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A lot of people with low incomes have left Pittsburgh, study finds

New construction rowhomes in Pittsburgh's Hill District.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh’s total population hasn’t changed much in recent years, but a new housing needs assessment from the City of Pittsburgh suggests that beneath that stable topline number, the city’s demographics are changing rapidly — often at a cost to Black and lower-income residents.

When officials last published a housing needs report in 2016, the city was home to 306,000 residents. That number dropped slightly to just 302,000 by 2019, but the number of households went up — a trend driven by the fact that newer households in the city are more likely to comprise one to two people, instead of three or four.

These newer households tend to have more education and earn much higher incomes — a pattern that has influenced what housing gets built, and at what price. The new study found that gross rents increased by 16%, and that the median home price jumped to $218,000 from $167,000. Ninety percent of new construction has been in non-subsidized multifamily buildings.

At first, the study did appear to present one encouraging statistic: a shrinking supply gap for housing affordable to people who earn less than 30% of area median income. (This year, that would amount to $21,100 for an individual and less than $30,000 for a family of four.)

In 2016, officials estimated that the city needed 14,500 more units of affordable housing for that population. The new assessment found that number had dropped to about 8,200.

“We wanted to jump for joy and celebrate that the number decreased,” Christopher Corbett, who works for the city planning department, told the city’s planning commission last week. But upon further inspection, he said, “The only reason that number decreased is because those who could not find housing left or became unhoused.”

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Between 2015 and 2019, Pittsburgh lost 3,000 renters with low incomes, while it gained 5,000 renters who earn more than 120 percent of the area median income.

Corbett cautioned that the city probably needs to “do a deeper dive” on the stock of affordable housing, suggesting that the roots of the problem could be more complex than the city has been able to identify. The supply gap was assessed using 2019 numbers, and the subsequent coronavirus pandemic had a significant impact on renters.

The city is also losing Black households, “the only racial or ethnic group to experience a decline,” the report found. While some higher-income Black households moved into the city, Pittsburgh lost nearly 350 Black renter households. The rate of Black homeownership also declined by 7%, even as home ownership rates increased for almost all other groups.

The housing needs assessment found that the city will attract nearly 10,000 new households in the coming decade, nearly 75% of which will be renters. In addition to new multifamily construction accessible to people with lower incomes, officials say Pittsburgh needs a diversity of housing types, particularly of the “soft density” variety, meaning duplexes or triplexes.

Corbett said that the city’s solutions include protecting tenants’ rights and lifting restrictions on what can be built where. He said the city will work to expand subsidies to longtime homeowners, low-income renters, and continue conversations with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. He said 75% of the authority’s housing choice vouchers go unused.

Corbett said the city also envisions offering greater subsidies to developers: “We want to find strong policies that will make it more affordable to build, for the developer, and in turn, are hoping to see more units being affordable to renters and incomes across the board.”

The city has recommended a consultant to begin work on the Department of City Planning’s comprehensive plan for Pittsburgh, to help guide future development; the consultant is HR&A Advisors, which also completed an evaluation of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. HR&A must still go through a process that includes a vote by city council. The Department of City Planning has also been working to update the zoning code to allow for more housing types in more places.

Right now, just 24% of the city’s land can be used to build multi-unit housing of four or more units, according to the report.

The city is “missing out on places that can be more dense,” Corbett said.

Corrected: October 11, 2023 at 2:49 PM EDT
This article was amended to correct the city’s possible retention of HR&A to work on Pittsburgh’s comprehensive plan.