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Hill District, Homewood residents push for a seat at the table in the budgeting process

Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Longtime Hill District resident Rev. Lee Walls was among several residents at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday who urged city officials to address local blight and ramp up efforts to revitalize the neighborhood’s business district on Centre Avenue.

City of Pittsburgh officials held a series of town halls on the proposed city budget in Homewood, the West End and the Hill District last week.

According to deputy mayor and budget director Jake Pawlak, the locations were intentionally chosen to give residents from underrepresented areas another chance to offer their input on the budget. While anyone from across the city could attend and offer public comment, Pawlak said the administration chose to hold the meetings where only a small number of residents responded to the city’s annual budget survey.

“We haven't done a good enough job reaching out to folks in these neighborhoods,” Pawlak said to members of the Homewood community on Wednesday. “That's why we're here tonight and why we selected these locations for these listening sessions.”

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The mayor’s plan prioritizes infrastructure and public works. Homewood and the Hill District residents urged the city to use those funds to target neighborhood blight.

Andre Young, who challenged District 9 councilman Ricky Burgess in 2015, called on the city to better maintain vacant lots in the neighborhood and encourage future development on them.

As of 2016, nearly half of Homewood’s 5,160 parcels were empty lots with no structures on them.

“When we cut these lots and manicure these lots, it changes the attitude of the community,” Young said. “It changes the attitude of our young people because they no longer have to walk through abandoned and overgrown lots.”

The proposed budget includes $4 million for the Department of Public Works to boost its frontline staff and equipment for winter snow removal. Those employees would also help the city maintain vacant lots in the summer.

In the Hill District, more than 48% of vacant parcels are owned by either the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the City of Pittsburgh, or the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.

Longtime Hill District resident Rev. Lee Walls was among several residents at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday who pressed the city to address local blight and streamline the process of acquiring publicly-owned lots.

He also pushed the administration to ramp up efforts to revitalize the neighborhood’s business district on Centre Avenue.

“We got to start thinking out of the box about how to rebuild the Hill District, and we really need to see the mayor and his staff step up,” said Walls, who also leads Amani, a faith-based community development organization that serves the neighborhood.

In response, Pawlak said the current proposal includes funding for workforce development and a study of disparities between Black and white-owned businesses citywide. Those budget items could be used to guide future planning.

A street in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A street in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood.

The operating budget proposal also includes additional funding for affordable housing, which would start at $10 million and increase to $15 million over five years.

Pawlak said the budget also sets aside funds to leverage alongside federal Choice Neighborhoods aid, which could add several hundred mixed-income units to the Hill District if the city's application is approved. The proposal includes the replacement of all 411 units at the Bedford Dwellings public housing development, owned by the city’s housing authority, and the addition of nearly 400 more apartments.

According to the budget overview, the city will leverage $5 million in federal funds, received through the Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and HOME programs, for the project annually. A total of $30 million over six years will be used to secure further federal, private and local financing to support the project.

The budget also includes more than $2 million for a commercial space, facade improvements and home rehabilitation across the neighborhood where the Bedford Dwellings are located.

The plan follows the use of Choice Neighborhood funds to redevelop parts of East Liberty and Larimer.

Another seat at the table

While residents across the three neighborhoods offered numerous suggestions for the budget, much of the conversation during the Homewood town hall centered on how many residents feel they don’t have enough avenues for public input on city matters.

Sitting among dozens of people in a crowded room at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA on Wednesday, Homewood resident Sam Gibson said the city needs more people from the area at the table to represent the Homewood community and raise awareness about meetings like this one.

“Can we get a little bit of time so the people who really and truly make an impact in this community can really and truly vote?” Gibson asked. “Because I didn’t hear about this meeting until today.”

Rebekkah Ranallo with the city’s office of Neighborhood Services said her department did heavily flier the Homewood neighborhood before the survey closed. Still, residents pushed back on that strategy, saying people need more face-to-face engagement.

“[The majority of] our community does not have access to your survey that you guys provide," said Rico Rucker, a Homewood resident and businessman. "Is there a way that you guys can go door to door or reach the public in a better way?”

Residents can continue to submit their thoughts on the budget proposals through the city's online budget engagement platform.

Mayor Ed Gainey is scheduled to present his budget proposal to City Council on Nov. 14.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.