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Study aims to help poor families move to low-poverty Pittsburgh and Allegheny County neighborhoods

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

A years-long, federally funded study of how to help low-income families with kids move to neighborhoods that offer more opportunities is getting underway in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

“I would say it's a big deal,” said Colleen Cain, a research and program analyst in the Office of Analytics, Technology and Planning at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, referring to both the national scale of the research and the scope of the questions it is aiming to address. Allegheny County DHS is coordinating the study efforts locally.

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The research will involve close to 2,000 local families who use Housing Choice Vouchers, commonly referred to as “Section 8” vouchers.

Vouchers help low-income tenants afford a place to live — residents pay a portion of their income in rent, and a government subsidy helps pay the rest.

However, many landlords don’t accept the vouchers, and those who do accept them are often concentrated in high-poverty communities with poorer-performing schools and less access to good jobs, transportation and amenities. The problem has become increasingly acute in Pittsburgh in recent years: a hot real estate market has pushed rents up and led to fewer landlords accepting vouchers. Additionally, an effort by the city to mandate that landlords accept vouchers failed last year, following a lengthy legal battle.

The Community Choice Demonstration study, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is aiming to overcome some of these obstacles with intensive assistance to families and participating landlords. Families must have at least one child to participate in the voluntary study.

The multi-year study has been in the planning phase and recently started recruiting families to participate.

Among the help the project will offer to families: assistance picking a neighborhood, applying for housing, finding apartments and paying a security deposit.

“The principle here is enabling true geographic choice, which currently, because of a number of barriers, voucher holders are not able to exercise,” said Nick Cotter, an analyst at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. “And so we believe pretty, pretty deeply people should be able to live where they want to live. And hopefully from this program, we see that in the data in the long term, for the folks that receive these services.”

Landlords with units in “high opportunity areas” who choose to participate can be eligible for financial incentives like leasing bonuses, and paperwork assistance.

Among the areas considered “high opportunity” — a number of Allegheny County suburbs and some low-poverty Pittsburgh neighborhoods like Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Highland Park, Morningside, Stanton Heights, Bloomfield, Friendship and Brookline.

As part of the study, both the county and city housing authorities will update their payment standards, meaning landlords will be paid more for units in high-opportunity neighborhoods and suburbs.

“We're hoping that it's going to be more reflective of the private rental market and be a better match for landlords,” said Amanda Hower, senior operations project manager for the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.

The study is also taking place in other cities across the country, including Los Angeles, New Orleans, Nashville, Minneapolis, Cleveland and elsewhere.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.