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Housing Opportunity Fund Board Members Meet For The First Time, They’re Already Under A Time Crunch

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
The board held its first meeting Friday, July 13 at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, but expects to hold its next meeting in City Council Chambers to allow for greater public access.

Pittsburgh City Council approved a revenue stream for the Housing Opportunity Fund in December 2017, and last month approved members of an advisory board. They met for the first time on Friday. Those 17 people are charged with figuring out how to allocate the fund’s first $10 million in the next six months.

“We’re more than halfway through the calendar year, which is the city’s fiscal year, and we haven’t spent one nickel,” said Mark Masterson of the Northside Community Development Fund. He, like many of the board’s members, served on the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force.

Masterson warned members that given the political fights over the fund, the board should move quickly to get money out the door and demonstrate success in order to secure the fund’s future.

“We would really not be serving anyone well not to have the bulk of these funds committed at least by the end of this year,” he said.

Jerome Jackson of Homewood’s Operation Better Block acknowledged the time constraint, but said he doesn’t want to move too fast.

“I just want to caution that with the haste in trying to use this money we don’t end up funding bad stuff,” he said. “I don’t want to hurry up and spend $10 million, and then we have egg on our face.”

The Housing Opportunity Fund relies on an increase to the realty transfer tax: raised 0.5 percent in 2017, with another 0.5 percent increase in 2020, the tax is expected to generate at least $10 million annually. The money is intended to help existing homeowners stay in their residences through repair and rehabilitation assistance, to protect existing affordable housing and to build new affordable housing, to prevent homelessness, and to create long-term affordability.

But before the advisory board can begin deciding how best to spend the money, or how to grow the fund, they must first establish how the group will work.

The 2016 council legislation that created the Housing Opportunity Fund designated the URA as the fund’s governing board. The fund’s advisory board will make recommendations to the URA’s board, which will be the final arbiter of what does or does not get financed.

In April, the URA approved consultant HR&A Advisors, Inc. to help the draft policies and procedures to create an annual allocation plan, as well as a conflict of interest policy.

Because it operates out of the URA, the Housing Opportunity Fund will run as a sort of sister department to the authority’s existing housing department, said director Jessica Smith Perry, formerly the URA’s deputy housing director.

“They’ll be two departments that work together in some aspects, but also have different funding sources,” she said.

At the board’s first meeting on Friday members discussed setting out best practices, familiarizing themselves with the URA’s existing housing programs, and looking at how other cities, such as Detroit, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., approach inclusionary housing.

In addition, board members discussed how the law expresses who can apply to work on projects financed through the Housing Opportunity Fund. Derrick Tillman, president of Bridging the Gap Development, is concerned that the law does not specifically mention Minority and Women-Owned Businesses. Before the next meeting, the board expects to consult with a lawyer and potentially seek an amendment.

In the interim, advocacy organization Pittsburgh United is working with the advisory board to gather community feedback. They scheduled five meetings throughout the summer in different regions of the city; the first was held Thursday night.

The next meeting is scheduled for 6 - 8 p.m. on Tuesday, July 24 at the Jeron X. Grayson Center in the Hill District.