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From reparations to cooperative housing, Pittsburghers share ideas with Gainey’s transition team

Gene J. Puskar

More than 100 people gathered virtually on Monday night to discuss how to make development equitable in Pittsburgh. It was the first of four community listening sessions organized by Mayor Ed Gainey’s transition team.

“These gatherings are designed to focus our community’s attention on recommendations of actionable solutions that can move our community forward,” said Angel Gober, the team’s co-chair.

The team’s equitable development committee has been tasked with finding ways to ensure development “responds to our communities’ priorities,” said Bob Damewood, a housing lawyer who co-chairs the committee with Monica Ruiz, who leads Casa San José.

Damewood and Ruiz said they wanted to hear from people about affordable housing, zoning, and support for entrepreneurs and artists.

A sense of urgency and hope characterized the following two hours of guided discussion, which included a series of breakout groups in which people were asked to describe existing barriers to equitable development as well as to share “bold ideas” with the Gainey administration.

Affordable housing — how best to define it, how to expand it, how to move faster, how to pay for it — surfaced repeatedly. Several groups proposed new housing models, or a return to older models such as cooperative housing; others proposed workforce development programs that could help create jobs as well as restore existing homes. There was also discussion of repurposing office space hit hard by the pandemic’s new working patterns.

The subject of vacant and abandoned land was another vein of inquiry: how could improved access to the city’s more than 30,000 parcels be an opportunity for communities? One group suggested that giving land for farming to Black and brown Pittsburghers could be a form of reparations. On the flip side, other groups discussed how to ensure that large land-owning nonprofits help ease the city’s housing crisis.

Land- and housing-related suggestions included an overhaul of Pittsburgh’s zoning code, an assessment of the city’s tax abatements, and programs to help people with low or fixed incomes pay property taxes.

There were many suggestions for how Pittsburgh could support and elevate artists and creators, from creating a cultural department within the mayor’s office, to building a directory to highlight the assets in different neighborhoods. While infrastructure was not the focus of Monday’s meeting, one group noted that a lack of investment in some neighborhoods may contribute to people’s reluctance to go there.

Other ideas ranged from financial support for new small businesses and ways to keep commercial space affordable, to free transportation for all, and a citywide community benefits agreement all developers would have to contribute to.

At the meeting’s end, Gober thanked everyone for their time, and said “there are many important opportunities for the Gainey administration to act on.”

The next three listening sessions will focus on education and workforce development, community health and safety, and infrastructure and environment. The transition team will then review all of the community input and present a report and recommendations to Gainey in April.

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at