A new affordable housing plan drafted by the Fineview and Perry Hilltop Citizens Councils proposes key policy changes and resources such as Community Land Trusts for fighting gentrification in Pittsburgh’s Northside.
By Emery Malachowski
Photo: Members of the Fineview and Perry Hilltop Citizens Councils pose with board members, volunteers, and a tenant in front of 21 Lanark St. Courtesy of Fineview and Perry Hilltop Citizens Councils
Proposed changes to affordable land and homeownership in the Northside could allow the neighborhoods themselves to hold greater control of their futures.
In July, The Northside Chronicle spoke to members of the Fineview and Perry Hilltop Citizens Councils about a Five-Year Affordable Housing Plan for their Northside communities, published in March of this year.
In addition to giving an overview of the demographics of the Fineview and Perry Hilltop area and defining what real estate ‘affordability’ looks like there, the Five-Year Affordable Housing Plan proposes the implementation of Community Land Trusts (or CLTs).
Community Land Trusts
A community land trust is a community-based organization that “acquires land and maintains ownership of it permanently…” The Affordable Housing Plan explains that in a CLT, “…homes are owned by a homeowner, who leases the land from the land trust. Because CLTs retain ownership of the underlying land, leases dictate that CLT housing [emphasis added] remains permanently affordable, even as original beneficiaries of affordable homes sell and move on.”
Fineview and Perry Hilltop Community Councils are looking to acquire properties in their neighborhoods to lease in this way: continuing to own the land themselves, while promoting affordable homeownership of the houses situated on it.
Joanna Deming, executive director of the Perry Hilltop and Fineview Citizens Councils, and Sally Stadelman, a member of the Councils’ board of directors, both discussed the difficulties of working to improve neighborhoods without “pricing out” the residents themselves.
Renters, Stadelman said, are some of the most vulnerable members of a community when it comes to housing; the “red herring” of neighborhood gentrification is the displacement of them. Real estate taxes for homeowners are less likely to drastically increase than rent, Deming said, partially because the county has not reassessed the value of homes in their neighborhoods since 2012, and there is not a lot of appetite in the community to do so. While homeowners are still vulnerable to displacement, they have the ability to build equity—the difference between what your house is worth and what you owe on it—as the wealth of their neighborhood increases. By building equity, homeowners have the ability to resell their home or take out loans against the house’s equity in an emergency.
Deming noted that building equity through homeownership is only possible if the process isn’t undercut by predatory investors who will buy the homes for much less than they are worth and then flip and resell them for unaffordable prices, a scenario that the CLT hopes to help homeowners avoid.
Fred Smith, the Councils’ housing chair and a professional realtor, said that the appeal of land trusts is the ability for the trust’s affordable housing to “outlive us.” It is one of the tools, he said, that puts restrictions on the sale of property, both residential and commercial. In commercial CLTs, it can be used to avoid “pricing out” local businesses. It also allows for community choice within the business district, said Deming, by giving the community the power to determine which businesses can lease the land. Questions such as whether the business provides jobs to the community, whether it is owned by a member of their community, and whether it fits into the future the community sees for itself are key factors, along with whether the business is affordable to residents already living in the area.
Stadelman emphasized how important it is for neighborhoods to be self-sustaining, and for it to be possible for residents to walk and purchase what they need in their own neighborhood: It fosters a sense of community and plays a role in achieving greater equity.
When the community has choice over the commercial district, explained Deming, it can lead to greater access to basic necessities, like quality affordable food, which she said Fineview and Perry Hilltop currently lack.
“Everyone deserves good schools, business districts, grocery stores, and not living near falling down houses,” Deming said. The Councils’ Affordable Housing Plan hopes to help the communities achieve these goals.
Additional avenues for change
Resisting displacement takes a multi-angle approach, and CLTs are only one part of the solution. That’s why neighborhood groups such as the Fineview and Perry Hilltop Community Councils and the Brightwood Civic Group (BCG) have teamed up with the Northside Leadership Conference (NSLC) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).
At the URA board meeting on August 13, plans for development projects for low income and affordable housing units in select Northside neighborhoods were discussed and approved, as well as proposals for partnerships across Pittsburgh.
NSLC and BCG acquired six units on Woodland Avenue in Marshall-Shadeland. They plan to rehabilitate these for resale to households that are at or under 80% average median income (AMI), and these units will remain as affordable housing for a 99-year period. The URA approved the allocation of funding to help pay to develop these units as well as to bridge the gap between the costs of the units’ rehab and the affordable prices they want to sell them for. These houses are in the final stages of rehabilitation before they will be sold.
Darnell Jackson, real estate director for NSLC and project manager for these units, explained that the original purpose of these developments was to prevent blight and reduce crime in the area, which he believes is proving to be a success. He said he hopes that NSLC will be able to acquire more properties to rehabilitate in the surrounding streets in the future.
The URA also approved funding for a unit at 9 Lanark St. in Fineview. The Fineview Citizens Council acquired this property and is in the process of providing significant rehabilitation to it before it can be resold. The community group plans to rent the unit to a household that makes 60% of the median income, and it will be kept under rent restriction for 15 years.
Deming was at the meeting and spoke on behalf of the Fineview Citizens Council. She discussed how the area around Lanark Street is one of the target areas identified in the Council’s Five-Year Affordable Housing Plan, and that the Council is already developing two other properties nearby. Many Fineview and Perry Hilltop households are cost-burdened, she said, and the area is 423 units short of the amount of affordable ones that it needs.
The URA also discussed their Community Engagement Ambassadors (CEA), who help residents apply to rental assistance programs from the URA, City, and county. This program is run by the URA and Omicelo real estate investment, which according to their website, “aims to create comprehensive economic change throughout communities, without causing unnecessary displacement.”
Adrienne Walnoha, the director of Omicelo’s community health initiatives, discussed the CEA partnerships, one of which is The Wellness Collective, founded by Northside resident Shanon Williams. According to its website, The Wellness Collective is a “consortium of neighbors helping neighbors through emergencies and onto a path of stability.” Neighbors contribute a pay-what-you-can monthly membership fee, which goes toward a community fund to pay wellness providers for services such as mental and physical health care, food, and clothing.
In an interview with The Northside Chronicle, Williams voiced concerns over the displacement of Northside residents and gentrification, particularly in East Liberty.
Originally a social worker, Williams has been involved in a variety of nonprofits and believes that gentrification is motivated and fed through systemic racism. She used to attend Oliver High School in the Northside and said the closing of it in 2013 was one of her early motivations to become involved in nonprofit work. The value of public resources—particularly schools, she said—ranks alongside that of affordable housing and employment when it comes to staving off displacement.
In regard to affordable housing, Smith explained that the City doesn’t “see the urgent need the way the community does,” and while he appreciates the support the City gives, “anything tangible takes forever…”
“…We’re racing against investors and other parties trying to move into the neighborhood and take over,” Smith said. We’re doing our best to hold the line, but we need the support.”
Deming agrees. The neighborhood organizations would like to repair blighted land and properties, but the process of transferring these properties from the City to the neighborhood council can take two to three years.
Community organizations should not only be focused on fundraising from the City, Deming said, but they should also be working toward policy change in order to address the bigger issues that affect inequality within their communities. Deming notes that policies like addressing race inequality, a ballooning prison population, and low wages are critical to solve housing issues.
They are all interconnected, she said, which is why policy change is necessary along with funding for projects such as affordable housing.