Pittsburgh’s housing authority is finalizing plans to apply for a federal grant to completely redevelop the city’s oldest public housing development.
The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] will be applying for a $50 million grant through Choice Neighborhoods, a program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to replace all 411 units of Bedford Dwellings with around 700 to 800 mixed-income units. Officials expect to submit the plan to the federal government by the end of this year after completing, among other things, a relocation plan and a public safety strategy.
If the federal government approves the grant application, private partner TREK Development expects the project to take eight years to complete. It would follow the use of Choice Neighborhoods funds to redevelop part of East Liberty and Larimer, and potentially the Allegheny Dwellings community in Fineview.
The emerging proposal calls for a mixture of public and private redevelopment of the Hill District complex, with replacement of all public housing units along with the addition of market-rate units. The plan reflects a larger trend of agencies developing housing through a mixture of private and public means. But some residents worry that including the private sector will lead to diminished tenant services.
“Absolutely it needs to be upgraded,” said Brenda Toley, a Bedford Dwellings resident for more than 10 years. “There’s problems inside with the toilet system, flooding, things break down. And it’s just old.”
The city’s housing authority received a federal grant of $500,000 in 2016 to work with Bedford Dwellings residents, the Hill Community Development Corporation and other groups on a plan to redevelop a site that dates back to the 1930s.
In 2018, HACP applied for funding from the Choice Neighborhoods program, which aims to improve both public housing and surrounding communities.
The federal government denied the application, which only aimed to redevelop the “lower” section, made up of a trio of three-story walk up apartments and four two-story townhomes on Somers Drive.
Now, the agency has expanded its redevelopment aspirations to demolish and reconstruct all 30 buildings. The new development would be managed by TREK.
The private management aspect of the plan makes some residents anxious.
Gail Felton first moved to Bedford Dwellings about 35 years ago and has long served as tenant council president.
She said that the housing authority gave out tablet computers recently and every month food banks distribute to residents.
“How many communities do that?” she said. “I’m going to miss housing management. … Private management does not give you the same programs as the housing authority. “
Still, she supports the redevelopment effort.
“All public housing needs to be redone,” she said. “I’m praying we receive it.”
But funds from the Choice Neighborhood grant would only cover about 10% to 20% of the cost of developing everything, according to JW Kim, director of planning and development for the housing authority. The balance would have to be secured through housing tax credits and funds gathered by other agencies including the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
From low-income to mixed
The majority of Bedford Dwellings residents are Black and more than half of the households are female-led, according to information gathered by the agency and consultants for the transformation plan. The median household income, according to Census Bureau estimates, is $16,551, or one-fourth that of Allegheny County as a whole.
One of the main points of the redevelopment plan is the creation of a mixed-income neighborhood. Currently, all Bedford Dwellings units are for people who qualify for public housing, with their maximum rent set at 30% of the household’s gross income. But under the redevelopment plan, public housing would be mixed in with market-rate homes, a strategy that is advocated by the federal government.
“The basic philosophy [is] mixed-income helps low-income families because higher income brings in more resources to the community,” Kim said.
Build first, then demolish
The agency is also working to secure low-income housing tax credits to finance the redevelopment of the long-vacant Reed Roberts Manor site, which sits within the target Bedford Dwellings Choice Neighborhood area.
“We wanted to show our commitment to this redevelopment,” Kim said. “We worked with residents to do the first phase — Reed Roberts.
“Our principle is simple and clear: we will build first, as much as possible, offsite within the Choice Neighborhood [area] so that residents can move to their new residences as soon as possible,” Kim said. “We’re trying to minimize relocation.”
Kim said HACP and TREK plan to build 120 units on the Reed Roberts site as part of the first phase of construction. Kim noted that the Reed Roberts redevelopment would happen even if they didn’t receive the Choice Neighborhood grant since it would be funded by tax credits.
“HUD likes to see activities like this before they award grants,” Kim said. “They want to see how serious and productive you are.”
The Hill District has many abandoned or vacant properties. One empty site targeted for redevelopment is on Francis Street.
A tear runs down the cheek of Jamal Jones, 30, a resident of Bedford Dwellings along the Chauncey Drive section of the housing complex. Every day Jones walks past the melted candles memorializing the spot where his friend was shot and killed in the apartment courtyard. The spot is across the street from where he lost another friend in a shooting, he said. He said he feels like he can’t truly let his guard down outside, and that the Chauncey side of Bedford Dwellings should be prioritized for redevelopment because of its high rates of violence and crime compared to neighboring Somers Drive. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Eugenia Boggus, a Bedford Dwellings resident and member of a tenant advocacy group called Bedford Connect, said that they pushed the city to include the Francis Street site in the Choice Neighborhood grant proposal.
“It was a big issue for residents. It’s a large vacant lot. It’s part of the history of the Hill District. It’s vacant and housing is critical, so why not build there?”
Kim said the site will be developed in the second phase of the Bedford Dwellings effort.
For the whole project, Kim said that HACP “designed the units to be 130% bigger than current units — bigger kitchen spaces, closets, bedrooms.”
After the completion of building on sites including Reed Roberts, Kim said the development team would begin demolishing Somers Drive, moving the residents — if they choose to stay in the area — to the newly constructed units.
A private company will be established to handle property management, according to Kim, and the housing authority will participate as a minority general partner with TREK. The ground itself will still be owned by the authority but it will be leased to the private management company.
Tenant services will be limited to referring residents to already-existing services, according to Bethany Friel, TREK’s director of strategic operations.
The federal government requires a “people plan” for Choice Neighborhoods grant winners, and Friel said TREK is working with the housing authority to determine what organization would be responsible for providing services to tenants.
Friel said that even though TREK won’t offer services itself, they will have a dedicated team of employees who will help tenants find relevant services.
Felton worried that there would be no one to take over.
Nonetheless, she said she plans on moving back in when and if her residence on Somers Drive is demolished and rebuilt. After intermittently living at Bedford Dwellings for three decades, she said that she considers the area to be her home and looks forward to the next step.
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
Stephanie Strasburg is a photojournalist with PublicSource who can be reached at Stephanie@publicsource.org or on Twitter @stephstrasburg.
This story was fact-checked by Lajja Mistry.
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
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