'Forced Out' study examines impact of displacement on former Bethesda-Homewood tenants
In a study released this week about the experiences of more than 200 local people who were abruptly displaced from housing four years ago, researchers said the dislocation was a "traumatic experience" — even for those who ultimately ended up in a better living situation.
Residents said they needed more time to find new homes, according to the research from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. Many also reported struggling to use subsidized housing vouchers to find a new place to live.
Many residents of the former Bethesda-Homewood Properties, which were located in Homewood and other Pittsburgh neighborhoods, said those problems made the forced move even more difficult. Others, however, also said they were relieved to leave because of gun violence and other safety concerns — and some who moved to other neighborhoods said they were happy with the services and amenities they found there.
In late 2017, federal housing regulators said the properties were in such poor condition that they would no longer receive a federal rental subsidy. That left roughly 100 families scrambling to find new housing in a matter of weeks. Residents were given some relocation assistance and federally-subsidized Housing Choice Vouchers, commonly referred to as “Section 8” vouchers.
“In some ways, housing vouchers offered opportunity for residents who moved [because] displaced residents were theoretically able to choose the location of their new homes," department researchers said in the study, ‘Forced Out: The Impact of Displacement and Place on the Residents of Bethesda-Homewood Properties.’
But, the report continued, "In reality, residents had difficulty finding landlords who would accept their housing vouchers, and the majority of displaced residents continued to live in neighborhoods with relatively high needs even after their relocation."
Other research has found the number of landlords who accept vouchers is limited, both in Pittsburgh and in other cities, and that available housing tends to be concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods.
“’No one accepts vouchers’ was a common refrain,” researchers noted.
The City of Pittsburgh has sought to prohibit landlords from rejecting Section 8 voucher holders, but the ordinance has been tied up in court. The state Supreme Court recently ruled against the city.
The county’s Department of Human Services said it undertook the study to assess residents’ displacement experiences, in an effort “to inform planning for future mass displacements, which are likely to occur given our region’s affordable housing crisis.” Such displacement disproportionately impacts Black residents, as was the case with the Bethesda-Homewood properties.
Researchers noted mixed feelings among former tenants about the experience.
“Generally, residents expressed that they were relieved to leave their Bethesda-Homewood units because of safety concerns related to gun violence and insufficient property maintenance, but many still cited the forced move as traumatic,” the study found.
The department used a focus group of former residents, phone surveys and data analysis to do the research.
“Forced displacement is a traumatic experience that uproots residents from their homes and communities," researchers concluded. "While the process of forced displacement can have serious consequences without the proper supports, residents able to 1) upgrade to a better maintained unit and/or 2) move to communities with comparatively less gun violence described leaving Bethesda-Homewood Properties as an opportunity that was otherwise not available to them, which was made possible by the [Housing Choice Voucher] program."
The properties were later purchased by an investor who said he planned to rehabilitate them.