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URA Approves New Support For Lending Program In Pittsburgh's Historically Black Neighborhoods

Ariel Worthy
In October of 2020, city, county, and state officials gathered in Larimer to announce the Avenues of Hope initiative.

On Thursday, the board of Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority greenlit a lending program for Avenues of Hope, which aims to revitalize business corridors in seven historically Black city neighborhoods.

The new program is intended to help businesses buy time and build wealth: Applicants will be able to borrow up to $200,000, with no payments for the first 20 years, to acquire commercial real estate.

Jennifer Wilhelm is the URA’s director of commercial lending. As the agency started exploring loans for Avenues of Hope projects, Wilhelm said it became apparent that years of disinvestment in these communities led to real estate values too low to allow for traditional financing.

“We believe that as the economic development entity … part of our role is to figure out, how do we make up for those years of disinvestment,” she said. “We want them to start to see the same vitality that other areas of Pittsburgh are seeing.”

Funding for the program will come from one of three sources: the Pittsburgh Business Fund, the Enterprise Zone Revolving Loan Fund, or the Urban Development Fund.

URA board member Lindsay Powell said the agency is pushing hard to build out Avenues of Hope.

“We are trying to target, trying to attract, trying to support [minority- and women-owned] firms, and particularly Black firms, to come back to these spaces,” she said.

Businesses may still be eligible for the program if they are near the targeted avenues but not directly on them.

The board also announced Thursday that it will soon begin work to create strategic plans for two of the corridors, Chartiers and Perrysville Avenues.

For the Centre Avenue corridor in the Hill District, the board approved development plans for six townhomes on Rose Street, as well as a 45,000-square-foot commercial development on Centre called Sankofa Square. Both projects stem from an initiative begun in 2019 to foster community-driven development in the Hill; this was before the city announced the Avenues of Hope initiative in 2020.

While most development projects in the Hill, including the Rose Street townhomes, go through a community review process known as the Development Review Panel. Sankofa Square has not, according to the Hill Community Development Corporation.

City councilor and URA board member Daniel Lavelle said that’s due to a legal grey area dating from 2019. At the time, it was unclear whether the Hill CDC would apply as a developer for Centre Avenue parcels. If so, coordinating approval for other Centre Avenue projects would create a conflict of interest, Lavelle said. He added four community meetings had been held about Sankofa Square.

Meanwhile, officials are trying to move ahead on the construction of 12 affordable homes in Hazelwood — a project that has been delayed by the coronavirus and the fluctuating value of tax credits. Action taken by the board will allow City of Bridges Community Land Trust to break ground on four of the homes next spring.

The land trust’s director, Ed Nusser, said affordable housing has never been more important, nor harder to finance. He hopes that will change with federal help.

“We’re finally beginning to hear this idea of housing as infrastructure, housing as life-sustaining investments, which it is,” he said. He expressed cautious optimism about prospects for a $3.5 trillion spending measure approved by Senate Democrats.

URA board members said existing federal COVID-19 relief money could be used to grow the land trust’s work in Pittsburgh.

The city’s budget for the American Rescue Plan funds set aside roughly $70 million for the URA. Some activists have expressed concern that such plans were devised without adequate public input. But executive director Greg Flisram promised full transparency for how that money will be used, noting that “every dollar budgeted to us must be allocated to a specific purpose,” and will be discussed in public meetings.

In other housing matters, emergency housing assistance funded by the city will be administered by Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services starting Sept. 1. The Housing Stabilization Program offers up to three months of housing costs to families at risk of losing their homes. It was created by Pittsburgh’s Housing Opportunity Fund, but officials said moving it to the county will help people get what they need with less bureaucracy. In addition, the county can connect applicants to other services they may need.