Jason Tigano wants to sell you a house in your neighborhood for $80,000 to 120,000. He just needs the funding to scale something that he’s starting in McKees Rocks.
Building affordable housing is anything but affordable. Tigano’s nonprofit organization, LEVEL Equity Buildings, has secured more than $4 million through a combination of state, community, economic development funding sources and bank loans with a plan to rehabilitate 10 houses in McKees Rocks and sell them below market rate.
Affordable housing initiatives generally build or preserve apartments that rent to households under certain income caps, with time limits on how long the apartments stay affordable. There are ways to finance apartment development, including low-income housing tax credits and borrowing against future rents.
Affordable for-sale housing is the exception. Last year, for instance, Pittsburgh’s Housing Opportunity Fund backed the creation or preservation of 370 affordable rental units, and just 26 for-sale homes.
Funding renovation or creation of single family homes has largely been left to the private market, with few sources of financing aside from closing assistance, like the city’s OwnPGH program. There is as yet no local model for scaling affordable for-sale housing up to the same volume as rental development.
Three key takeaways from this story:
- The majority of affordable housing efforts and financial support are focused on rental units with temporary affordability requirements.
- Many argue that homeownership is the most effective way to nurture multi-generational wealth.
- Building affordable housing, like any construction project, is expensive, with recent costs running up around $500,000 per unit.
In recent weeks efforts to create more affordable for-sale homes have emerged.
- The Hazelwood Initiative, a community organization, is building three affordable houses at a cost of $1.4 million and planning to sell them for $205,000 each, with a potential cost to the buyer, after OwnPGH assistance, of $115,000.
- Walnut Capital has announced plans for 100 affordable for-sale houses as part of its expansion of the Bakery Square development in Larimer and East Liberty.
LEVEL is attempting to create affordable homeownership, emphasizing a focus on wealth generation in disinvested neighborhoods, starting outside of Pittsburgh.
“There’s a multitude of studies that show wealth building comes through property ownership. That is how a family, through generations, starts to build wealth, especially communities of color where redlining has prevented that from happening,” said Taris Vrcek, executive director of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation. “We see the high poverty and transience rates in McKees Rocks. So being able to lay down roots and create a real hometown and a community presence, the community benefits from it.”
Well-rounded people, narrow funding formulas
LEVEL Equity Buildings began in 2021 with the goal of pursuing abandoned home reclamation. For now, their efforts are in McKees Rocks, where 30% of the area’s 5,930 residents live below the poverty line. The area once was home to more than 18,000 people but experienced major population loss like the rest of the area as heavy industry declined. Today, about 55% of the occupied households in the borough are rentals.
LEVEL has completely renovated one home on Gardner Street in McKees Rocks and has purchased another nine houses — five on Woodward Avenue, two on Grove Street and two on Boquet Street — that they plan to gut and renovate.
Jason Tigano, executive director of LEVEL Equity Buildings, talks in front of a series of homes along the 400 block of Woodward Avenue in McKees Rocks that the non-profit is renovating for low-income, first time homeownership, on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
The homes were purchased through Allegheny County’s Vacant Property Recovery Program. Tigano, the founder of LEVEL, uses the completed home as a proof of concept, illustrating the possibilities if they can get more funding.
“We’re trying to bring an authentic answer to what we’re generically calling the affordable crisis,” Tigano said, observing that government programs are generally designed to fund rental development. “So we need to create pots of money for homeownership. People are interested but it hasn’t moved towards actual action.”
Tigano said he has so far used a combination of state, community and economic development funding sources. He said by requesting a waiver of program guidelines, LEVEL was able to get $1 million from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program that’s normally confined to commercial construction projects. They were also able to get funding from the Keystone Communities Program for $400,000, and another $1.3 million from the county’s Community Development Block Grant.
Tigano said that his program attempts to forge a different path to homeownership by identifying residents in the community who might be interested in purchasing a home but cannot afford to in the current housing market. He also said that they plan to limit home sales to $80,000 to $120,000, which the buyer would fund with a mortgage, some or all of which can be written off after five or 10 years.
Jason Tigano of LEVEL Equity Buildings shows the organization’s renovated home at 310 Gardner St. in the McKees Rocks Bottoms. At right, Tigano points to the hallway they widened in the process, on the bottom the open concept family room and kitchen. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Finding people to buy the houses is just part of the effort.
“In theory I could hand you the keys and leave it at that. The financing is not the hardest part,” Tigano said. “But how do we support a culture of successful homeownership through education and equity-building? How do I keep you in the house? It’s teaching our neighbors how to fish rather than giving them a fish.”
Applicants fill out an assessment questionnaire to see what level of knowledge they have about homeownership and the attendant challenges. This assessment generates a readiness score that helps LEVEL determine the appropriate starting point on the path to homeownership for each buyer.
“In our work, the variable in the equation is the homebuyer,” Tigano said, noting that they will work with the applicant no matter what their score.
He emphasized that LEVEL looks at a person’s situation and challenges to fully understand them and help connect them to other resources.
“How do I make you a successful, sustainable homeowner — a well-rounded person?” he said.
Local government must be onboard
For now, LEVEL’s focus is limited.
“Our goal is to successfully place sustainable homeowners in thousands of homes, but we need to scale to that volume,” Tigano said. “We need over 50,000 affordable units in Allegheny County. Me doing 50 a year is cute, but that’s all it is, cute. We’ll never get there at this pace. We need help.”
Tigano worked for retired U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, and later for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, giving him a broad perspective on the various government agencies tasked with stimulating economic growth. He has served on the boards of Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh and NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania, also a partner with LEVEL in homebuyer education.
Tigano said that his model begins with a community organization inviting LEVEL into a neighborhood. The McKees Rocks CDC and the borough made that invitation.
“Jason was very familiar with our work and efforts to move generational poverty to generational wealth building,” said Vrcek. “Homeownership is in many ways the end of the rainbow.”
Vrcek said that the CDC worked with the borough to get them to apply for one of the grants funding LEVEL.
“Jason worked with the consultant at the borough and the borough was very supportive of the [Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program] grant and applied on Jason’s behalf,” Vrcek said. “So it was a good team effort.”
Rising home prices outpaces government assistance
The Allegheny County Housing Authority’s Ellen Parker welcomes the effort and has a rarely used tool that might help make it work.
The Housing Choice Voucher program, known as Section 8, is typically associated with rental assistance but can also be used to help with mortgage payments.
Parker, associate director of the authority’s voucher program, said that the challenge is finding affordable housing options that pass the authority’s inspection process.
“As we all know, mortgage rates are up, housing stock prices are way up,” Parker said. “So it’s hard for our tenants to afford a home.”
Parker noted most houses at the lower price range will be “fixer uppers” and generally won’t pass an authority inspection. A failed inspection won’t automatically end the possibility of buying the house if the seller is willing to repair any disqualifying issues.
That’s just one of the hurdles.
“The biggest challenge is the [buyer’s] credit [score],” said Sandra Behe, special programs coordinator for the authority. “With COVID hitting, people’s credits took a hit. Prices going up, people losing jobs. It took a toll on everybody.”
Parker and Behe said that the kind of work LEVEL is doing and wants to do more of would align with the authority’s voucher holders because it would provide affordable homeownership options that would most likely pass the authority’s inspections.
Parker toured the renovated home on Gardner Street and saw that it would likely pass inspection.
“Tenants are going to a house that’s renovated so they don’t need to worry about furnace, new roof, anything like that,” Parker said.
Parker noted that the authority is also looking to help families become self-sufficient.
“We have a new focus on family self-sufficiency so we’re trying to recruit families for that and if they are interested in homeownership, we could eventually get them ready for that,” she said. “LEVEL is great and in the meantime we’ll keep plugging along and do what we can for other tenants wherever they may find a unit. That’s the challenge — finding a unit and being able to qualify for a mortgage because, right now, the rates are so high.”
Correction: The Hazelwood Initiative plans to sell affordable homes for $205,000, with an effective price, after OwnPGH assistance, as low as $115,000. An earlier version of this story included an incorrect intended sales price.
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
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