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Pittsburgh officials wrestle with building 'villages' for homeless

Tents are lined up along a road.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

A plan to establish tiny home villages for Pittsburgh’s homeless residents is facing an uncertain future. Ahead of a public hearing on the proposal next week, members of the city’s planning commission expressed misgivings about a zoning change required to move the plan forward. But experts argue that some of those doubts appear to be unfounded.

The proposal, introduced by City Councilors Deb Gross and Anthony Coghill, centers on a change to the city’s zoning code that would allow nonprofit organizations or governmental entities to build shed-like shelters — similar to tiny homes but without plumbing — Downtown and along the riverfronts. The change would add “temporary managed community” to the list of acceptable land uses in these zones.

But Pittsburgh zoning administrator Corey Layman told the planning commission last week that he’s worried allowing a zone for homeless communities could have a dangerous domino effect — one that threatens to shut down existing tent encampments.

Layman, who would be responsible for authorizing each temporary community permit, said tent camps are currently “not directly regulated by the zoning code,” and are instead considered a “policy area,” where decisions are up to city officials. If the city brings temporary communities into the zoning code, Layman said tent camps that didn't conform to the city's new rules would be out of compliance and “may ultimately be subject to enforcement action.”

Those sentiments were shared by Commissioner Rachel O'Neil, who said she wouldn't support the legislation "because I think it acts in direct conflict with its stated goals," by outlawing tent camps.

The commissioners seemed to echo recent concerns brought by Mayor Ed Gainey’s office about the proposal. An administration spokesperson said recently the zoning change could bring “unintended and harmful consequences” to established camps, but did not elaborate on what those consequences would be.

Some outside experts consulted by WESA were dubious about those concerns.

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Tent camps are already illegal, according to Carolyn Ristau, who previously worked in Pittsburgh’s zoning office before starting her own land use research, education and consulting business, Details Reviewed, LLC.

“The zoning code right now does not allow homeless encampments. Period,” she said.

But the city is allowing the camps to exist, and Ristau doubted that would have to change if new zoning rules continued to put them outside the law.

“Municipalities do have that discretion … what they want to enforce and not enforce,” agreed Duquesne University law professor Joe Mistick. “As they prioritize violations, [camps] might not be one that they think of as a high priority.”

Asked whether adding the temporary communities to the zoning code would add pressure on officials to clear away other camps, Mistick said, “The pressure is there now."

But clearing camps has been a low priority for the Gainey administration, as evidenced by the fact that officials have ignored the mayor’s own public safety policy on when to clear camps. The policy calls for the decommissioning of camps near roadways, under major infrastructure, in city parks or private property. But those rules haven’t been widely applied, and multiple camps exist despite running afoul of the rules.

Gainey’s office did not respond to WESA’s multiple requests for comment about the zoning change proposal.

Sources in the mayor’s office have previously said camps should only be cleared after giving careful consideration to why people have resorted to living there. But some city council members say the same nuanced approach could be applied once temporary communities begin popping up.

“We never suggested removing the tents,” said proposal co-sponsor, Anthony Coghill. “What we're trying to do is give [people] a better option.”

Councilor Deb Gross, who joined with Coghill in advancing the village concept, argued that the proposal wasn't to criminalize those living in tents, but to offer them an alternative. She added that the city should look at overhauling all barriers to low-income housing.

Both members pointed to a federal court ruling in a case based in Pottstown, Pa. that found those living in encampments cannot be threatened with criminal citations, arrests or fines if there are “more unhoused individuals than there are shelter beds.” Gross noted that local shelters in Pittsburgh remain at maximum capacity.

Gross stressed that the city needs to take a hard look at what local laws are preventing so-called “deeply affordable” housing projects from moving forward.

“We're trying to change lots of policies because those policies have failed us,” Gross said of the city’s need to invest in all types of housing. “Because we're in this moment of distress, we have to do something lighter, quicker and cheaper.”

Gross and Coghill built a prototype for the village inside a building along Broadway Avenue in Beechview. The 8-foot by 10-foot structure stands 9 feet tall and has a shingled roof, insulated walls, a locked door and a mailbox. The two estimate similar structures could be built quickly at around $2,000 each.

A shed structure stands inside a building.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
City Councilors Deb Gross and Anthony Coghill unveiled a prototype for a proposed tiny village for Pittsburgh's homeless residents in January.

Language barrier

Layman also took issue with the language used in the zoning amendment. He described terminology in the proposal as “incompatible” with Pittsburgh’s code.

That’s because the proposal mirrors one out of Denver, which uses an approach to zoning that focuses on the characteristics of the proposed building rather than on the geographic zones drawn around it. Ristau said Pittsburgh's zoning adheres to a "Euclidean" approach, which focuses on defining permitted uses for designated areas of land.

Ristau said any discrepancies between Pittsburgh’s code language and Gross’ bill should be easy to resolve.

“Zoning codes are built by copying and pasting from other places. That's just the fundamental nature of how they are constructed,” Ristau said. “The big concepts are the same basically across the country. But the specific words that are used and how they are used varies.”

Gross said if commissioners “have better language, I’m happy to use it." Such a change would require a routine amendment of the bill at city council’s table, she said.

Gross and Coghill said they plan to meet with the city’s planning department to iron out what adjustments are needed to improve the bill.

Public input

Gross and Coghill's bill requires that no tiny village will be allowed to remain for more than four years — an effort to ensure they don't become permanent fixtures of the neighborhood. But Mistick argued the city should afford more opportunity for the public to reject an application on the front end.

Currently, the legislation requires a public meeting to be held for each permit, but it does not require a council vote.

That's because the legislation would permit temporary communities to be established "by right," meaning they could be established with administrative approval rather than a more extensive public process.

Mistick argued that the city should grant the villages only “conditional use” permission, which would require council approval and give residents more opportunity to object.

Gross stressed that no community would exist beyond the four-year limit. And the zoning proposal also prohibits applicants from applying to use the site again for another four years.

“You’d be able to put it up by right, but it can’t stay there,” she said.

Coghill noted that the proposal still requires a review by the planning commission for each application and a community meeting, meaning the establishment of a village is still a ways away.

“It doesn't mean if they pass this legislation, that you're going to see these tiny neighborhoods popping up everywhere,” he added.

He said the zoning change would simply allow the city to explore the viability of the tiny homes in Pittsburgh, but both Mayor Gainey and Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services would need to support the concept to unlock funding for it.

But Coghill and Gross said they’re still optimistic about their proposal and expect to be able to win over the members of the planning commission.

At least two members seemed to support the proposal during last week's commission meeting.

"I want to see us pursue this with great haste," Commissioner Holly Dick said, encouraging city leaders to iron out the kinks.

"I think in general, it will be an interesting, great concept," Peter Quintanilla added. He said he's seen similar villages in other cities have success.

Gross claimed more than 100 cities have created similar programs to respond to housing insecurity, and Pittsburgh should be next.

“[Tiny villages are] something that everybody else has figured out that we haven't figured out,” she said. “Let's just figure it out and get going.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.