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Bonus Episode: How Pittsburgh Is Building Trust To Redevelop Communities

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA


The term “affordable housing” has been thrown around by government officials and in neighborhood meetings. But trying to create thousands of affordable housing units in Pittsburgh can be a complicated process. We discuss on this special edition of The Confluence.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh say human-centered design will drive equitable investment
(00:00 — 7:57)

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh is helping homeowners of Larimer improve the roof and facades on their homes. Earlier this month, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and URA officials held a walking tour to show off their work.

“The real goal is to stimulate investment in underinvested neighborhoods in a way that does not spur gentrification,” says Diamonte Walker, deputy executive director of the URA. “The URA can really only regulate to the extent that we can control land and wield the economic development incentives.”

The URA functions in the city as both regulator and investor, two roles that may seem in opposition. Walker says the key to balancing both priorities has been to adopt a human-centered design approach: “Thinking about the human being within the nucleus of the development that is happening and making people the point and not development the point.”

The Peduto administration partnered with the URA to focus more on neighborhood investments, a move Walker says is key to ensuring all residents have a certain quality of life.

“In order for a city to really be healthy, all of its residents have to be healthy,” says Walker. “We have to be responsible with our power and with our influence. What does that look like in practice?”

Walker says a good example is the Centre Avenue request for qualifications process, what she calls the redevelopment of Centre Avenue, a corridor in the Hill District. The URA started with the neighborhood plan envisioned by existing residents and offered technical support.

“We preserve, and we stabilize what is already there, and we honor what is there by driving investment towards it,” says Walker. “The mayor’s office has been instrumental in helping us to shift our vision in that direction.”

Using existing neighborhood assets as a guiding light, Walker says, is one way to avoid conflicting priorities between residents and economic development.

“Residents want what’s best for them and their posterity,” says Walker. “One of the biggest problems and the biggest challenges with gentrification is that it pretends to make place more valuable by not already understanding and assuming that a place is valuable by the existing contributions.”

Walker explains it’s a challenge to navigate resident’s uncertainty about the projects themselves. Back in February, the new executive director of the URA, Greg Flisram, told The Confluence he was well aware of skepticism among long-time community members about development and the dearth of low income housing.

But Walker again points to Centre Avenue as an example: “Could we actually use publicly owned land to support and direct investment to a neighborhood, using the folks who are in that neighborhood?”

A year and a half later, she says the URA made a historic vote in advancing six proposals from minority and neighborhood driven developers for Centre Avenue. “That board vote symbolizes monetary investment, cultural investment, partnership, technical assistance, and that is how you make it real.”

Maintaining that momentum, Walker says, will require more resources, especially amidst the current economic downturn driven by the pandemic.

“Altruism and, you know, having a propensity and policies that want to support equitable economic development are not enough,” Walker says. “We are not resourced well enough right now to move markets towards equitable development at all costs. I wish that we were.”

Despite the situation, however, Walker says Mayor Peduto’s budget address pledged far more money than in year’s past to the URA’s work; PNC Bank also made a $10 million investment in August.

Local resources have already supported initiatives like the neighborhood investment fund and Avenues of Hope. The tool most lacking now, Walker says,  is federal support. She’s hopeful the incoming Biden administration will prioritize city-level equitable economic development.

Affordable housing is exacerbated by the pandemic, but measures to add units are slowly working
(8:00 — 17:53)

Ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pittsburgh had a dearth of affordable housing.

“Pre-COVID, there was a shortage of over 20,000 affordable units,” says Celeste Scott, Pittsburgh United’s Housing Justice Organizer. Eight months later, she says hundreds of additional residents are in need of units and assistance, despite an eviction moratorium from the CDC.

That shortage of affordable units has been steadily rising, at least since 2016, when the city's affordable housing task force found the city was short 18,000 units. Many who need those units earn less than 30 percent of the area median income.

President and CEO of Bridging the Gap Development, Derrick Tillman, adds that the crisis has to be resolved by preserving existing affordable housing and creating more units through creative solutions.

Tillman says it seems difficult to build affordable housing because it’s expensive. “If you’re doing high quality new construction of affordable housing, you can’t do it without tax credits,” which are highly competitive, Tillman explains. “Then, even with those tax credits, you still need gap financing, and that’s a scarce resource.”

To put this all together, he says, requires an above-average commitment to the project.

“What can we add to it so we have a smorgasbord of options? We need to create affordable housing in amenity-rich type areas that are more mixed income, but also in our traditional low-income areas, we need to create more mixed income” by adding market rate units and rehabilitating low quality units. This is the type of work Tillman’s company, Bridging the Gap, prioritizes.

The city can also play a role, he says. “One thing cities can do that won’t cost any more money is accelerated processing for affordable housing.” This could happen through zoning, city planning, and permitting to better advance affordable housing in Pittsburgh.

Celeste Scott also offers social housing as an alternative model for affordability.

“What social housing would be is housing that has wraparound services for folks, where people have housing that is also meeting their social needs,” Scott explains.

Success, Scott says, would be residents living in safe, quality affordable housing where they can thrive. “We’ve been getting so many horrific calls of women with children, a lot of black women with children, being evicted, living in their cars,” says Scott. She adds these calls came in pre-COVID, and are still coming in today.

Tillman agrees, and adds that ingrained sustainability is also important in creating a space “that meets the needs of families that really gives them pride, and a sense of a place that they call home.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at