What Harrisburg can do to help with Pittsburgh’s affordable housing crunch

This ask is not new.

Homes on Western Avenue

Homes on Western Avenue

Paul McCarthy / Flickr

State representatives and local officials gathered today in Pittsburgh. They’d come to discuss the delicate balance between retaining affordable housing and creating new housing or rehabilitating existing stock.

Fittingly, they chose to meet in Lawrenceville, a neighborhood that exemplifies this tug-of-war arguably as well as any other. In a conference room inside the Teamster Temple on Butler Street, surrounded by the rapidly evolving streetscape outside the walls, state Rep. Dom Costa, D-Allegheny, convened today’s Democratic Policy Committee hearing in an effort to determine what state legislators can do to aid local efforts on this front.

He was joined today by six fellow Democratic state reps — Dan Frankel, Paul Costa, Harry Readshaw, Chris Sainato, Ed Gainey and Kevin Boyle. It was part information session and part strategic briefing.

While there was little new in terms of the testimony heard from two panels of experts, the hearing signaled a renewed — if not heightened — interest on behalf of some in Harrisburg to determine what more they can be doing.

The short answer provided by two panels of experts was simple: more funding.

“In the early 2000s, the City of Pittsburgh received as much as $7.2 million annually from the Pennsylvania Housing and Redevelopment Assistance line item, the predecessor to today’s Keystone Communities Program,” Robert Rubinstein, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, said in written testimony.

“Now, in 2017, the city is competing statewide for a share of the $13 million Keystone Communities line item. It is likely the city will receive less than $500,000 of those funds.”

Rubinstein said federal redevelopment funding has also fallen.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s housing divide has only continued to grow, and the city currently lacks some 15,000 needed affordable units, Rubinstein added. Some have called it an affordable housing crisis.

At the local level, Pittsburgh officials are discussing or trying to implement a number of responses. Those include the creation of a still-unfunded affordable housing fund and passing a resolution urging Harrisburg to create a student loan forgiveness plan for homebuyers, one meant to make the city more attractive to those weighing job offers and out-of-state moves. These responses also involve the “flipping” of city-owned properties for conversion into long-term affordable housing.

But all of this takes money, and there is always a need for more as the city works to maintain affordable housing where it exists and in some cases where it soon might not.

“In Hazelwood, someone from Boston bought 15 properties, and they’ll just sit there because they know the Almono site is coming,” Councilman Corey O’Connor, District 5, testified today.

“Then [the buyer] sits on them, and they hold the city and neighborhood hostage. We, the city and URA are trying to get as much property around future development sites as possible” to avoid this outcome, O’Connor explained.

But funding cuts generally hamper these and similar efforts, or at least limit their impact, the experts said.

It’s unclear, though, if given Harrisburg’s seemingly perennial budget crises, a restoration of development funding or even a maintenance of funding is likely.

But Costa said it sure ought to be.

“We need to make sure the people we serve have the ability to live where they want to and can afford to, but we have to make the affordability be there.”