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Pittsburgh zoning change would make it easier to build rowhouses, attached housing across the city

Renovated rowhouses in Bloomfield.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Renovated rowhouses in Bloomfield. Each is less than 35 feet wide.

Supporters and a handful of opponents of a zoning reform bill that would make it easier to build attached houses in Pittsburgh neighborhoods spoke out at a public hearing Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Councilman Bobby Wilson, would allow attached houses that share walls on lots that are 35 feet wide or smaller without special zoning exemptions. It would apply citywide.

Supporters speaking Wednesday before City Council members cast it as a small but important reform that would make it easier to build housing in general and more affordable housing as well. Some supporters of the measure carried signs reading: “Houses can touch,” or “Today’s communities can’t be built on yesterday's zoning.”

Jon Hanrahan, a Fineview resident and vice president of the Fineview Citizens Council, spoke in favor of the legislation.

“Our housing market is broken in a fundamental way,” he said. “We have to make more low-cost housing available. And so we cannot maintain zoning rules that needlessly delay construction of homes for poor and working-class people.”

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The bill was inspired by a North Side zoning dispute: two nonprofits, the Fineview Citizens Council and City of Bridges Community Land Trust, have been trying to build eight new homes on Lanark Street in Fineview. The homes would be affordable for people earning less than 80% of area median income, which is roughly $75,000 annually for a family of four. Some of the homes would be attached, with no spaces in between them — something normally not permitted under the zoning code.

The nonprofit developers were granted variances to move forward by the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, but after a lawsuit brought by two neighbors, a judge ruled those variances should not have been granted. The nonprofits said they would still be able to build the housing, but the zoning rules added additional time and burdensome costs to the project.

The Fineview case is one of several recent high-profile instances that advocates for building more housing through loosening zoning restrictions have pointed to as showing the need for overall zoning reforms. Officials in the Department of City Planning have said larger zoning reforms are in the works.

Opponents of the bill who spoke Wednesday said they were concerned the legislation was rushed and contended it won’t help fix housing affordability issues. They also said it threatens neighborhood character and questioned the impacts it might have on their properties.

Speaker David Demko said he believes the bill is “misguided,” and said he thinks it won’t help create more affordable housing.

“The purpose of zoning is to protect the context and character of the neighborhood,” he said.

The bill received a positive recommendation from the city’s Planning Commission. It has the support of seven other city council members.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said Wednesday she had concerns that the legislation was so “broad.”

Bill sponsor Wilson said he would like to see the legislation get a vote soon; it could get a standing committee vote as soon as next week.

“It’s very encouraging to see how many people are in favor of this,” he said.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.