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Tackling Pittsburgh’s Blight Problem, One Small Project at a Time

Photo courtesy Lawrenceville United

Blight is a major problem in Pittsburgh, and the city is pursuing several big-picture initiatives to deal with it.

The city’s 17,000 tax delinquent and vacant properties were the major motivation for Councilwoman Deb Gross’s land banking initiative, and the city has just received a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to improve housing, parks and infrastructure in the Larimer neighborhood.

But Melanie Ondek, grants officer for the city of Pittsburgh, knows that multi-million dollar investments and lengthy bureaucratic processes aren’t the only ways to chip away at the city’s blight problem.

Ondek works with servePGH, the city’s official hub for volunteerism. Since 2011, servePGH has made 104 micro-grants to community groups to improve and beautify neighborhoods through the city’s Love Your Block program.

“Property values increase, morale increase, crime reduces,” Ondek said. “When folks have pride in their communities, we see tangible differences. By engaging people and getting them involved in the projects, that’s when we see the most powerful outcomes.”

The city makes grants twice a year, and Ondek said the deadline to apply for the upcoming fall grant cycle has been extended to make time for informational sessions, the first of which is scheduled for Wednesday evening.

This is the first time the city has provided such informational sessions. ServePGH neighborhood services associate Kevin Boyle said applicants will have an opportunity to ask questions of city officials and past grantees, and find out what a successful grant application entails.

Also new this year is the availability of cash grants. Ondek said in prior seasons, the program was completely funded by the Home Depot Foundation, and that grant money was doled out in the form of gift cards.

This fall, 14 successful applicants will receive up to $700 in cash, courtesy of Peoples Gas and the PNC Foundation, and up to $300 in Home Depot gift cards. Ondek said this frees grantees up to purchase recycled materials rather than only buying new materials at Home Depot.

“This year we’re really excited,” Ondek said. “I think folks can be a little bit more creative and maybe work on some projects that they couldn’t have in the past.”

Past projects have included tree planting, vacant lot cleanup, garden development, park enhancement, and community murals.

Boyle said one of his favorite projects thus far was completed by the Beechview Walking Club.

“On a dark and drab corner they created a community message board and a living wall with herbs and plants,” Boyle said. “This was a way to engage communities along Broadway Avenue in Beechiew.”

Ondek said she likes to see groups leverage other opportunities to get the most out of their Love Your Block grants, citing a project at Weil Elementary School that utilized both the city micro-grant and the services of KaBOOM!, a nonprofit playground builder.

“We did a beautification of a small area there and prepped the land with the Love Your Block Funds, which allowed (KaBOOM!) to come in and put in the playground and have a complete model when it was done,” Ondek said.

Boyle said over the last three years, the Love Your Block grant program has engaged more than three thousand community volunteers, funding projects in 43 city neighborhoods.

“We're looking to reach all 90 at some point,” said Boyle.

Wednesday’s informational meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the City-County building. The application deadline is July 18 and grantees will be announced on August 4.