While Pittsburgh frequently ranks highly on listicles of America’s cheapest cities, many residents struggle to find and keep affordable homes amid rising rents, longstanding income inequality and the ongoing disruption of the pandemic.
Many observers pointed to frustrations over this issue as a motivator for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s historic victory last year. Gainey has recently said he supports inclusionary zoning as a tool to increase the supply and distribution of low-cost housing in the city.
To help you understand and navigate affordable housing in Pittsburgh, we’ve compiled the following information and list of resources.
State of the market
Though the city’s overall population has been essentially flat for the last decade, experts and residents say the housing market has been volatile.
“The market in Pittsburgh has shifted rapidly,” said Lena Andrews, director of real estate development for local nonprofit ACTION-Housing. “We’ve seen a lot of neighborhoods where rents have increased really quickly, and wages haven’t increased at the same speed. So a lot of people who were able to find housing before have found themselves unable to do that.”
Rising housing costs are seen by many housing advocates as a significant factor in the decline of Pittsburgh’s Black population over the last decade.
According to a study from ApartmentList.com, rental prices in the City of Pittsburgh increased by 8.85% from September 2020 through September 2021. The average rent for a studio apartment is around $1,424, while the average rent for a 3-bedroom apartment is $1,822.
2021 data from RENTCafe lists Carrick as the most affordable neighborhood in the city, with average rents of $695 per month. East Liberty, Morningside, Highland Park and Larimer were tied for most expensive, with average rents of $1,872.
What is ‘affordable housing’ and who qualifies?
The standard for affordability comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD], which stipulates that an affordable dwelling, including utilities, should cost the resident no more than 30% of their total income.
To be eligible for officially designated affordable housing, prospective tenants must prove their income is a certain percentage below the Area Median Income [AMI] in their region, depending on how those units are classified. In many cases, multi-family affordable developments set aside units for varying income levels.
According to data from HUD and the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA], the AMI for a single person in the Pittsburgh region was $59,400 in 2021, while the AMI for a family of four was $84,800. A single resident making 80% of the region’s AMI receives $47,500 in income, while the family of four receives $67,850.
Across the Pittsburgh region a wage of $15 an hour is not enough to secure a two-bedroom apartment. In Lawrenceville, for instance, the needed wage is $22.50, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
What kinds of affordable homes are available in Pittsburgh?
In the Pittsburgh area, affordable housing mainly falls into three main categories:
Public housing refers to domiciles directly managed by the local city or county housing authority, including larger, multi-family developments such as Northview Heights in the North Side and Murray Towers in Squirrel Hill. Often, certain dwellings will be reserved for individuals with disabilities, senior citizens or veterans.
Housing Choice Voucher program (Section 8)
Popularly known as Section 8, the Housing Choice Voucher program provides rental assistance by paying subsidies to private landlords on behalf of low-income tenants. HUD sets regulations while local housing authorities administer the program in their respective communities.
The City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County housing authorities both maintain lists of local landlords participating in the program. Currently, the waiting lists for the city and county are closed to applicants.
Low-income housing tax credit program
Created in 1986, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program [LIHTC] is a federal subsidy that grants tax credits to developers in return for the construction, maintenance or rehabilitation of affordable homes.
Both for-profit and nonprofit developers may participate in the program. Locally, funding is allocated by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.
In addition to managing public housing and maintaining property databases, the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County housing authorities provide referrals and information services to help prospective tenants find housing.
The Pittsburgh region has a variety of community groups and nonprofit organizations dedicated to affordable housing such as the Hazelwood Initiative, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Pittsburgh and the aforementioned ACTION-Housing.
In case of emergency
If you or a loved one is in urgent need of housing for any reason, please consult this list of local shelters.
Know your rights
Under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it is illegal for landlords to discriminate against prospective or current tenants on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability, national origin or familial status. Behaviors considered discriminatory under the law include falsely claiming a unit is unavailable, limiting a person’s access to facilities, and delaying or skipping required maintenance on the domicile.
If you suspect a landlord of engaging in discriminatory business practices, you can report discrimination to HUD over the phone, online or via the mail.
Locally, complaints can be filed with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations and the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission, both of which investigate discrimination in housing, employment and public services across the city and county.
For those farther out, nonprofits such as Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh and Fair Housing Law Center provide free information and legal aid to victims of discrimination across the entire Pittsburgh region.
A housing needs assessment presented to the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force in 2016 reported that the city’s supply of low-cost housing lagged behind demand by nearly 15,000 units, and severe shortages remain. In an interview with PublicSource at the end of December 2021, Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] Executive Director Caster Binion called the city’s situation “a crisis.”
How do we get more affordable housing in Pittsburgh?
Jerry Dickinson, a pro-bono tenants rights attorney and current candidate to succeed U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Forest Hills), noted that while every city in the nation is grappling with rising rents and economic displacement, Pittsburgh’s high degree of segregation between Black and white residents makes the problem even more pressing.
“We have some of the worst racial disparities in the United States,” said Dickinson. “Affordable housing is at the core of that.”
Increasing the region’s supply of affordable homes would require a wide range of reforms across many layers of government.
For regular updates, stay tuned to PublicSource’s Develop PGH email newsletter.
Bill O’Toole is a reporter based in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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