Long-Time Incumbent Faces Multiple Challengers In District 9 Race
District 9 has been the focus of conversation when it comes to issues like gentrification and affordable housing. Currently, the district is led by 12-year incumbent Councilor Ricky Burgess. But now, he has challengers who say that while the district is improving, long-time residents are being left out by the district's much-anticipated improvements.
District 9 includes majority-black neighborhoods like Homewood, Larimer and East Liberty. For many years, it's included some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. But Burgess says that's finally turning around, thanks in part to the connections he's made with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
“We have a strong mayoral form of government. It takes a team,” he said. “That team is the reason you see these big-ticket items, these hundreds of millions of dollars flowing for the first time in 50 years into the East End, into African-American neighborhoods.”
Burgess cites a regional Google headquarters in Bakery Square, a senior community building that will soon come to Lincoln-Lemington, and new housing in Homewood.
But Burgess's critics say too much of the district is being left out, and he now faces three independent rivals in next week's election. Among them is Randall Taylor.
He said District 9 is at a turning point, and that further development could push out black residents.
“This election is like no other,” Taylor said. “And it determines whether Homewood stays a historically African American community.”
Taylor, a former Pittsburgh school board member, has long been outspoken about affordable housing and development, and he has experienced housing displacement. He was forced to leave East Liberty's Penn Plaza apartment complex after owners decided to build a new mixed-use project, which will include a Whole Foods and office spaces.
Burgess said he does feel sorry for people who were displaced.
“We’ve done everything in our power to create new, affordable housing, it’s just taking a while,” Burgess said. “Probably in the next 18 months or so we will have replaced all those units that were gone; it just takes a long time.”
DeNiece Welch said the struggle to provide affordable housing is one reason she is running. She said there should be more efforts to help residents repair their homes.
“While there’s a lot of redevelopment going on in my district, there’s just not help for those people who are trying to maintain their homes,” said Welch, the pastor at Bidwell Presbyterian Church.
The URA does have a program to help residents make such repairs. Welch said even if residents own homes in the district, there’s still a fear that their property taxes could increase, and that residents are afraid that they won't be able to afford to live in the district as more development happens. Welch says as councilor she would fight for residents.
Barbara Daniels says her priority is to listen to residents. She said one concern is that Burgess is inaccessible.
“He doesn’t keep appointments,” she said. “The only time you see Mr. Burgess is during election [time].”
Burgess said people know where to find him if they need him.
“Everyone knows that on Wednesdays and Sundays -- Wednesday night Bible Study and Sunday morning at church,” he said. “It’s not like my whereabouts are secret.”
Daniels says one goal for her is to help curb crime in the district. She says she thinks crime occurs because of the lack of job opportunities and will put programs in place to help residents get work.
Burgess says he’s already launched a series of anti-violence efforts, including programs like the Stop the Violence initiative. Pittsburgh Police’s most recent statistical report shows that violent crime in District 9 has decreased slightly from 2017, from 394 to 339 in 2018. That's roughly consistent with the city as a whole.
While Burgess is taking criticism from a number of sides, it may turn out to be the best thing for him. In past reelection bids, he’s been able to pull out a win with less than half of the votes, because he has faced more than one challenger.