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Larimer residents oppose plans for more housing, citing lack of affordability

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Residents in Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood say they want to keep land slated for the development of market-rate homes as green space. Community members voted Wednesday night to oppose a proposal from East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI) to build 14, mostly market-rate duplexes along East Liberty Boulevard.

Donna Jackson, executive director of the Larimer Consensus Group, told the few dozen residents who gathered at the Kingsley Association that the community must now decide how to use this land.

“Do you want it landscaped? Because right now, what you’re going to have to do is get a petition and talk about zoning because right now it’s residential,” she said.

Keeping the land as green space in perpetuity, she added, would require a commitment from the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority. The agency owns the land in question, and while it seeks input from community groups, it has the final say.

“We’re going to make our position clear, but it’s ultimately a URA determination whether or not they allow [the homes] to be built on it or not,” said K. Chase Patterson, chair of the Larimer Consensus Group’s board.

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At last month’s Development Activity Meeting in Larimer, residents took issue with East Liberty Development Inc.’s vision. Spread between East Liberty Boulevard and Carver Street, each duplex would be 1,400 to 1,800 square feet, with three bedrooms and 1.5 baths. A representative with the developer said all of the homes would be energy efficient, with rear parking access on Dix Way.

While 30% of the homes will be set aside for low-income households (or families that earn at most 80% of the area median income), the rest will go for as much as $750,000, according to meeting minutes from March.

Those earmarked as affordable housing will cost between $180,000 and $200,000, with the option for a second deferred mortgage. But many at the DAM meeting, and again on Wednesday, were wary of how affordable any of these homes would be to those already living in the community.

“The homes that they are developing, none of us in here could afford [them],” said Cynthia Howard, a Larimer resident of more than 20 years. “It’s for you. It’s for someone who has a high-income job that can afford those properties.”

Residents also raised concerns about developer ELDI, and whether these homes could displace current residents. ELDI could not be immediately reached for comment.

In a written response to residents’ questions, ELDI said, while it does own 10 parcels in Larimer, “Plans are to build for-sale homes on these lots, but the timing is dependent upon construction funding and available subsidies for affordable buyers. The East Liberty Boulevard [development] should help reestablish the Larimer for-sale housing market, such that scattered site developments can proceed.”

Long-time community members like Betty Lane, however, took issue with their reasoning, calling it disingenuous. She cited four new townhomes Habitat for Humanity broke ground on last year inside Larimer’s residential core.

“They're acting just like those scalpers that come in and buy the property, sit on it, wait for the value to go up and sell it,” Lane said.

After years of trying to attract investment in the East End, ELDI shifted its focus away from its portfolio of largely affordable rental units. Its leaders say that they have instead opted to build and sell both market-rate and affordable homes, paying for those properties by selling the rental units it used to manage.

In the written set of answers addressed to residents, ELDI representatives said they have sold 10 rehabbed properties to “affordable homeowners” in the past several years. The company says continuing to do so alongside new development will improve property values in Larimer, and draw investors.

But like many present Wednesday, Barbara Fowler called on her neighbors to do so on their own through efforts to maintain blight.

“We need to come together and start keeping it up,” she said.

Jackson, who also serves on ELDI’s board, said she could understand why people were hesitant about the nonprofit.

“If you live somewhere, and you strive to make your home decent and nice, and people come in and say, ‘We're going to do this,’ it's like, ‘Hold up. Talk to us,’” she said.

Jackson said the development would have built upon a foundation laid by the nearby Larimer-East Liberty Choice Neighborhoods initiative, which is currently in its final phase of construction. The program received $30 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to create 334 mixed-income rental units.

“And they say you always build on the strong edges,” Jackson added. “So East Liberty Boulevard was that strong edge since development is [already] coming around [there].”

Still, Jackson said the Consensus Group wants to find more developers who will build housing inside the neighborhood, rather than on its borders.

That, she noted, depends on who is willing to come in and do it.

Updated: April 27, 2023 at 12:26 PM EDT
Updated with details from Wednesday meeting.
Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.