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Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

Affordable Housing Initiatives Move Forward In City Council

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA

Two parts of Councilman Ricky Burgess’s “City for All Agenda” received unanimous preliminary approval in Pittsburgh City Council on Wednesday.

If the bills are formally approved next week, the city will establish a Wage Review Commission and the HELP Initiative, which would create a strategy for preserving and increasing affordable housing in the East End.

According to Burgess, many service workers employed in the city’s “anchor industries” are not paid a living wage.

Two of those workers spoke in City Council Wednesday, accompanied by staff from SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.

Jarrell Reeves of the West End has worked as a floor technician at UPMC Shadyside, where his wife works, for three-and-a-half years making $13.02 per hour. He said he works the night shift and she works the day shift, so that someone is always home to take care of their children.

“Paid childcare just costs too much,” he said.

Reeves son has a neural disorder called Chiari Malformation and needs regular doctor’s visits and speech therapy.

“Because we can’t afford a reliable vehicle, we use public transportation, so my son’s hour of therapy takes like five hours,” Reeves said. “That means my other kids can’t participate in the activities they want to.”

Calvin Glover of Glen Hazel has worked as a parking attendant at Allegheny General Hospital for the last year, and is raising two teen daughters as a single father, he said.

“Our dream is to own a single-family home, (and) I’d like to be saving for my daughters’ college career and their education, but I worry more about making ends meet than I do about those types of things,” he said.

Burgess said he had people like Glover and Reeves in mind when he introduced the package of bills aimed at making sure all Pittsburghers have access to safe housing and the opportunity to earn a living wage.

There is a pervasive myth that poor people are lazy, he said.

“Many of them work. They work every single day and fight. They work harder than many corporate executives,” Burgess said. “They catch the bus or walk or share rides to get to work. They work 40 hours, yet they need subsidies to eat, they need subsidies to live, they need subsidies to raise their children.”

One subsidy commonly utilized by low-income people is the Housing and Urban Development housing choice voucher program, but Burgess said tenants sometimes are unable to find landlords that will rent to people with vouchers.

Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Councilman Ricky Burgess's (center) legislative package aims to help low-income service workers like Jarrell Reeves (left) and Calvin Glover.

Council voted to hold a public hearing and post-agenda meeting on a bill that would add “source of income” as a protected class under the city’s housing non-discrimination ordinance.

Burgess said many low-income people are unable to find housing not because of discrimination, but because of increasing market values, especially in the East End.

He pointed to the example of East Liberty, where the constructions of shopping centers and high-end apartment complexes have pushed out low-income residents over the last 10 years.

“If left to its own devices, the market will do what a market does,” Burgess said. “Some of those impacts may be unintentionally hostile and negative.”

Councilman Corey O’Connor likened what is happening in Pittsburgh to the changes that have taken root in San Francisco over the last decade, changes that some say have pushed out the eclectic working-class population that made the Bay Area city a destination.

The similarities are there — Silicon Valley-based Google and SF-based Uber both have a presence in the East End — but so are the differences.

“A lot of the stuff that we’re talking about, they were not discussing at that point,” he said. “So I think we’re moving at a good pace and we’re doing these conversations at the right time.”

If approved by Council, the HELP Initiative, which stands for Homewood, East Hills, East Liberty, Larimer and Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar Protection Initiative, will create a roadmap for the city to develop “diverse, mixed-income, sustainable communities.”

A fourth piece of legislation would require developers to submit an “Affordable Housing Impact Statement” to the city, explaining how a proposed development would affect both existing and future affordable housing units.

That bill was held for review by the Planning Commission.

Councilman Lavelle said many of the proposals contained in Burgess’s “City for All Agenda” are currently being considered by the Affordable Housing Task Force, which is expected to submit its report to Council in the next year.

“There are also immediate policy needs that need to be worked on … to address this issue, which is part of the reason why we’re moving this forward. It is needed now,” he said. “We can’t wait a year for (the) Affordable Housing (Task Force) to finish its work while others are looking for housing opportunities now.”