 acres and varying in width from 55' to 200', according to the release. Almono views the site as a recreational opportunity that would address the environmental effects of industrialization, and could also include preservation of structures "including a Pump House, mooring cells, platforms, coal loaders and catwalks," that the release described as "the largest collection of industrial structures remaining in the city."
The riverfront stretch could also be connected to the trails that run throughout Pittsburgh and to Washington, D.C., said Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, in the release.
The public process is set to start with a presentation at the Hazelwood Initiative's Greater Hazelwood Monthly Community Meeting, on Sept. 8, and then continue with a design meeting in mid-October, according to the release. Details will be posted online.
Almono hopes to submit the resulting plan to the state for its review in around a year.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Almono are funding the planning process, and the public input effort will be led by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and Pittsburgh-based Environmental Planning & Design.
The site was last in the news in February, when the City Planning Commission approved plans to convert a former railroad roundhouse to office space.
PublicSource receives funding from The Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation.
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