Natalia Rudiak’s time as a Pittsburgh City Council member is coming to an end.
After serving two terms, Rudiak announced in December she would not seek reelection this year. Her reasons included the death of her mother, a desire to spend more time with family in Europe and the demands of being a local elected official.
“When you’re a state elected official or even a federal elected official, you’re a few levels removed from the public,” Rudiak told The Incline. “I go to community meetings, I get the finger wagged in my face. I get stopped in the grocery store. And people put their hopes and their fears and their dreams and their anger in you, and it’s a lot of emotional weight to carry — and particularly for someone like me.”
But Rudiak doesn’t think that sensitive or emotional people like her shouldn’t run for office.
“Everybody says you have to have a tough skin to run for office. I actually think the opposite is true,” she said. “I think you just need to have a tough core. If you know what your values are, you can let that stuff go right through you.”
In the two-way Democratic primary race for her seat, Rudiak’s put her full support behind her chief of staff Ashleigh Deemer over ward chair Anthony Coghill. “I would not feel comfortable leaving if I wasn’t sure it was going into good hands, and I’m doing everything I can to get Ashleigh Deemer elected,” she said. “We have so much in the pipeline, and there’s too much at stake to let that not happen.”
The Incline spoke to Rudiak in her City-County Building office in March about District 4, the challenges it’s facing and what Rudiak’s proud of. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Natalia Rudiak 101
First elected to council: 2009, replacing Jim Motznik, who left to become a district judge.
Next city council election: Rudiak’s seat is up in 2017, but she’s not running. You can read about that race here.
District 4 includes: Beechview, Bon Air, Brookline, Carrick and Overbrook. See the map.
Contact: Call the District 4 office at (412) 255-2131, or use this feedback form.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about District 4?
A: “That it’s quote-unquote far away,” Rudiak said, explaining that her district is just a short trip from Downtown and other points of interest. “It’s not far away, people.”
“People choose to live in south Pittsburgh because it is convenient,” she added.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing District 4 at the moment?
A: Rudiak pointed to three things: rebuilding the district’s main streets, home values and the heroin epidemic.
“Across all of the districts, our biggest challenge is rebuilding our main streets,” she said. “Our district was a little bit further behind in the decline of our main streets, so we’re a little bit further behind in the rejuvenation of our main streets.”
It was the same for “the replenishment and the rebuilding” of the district’s housing stock when she started, “but places like Overbook and Beechview and Brookline are really seeing an increase in housing values.”
But some of these neighborhoods are also hotspots for overdoses, as identified in a report by the county.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work around this issue internally really trying to figure out what our strategy is, because we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and we didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes. So trying to find our specific place in this effort has been a challenge, but we think we found a good partner finally with the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy,” Rudiak said. “We’re working with them to create a vision and goals specific to south Pittsburgh neighborhoods that we’re going to ask for community input on. That’s something that should be coming out in the next couple of months.”
Rudiak said her office will “be looking for community members to serve in district-wide, region-wide, south Pittsburgh-wide task force to tackle this issue from a very local perspective.”
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing our city as a whole?
“Blight is a problem,” she said, pointing to the thousands of tax delinquent properties on the city’s tax roll.
“Everyone wants quick and easy answers to this. Everyone sees a house on their block that may be distressed and say, ‘Well, why doesn’t the city do anything about it?’ ” she said. “The thing is, the rules around property law in the state are really complex. We can’t just take people’s property from them. … It’s just a very, very complex issue.”
The lack of affordable housing — or, more specifically, high-quality affordable housing — is tied to this issue, she said. But families in Pittsburgh are also concerned about affordable childcare. Rudiak pointed to a study by the Women and Girls Foundation that found childcare, not housing, was a top concern of single moms.
It’s an issue Rudiak has championed by sponsoring legislation that creates a task force to study how to implement free or affordable universal pre-K.
The looming specter over the city’s work, be it on affordable housing or on pre-K, are possible cuts to various programs by the Trump administration.
“The fact of the matter is we just built a $15 million senior high-rise in my district [with] 66 units of affordable housing and that was done through funding and tax credits that were enabled by the federal government,” Rudiak said. “And if programs like that went away, you can say goodbye to a lot of housing developments in the City of Pittsburgh.”
Ditto the road paving, hunger prevention programs and other city functions Pittsburgh does with the $12 million a year it gets in Community Development Block Grants.
“If that money went away, we’d have to find alternate funding sources,” Rudiak said. “I mean, that could be trouble for local taxpayers.”
Q: What have been your best and worst moments in office?
A: “I have a lot of best moments,” Rudiak said, pointing to the passage of several pieces of legislation, including a paid family leave bill for city employees.
“I’ve gotten personal thank-you notes from city employees about the time that they’ve been able to spend with their babies. And I personally know city employees who’ve been able to do that,” she said. “It’s brought tears to my eyes to know that we were able to make that possible. And I wish we could make that possible for the whole city, but we’re restricted by state law.”
Rudiak said she’s also proud of the work her office has done across her district.
“In every single neighborhood, I can point to something that we’ve been able to accomplish, from building the senior high-rise in Carrick to building the Beechview senior and community center, which is an over $3 million project, to getting the Brookline street reconstruction finally done. Every single neighborhood has those wins that I can point to,” she said.
“This is gonna sound strange,” she added, “but sometimes the best things that can happen are the things that don’t happen.”
In Overbrook, for example, her office stopped a strip club from opening. And during her first year on council, she and her colleagues “were able to block the privatization of our public parking assets, which would have ruined us,” she said. “I’m really proud of that.”
As far as worst moments, Rudiak had a hard time coming up with some.
“There was one incident where a constituent practically pulled out a gun on me,” she eventually said. “That was not good.”
Another worst moment led to something good: Snowmageddon.
It was early in Rudiak’s first term and she said people were calling her house — “my actual home number, because their electricity went off at their house, and one couple had a baby, and they didn’t know what to do.”
“I remember calling around, calling the Zone 3 station, and the phone was off the hook,” she said. “There was no information anywhere on how I, as an elected official, should respond to an emergency.”
Rudiak headed up a commission to examine the city’s response to the snowfall, which led to a number of new policies.
“I know for the fact that the Peduto administration used that report that we did as a blueprint for their snow response policy in 2015,” she said.
Q: What is your favorite thing about living in your district?
A: Rudiak has lived in D.C. and overseas, but she’s from District 4 and has lived there for the past 12 years.
“It’s real,” she said of her district. “There’s no hint of hipster irony. You know what I mean? … This is kind of specific to me. It wouldn’t be analogous to anyone else living there, but I grew up there, so I see a lot of familiar faces. It feels like home to me.”
Rudiak said she also loves that it’s “really family-oriented” and walkable, which she said many people don’t realize. Then there’s the housing prices.
“My house was inexpensive when I bought it, which meant that I was able to put so much money into renovating it. I live in a veritable mansion compared to some of my friends,” she said. “I would suggest for folks that may be priced out of their neighborhoods to come check out south Pittsburgh.”