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Pittsburgh City Council Considers An Infusion Of Cash For Affordable Housing

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
If approved, bond money could be used to build new for-sale and rental units, rehab older buildings, and incentivize market-rate developers to include affordable housing.

The need for affordable housing in Pittsburgh continues to grow, and City Council is considering floating a bond to address the issue. Councilor Reverend Ricky Burgess said the shortage is north of 20,000 units, and while there’s been progress since that estimate was made in 2016, more funding is needed to meet the city's housing challenges.

“Every year the problem gets worse,” he said. “We need to create new projects quickly, that’s where the bond comes in.”

Council members regularly approve bonds to support the capital budget, but this bond would be used just for affordable housing. Burgess said he thinks it would be possible to float a $60 million bond by using part of the Housing Opportunity Fund’s annual $10 million allocation to pay for it.

Some of the fund’s programs, such as rental assistance or down payments for first-time homeowners, could not be paid for with the proceeds of a bond; Burgess said the city would not endanger those programs by using any more than half of the annual allotment. But the money could be used to essentially turbo-charge the work they already do to rehab old houses and build new ones. The money could also be used to incentivize market-rate developers to include affordable housing in their projects.

Councilors Anthony Coghill and Deb Gross expressed concern about too much borrowing. When Gross first joined council in 2014, some $80 million of its roughly $500 million budget was dedicated solely to paying down its debts.

“It was distressing,” she said. “So much money that we’d borrowed and had to send off in checks to Wall Street. I want to make sure we don’t get ourselves in that position.”

However, she supports continuing the conversation about how to boost investment in affordable housing, and gathering input from the public to hear what the priorities should be for any bond money.

Councilor Daniel Lavelle said it’s always legitimate to worry about debt, but the cost of borrowing right now is low and the need is great; the city needs as many resources as possible.

“The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. There are thousands of residents who are in drastic need of housing support.”

The idea of using the annual Housing Opportunity Fund allocation to support an even greater infusion of cash is not a new one; council considered it in the early days of the fund’s existence. However, at the time, the city didn’t have the track record to prove they could put the money to work. Now, the Housing Opportunity Fund has three years of projects to point to, as well as evidence of the demand for more funding.

Exactly how much demand is important, said Councilor Erika Strassburger. Council members intend to meet with the Urban Redevelopment Authority to establish an inventory of projects that could move forward if only they had the money.

“It’s like a Goldilocks kind of fund,” she said. “It has to be the exact right amount to be able to be spent quickly. You can’t hold onto bond money; you have to spend it quickly."

Burgess hopes council will take action in the next month.