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Burgess' affordable housing bill raises questions about Pittsburgh City Council's role in development

Larimer affordable housing rent blight development.JPG
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council hotly debated, but ultimately delayed action on, three bills intended to address affordable housing needs Wednesday. The bills, which were introduced by Councilor Ricky Burgess, drew questions about whether they involve council too deeply in development decisions, and council ultimately decided to submit them for a review by the city's planning commission.

One bill seeks to form an Affordable Housing Plan which would assess the city's affordable housing needs, and recommend strategies to meet them by 2041. Another proposal revives a failed 2015 measure that would require developers to document the impact their projects would have on affordable housing in the area.

Arguably the most controversial measure would give council far more influence in determining whether a development is allowed to proceed. Under the terms of that measure, a councilor whose district would be impacted by a development can identify the project as being a "community concern." Such projects would receive an expedited review by the city planning department, with council weighing in as well.

"We will be able to have the authority to directly approve these developments or disapprove these developments" based on whether they fulfill the city's housing plan, Burgess said.

But Councilor Deb Gross expressed concerns about the fact that the measure decreases the amount of time for the Planning Commission to approve or deny an application from 90 days to 60 days.

The measure also arguably shifts some power to the developer. Under current law, if the planning commission doesn't reach a decision after the 90-day deadline, the proposal is deemed denied unless the developer agrees to an extension. Under Burgess' proposal, if the Commission doesn't reach a decision in the shortened 60-day time frame, the proposal is deemed as approved.

"I'm concerned there are parts of this bill that decreases transparency," Gross
said. "This bill compresses the amount of time that it might take the public to notice the project, form an opinion about the project. ... That decreases accountability to the public."

Councilor Erika Strassburger also said she had doubts about how a project would be rated as having a "community concern."

"Who holds the power and who is the community?" she asked. "Is it the councilor, people who live there, businesses ... we need to have conversation about that." (A Burgess aide later said that council members would decide which projects to designate as being community concerns.)

Burgess said he was open to amending the bill, but "I'm not open to the idea that council should not have this authority."

He compared council to "parents" giving permission to the planning commission to make decisions on developments.

"Every now and then I think there are projects in our community that are so powerful and transformational that we as council should make the final determination of whether they're appropriate or not," he said.

Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill District and who has sided with Burgess on such issues, pointed to projects in his own community as an example of developments where council should have more say.

"This council had to take a hard vote to demolish the Civic Arena," he said. "We're about to put a 24-story skyscraper on that site. Council has no role in whether or not that happens, and currently council will have no role of anything built on that scale."

But even some supporters of affordable housing have expressed concern about Burgess' approach.

"We view it as Council adding an unnecessary layer to an already complex, cumbersome, and sometimes expensive process — especially for small developers in projects in underserved neighborhoods," said Chris Rosselot, policy director at Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. He said the organization supports measures like requiring developers to provide housing impact statements, but worried about drawing council into development decisions.

"The planning and zoning process should be less of a political process, not more," he said. He worried that the change would allow councilors to "weaponize" the process of approving or rejecting developments, allowing them to punish or reward community groups or developers for political reasons.

Council ultimately voted to hold the bill and have the Planning Commission review and recommend the bills. Councilor Bobby Wilson found that move "interesting," since the purpose of the bill was precisely to transfer some decision-making power from the commission to council itself.

"The next action would be to send it to the exact body that we're trying to change here," he said.

Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Ariel finally made a “big move” 45 minutes down the interstate to the University of Alabama where she studied Journalism and International Studies. During her time in college she interned with Tuscaloosa News, a daily newspaper in her college town. After college, she got her first job back in her hometown with Birmingham Times, a weekly where she served as reporter and editor. Ariel made an even bigger move to Pittsburgh and joined the 90.5 WESA family as digital producer. She is adjusting to experiencing actual cold weather.
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