‘Throwing everything against the wall,’ Pittsburgh’s housing authority aims to dent lengthy waiting lists

Caster Binion says he’s open to “any way we can get affordable housing at a reasonable cost.”

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People walk along Johnston Avenue in Glen Hazel, near townhomes owned by an affiliate of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

People walk along Johnston Avenue in Glen Hazel, near townhomes owned by an affiliate of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

As Pittsburgh households waiting for subsidized housing continue to outnumber those receiving such benefits, the agency charged with bridging that gap is dishing bonuses to landlords, floating subsidies to developers and more.

“So we do have a crisis” in regard to affordable housing, Caster Binion, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP], said in a December interview with PublicSource. “Rents are going up. So we’re throwing everything against the wall.”

Binion leads an agency responsible for sheltering some 7,755 households, either in its own apartments or those paid through the Housing Choice Voucher program, known as Section 8. At the end of November, there were 11,828 households on the authority’s waiting lists.

“Then you have people in the city of Pittsburgh who have not applied,” Binion added, suggesting that the shortage of affordable housing is even larger than the waiting lists.

The authority has been  criticized for shifting funds meant for vouchers into large, public-private partnerships that build expensive, mixed-income communities. Binion has argued that the authority can’t get enough landlords to accept vouchers, so it has to support construction of new complexes. But rebuilds like Skyline Terrace in the Hill District — which has fewer than half of the low-income units as its predecessor, Addison Terrace — have not addressed the dearth of affordable homes.

Skyline Terrace in the Hill District. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Skyline Terrace in the Hill District. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

“We can’t sit back and not do anything,” Binion said. “We have to be constantly innovative, constantly trying to find a pathway to generate housing where you have a combined list of over 10,000 people.”

In 2021, the authority plans to pursue a two-pronged approach, trying to enhance the voucher program while continuing to revamp and build upon the publicly owned portfolio. It’s armed with a $186 million operating budget, some of which fuels a $51 million capital plan, which is also drawn in part from $84 million in the accounts of a related nonprofit entity.

"We are not totally satisfied as a housing authority with how we’re doing as far as meeting the need of the housing crisis in the city of Pittsburgh,” Binion continued. “So it’s kind of like, we throw a whole lot of darts up against the board, and see what sticks.”

Four Section 8 darts

When COVID-19 arrived in March, the authority scrambled to enhance disinfection of its buildings, equip administrative staff for remote work, secure donations of food for residents and set up systems to communicate electronically with tenants. “The first 90 days, man, it was crazy,” said Binion. “I think we finally got solid where we have been able to manage our internet relationships with our clients.”

Caster Binion, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. (Courtesy of HACP)

Caster Binion, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. (Courtesy of HACP)

Then the authority’s attention returned to its five-figure waiting lists. At the end of November, there were 4,688 households on waiting lists for public housing apartments, and 7,140 awaiting vouchers.

The authority turned first to the voucher program, in which low-income households pay 30% of their incomes to private landlords, with the authority picking up the balance. Eligibility depends on location, family size and annual household income. In the Pittsburgh area, families of four earning less than $41,500 can qualify for vouchers, though most of the vouchers are supposed to go to families with extremely low incomes — less than $26,200 for a family of four.

The federal government is expected to provide the authority with $52 million for vouchers for 2021. The authority plans to pay $44 million of that to landlords, with some of the rest going to its construction and maintenance efforts. HACP is allowed to shift voucher funds to other uses because it is one of 38 authorities nationwide that has budget flexibility under the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s [HUD] Moving to Work program.

From July through December, the authority rolled out a series of what Binion called “demonstrations” — innovative pilot programs meant to entice more landlords to accept the vouchers.

  • Landlords that bring new apartments into the Section 8 program can get $1,000 bonuses after a voucher-holding tenant has remained in the unit for three months. So far, that offer has resulted in 35 new units.
  • Landlords that want to bring apartments up to code, and then rent to voucher holders, can get low-interest loans and enhanced rents if they pledge to keep the units affordable for 15 years. HACP is working with the Urban Redevelopment Authority on that effort.
  • A similar package of loans and enhanced rent payments will assist landlords that want to make their units more accessible and rent to disabled voucher holders.
  • Tenants that want to move to neighborhoods with lower concentrations of poverty can get enhanced vouchers that aim to cover the higher rents in such areas. HACP has its own so-called mobility program, and is working with the Allegheny County Housing Authority in an application for a joint grant to move more residents to lower-poverty areas.

Binion said that the current landlord-tenant climate, marked by economic dislocation and curbs on eviction, could make vouchers, and the resulting checks from the authority, more attractive to landlords. He said he's hearing some landlords tell him: "'Yeah, we kind of like guaranteed payment.'”

Three — or more — redevelopment darts

The authority isn't quitting the policy that has characterized many of its activities this century: replacing old, dense-packed public housing with new, less crowded, mixed-income communities.

Its 2021 capital budget includes $18.5 million to modernize existing buildings, but also $22.1 million for more ambitious transformations. Part of that comes from a nonprofit entity, Allies & Ross Management and Development Corp., which the authority created in 2007 to participate in complex mixed-finance housing efforts.

The authority makes periodic transfers to Allies & Ross, typically tied to specific developments, and at the end of November the nonprofit had $84 million in its bank accounts. Much of that is obligated to ongoing or planned projects, including some of the three big rebuilds on the authority’s drawing boards.

  • In 2021, Allies & Ross is expected to set aside $5 million for Bedford Dwellings, the last large authority-run complex in the Hill District, with 421 apartments. Binion said his plan is to promptly begin discussions with the community, and to apply for low-income housing tax credits. If successful, the authority will start by transforming roughly 80 apartments around Somers Drive into a new configuration that will include “maybe 60 affordable units,” though nothing will change during 2021, he said.
  • Another $4 million is slated for the third through fifth phases of an ongoing transformation of an area along the border of Larimer and East Liberty.
  • The authority in December won a $450,000 HUD grant to plan a similar process in Allegheny Dwellings, in Fineview. That community now houses 160 families, and the process of planning its redevelopment will take time, Binion cautioned. “We might not see some significant stuff happening in Allegheny [Dwellings] for three or four years.”
The Larimer School, closed for 30 years, is to be reborn under a Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grant. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

The Larimer School, closed for 30 years, is to be reborn under a Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grant. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Another $6 million in Allies & Ross’s money is available to help developers, community groups and faith-based organizations to fill gaps in their plans to finance affordable housing efforts.

While much of the Allies & Ross money is spoken for, “I do have some in there for innovation and opportunities,” Binion said. The authority could purchase buildings for conversion into affordable housing, or even buy units in new, private developments, he said.

“If a developer came in and they built a large building that is primarily market [rate rents], we might go in and buy some of those units,” he said. What’s he looking for in such deals? “Any way we can get affordable housing at a reasonable cost.”

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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