An Affordable Housing Project In East Liberty Hopes To Bring Back Penn Plaza Residents
A $13 million project that aims to expand affordable housing in East Liberty will go before Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority tomorrow. The board will decide whether to sell a parcel of land and provide financing for the second phase of the Mellon’s Orchard Apartments, built by Trek Development Group. The project is intended to help replace housing lost when the Penn Plaza Apartments were demolished in 2016 and 2017.
Originally, the URA imagined high-end housing on the land, said William Gatti, president of Trek: one site on Station Street where the first phase of Mellon’s Orchard went up in 2020, and another at the corner of Harvard and Beatty Streets. But when residents were told to leave Penn Plaza in 2015 to make way for a new development, the URA instead sought affordable housing proposals.
If approved, the second phase of Mellon’s Orchards would create 42 apartments. Nine of them will be rented at market-rate, while 33 will be set aside for people who earn less than 60% of area median income, or about $35,000 for an individual.
Trek has worked closely with Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition to help people come back to East Liberty, said Gatti.
“Really it’s about identifying, encouraging, and attracting former Penn Plaza residents to return,” he said.
He noted that the 70 affordable apartments included in the entire Mellon’s Orchard project is still less than half of what existed at Penn Plaza.
While anyone can apply for the apartments, former Penn Plaza residents will be given preference.
“We don’t hold units vacant, you know, waiting for Penn Plaza residents, but we work hard to make sure they’re aware of it,” Gatti said. “We work through any personal situations they have on timing or credit or moving expenses.”
Relocation work is hard, said Crystal Jennings, a representative of the Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition. She helped connect 12 Penn Plaza residents to the apartments in the first phase of Mellon’s Orchard, but said some of people who were displaced are gone for good..
“Some residents who connected with us just are tired of moving,” she said. “They weren’t willing to come back to the city they have been displaced from many times.”
The coalition received three grants to fund the relocation. Two from the Pittsburgh Foundation’s Social Justice Fund allowed Jennings to locate former residents and help them through the application process. A third grant, from The Heinz Endowments, helped cover the costs of moving and cleaning the residents’ old apartments so they could recoup their security deposits.
Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition wants to see all residents displaced from their homes in the city to have access to similar relocation services, funded not with private dollars but with public money. The coalition notes that there are too many barriers to residents who want to return to their homes.
“Many affordable units aren’t actually affordable,” Jennings said.
City and state representatives as well as advocates often note that the greatest need for housing is for people who earn 30% or less of area median income, or about $17,000 for an individual. In the second phase of the Mellon’s Orchard Apartments, four units are set aside for people with incomes less than 20% of median income, and four units for those with incomes of 30% or less.
Trek received tax-credit funding for the project in August 2020, and on Thursday the URA will vote whether to award a $450,000 Rental Gap Program loan to the project. The developer has proposed to buy the land for the project from the URA for $400,000.