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Pittsburgh leaders hit the brakes on 'tiny home' proposal for the city's homeless

Several people sit around a wooden table.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh's Planning Commission members met in City Council chambers Tuesday.

A plan to build so-called tiny home villages to shelter Pittsburgh’s growing number of homeless residents was put on hold Tuesday. The City Council members behind the proposal asked the planning commission for more time to craft a zoning change needed to move the plan forward.

Councilors Anthony Coghill and Deb Gross requested an eight-week extension, which the commission granted Tuesday. The extension comes after concerns were raised by the city planning department about the proposal earlier this month.

“We do still have concerns with the text of this bill,” said city Zoning Administrator Corey Layman Tuesday. But, he said, “We’re working toward shared goals here.”

He said the city’s planning and law departments are adjusting the zoning code to accommodate the proposal. The new language, he said, would come before the commission “at hopefully no later than eight weeks.” Layman said that proposal would have a “much broader impact” than establishing the villages.

Though the council members proposed the extension themselves Tuesday, Coghill and Gross emphasized the need to act quickly.

“The longer we take, the more people are outside,” said Gross. “In the last two months, we’ve lost two lives that might’ve been saved if they were in safer shelter.”

The bill would add “temporary managed communities” to a list of acceptable land uses Downtown and along the riverfront districts. That change would allow government entities and nonprofits to build small-scale villages of tiny homes, and deploy city and county social services to help those who live there.

The proposal appeared ill-fated at a planning commission meeting earlier this month.

At that meeting, Layman echoed concerns previously voiced by the Gainey administration: that allowing the villages in certain zones could put more pressure on the city to clear tent camps elsewhere — a claim contested by legal experts who argue the camps are already illegal, and that officials could continue to disregard enforcement.

Still, Gross and Coghill emphasized Tuesday that their plan needs support from the mayor and Allegheny County to move forward. With that in mind, the pair said they want to do what they can to allow the mayor’s office to weigh in on the change, though the bill was first introduced in November.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

City Councilor Anthony Coghill presents a plan to the Pittsburgh Planning Commission.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
City Councilor Anthony Coghill presents a plan to erect tiny villages for people experiencing homelessness to the Pittsburgh Planning Commission.

Tuesday’s meeting was held in-person as well as online, something not done since the coronavirus pandemic sent many public agencies into a online-only format. A city spokesperson said the offering reflected broad interest in the commission meetings.

The meeting was held in City Council chambers: The commission is otherwise homeless itself, as the city shuttered its former Ross Street home, and a future location along Boulevard of the Allies is under construction.

The commissioners sat at the table typically used by City Council members, as Coghill presented blueprints for ideas he and Gross have discussed around that table over the last two years.

“This is just one piece of the pie,” he said of the zoning change for tiny villages. In the last year, the two have also floated converting downtown office space into residential units, erecting another large-scale shelter like the one along Second Avenue and a more extensive tiny home proposal.

Gross gave an impassioned speech highlighting Council's efforts on affordable housing since 2015. She commended the city’s work to find more shelter space, but noted transitional housing programs are at capacity.

“It’s not enough,” Gross said. “The people in tents are on the waitlist.”

She noted that council sounded the alarm on a growing homeless population two years ago when members called on the mayor’s office to identify city-owned parcels that could be used to shelter more people. That request has not turned up swaths of units and shelter space, she noted.

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Gross and Coghill estimate that under their proposal, the city could build 8-foot by 10-foot shed-like structures which resemble tiny homes minus plumbing. Coghill built a prototype inside a building along Broadway Avenue in Beechview. His model has a shingled roof, insulated walls, a locked door and a mailbox.

Supporters of the villages say they could protect the city’s most vulnerable by bringing them under a roof and behind a locked door. Recent flooding at tent sites downtown last month prompted rescue crews to retrieve a man from the Mon Wharf after his belongings were swept up by rising river levels.

Safety is one goal, but Coghill and Gross stressed that dignity is another.

“What we’ve been doing for years is providing a cot in a church basement,” Gross said. A village, she said, would instead provide “a structure where you can lock your door… a place where you are fed and have the social service providers for whatever it is you’re struggling with.”

Commission members also heard public testimony regarding the tiny village proposal from more than a dozen city residents, who gave mixed responses to the proposal.

Those in support of the plan described the tiny villages as a transitional fix that would get people out of more dangerous situations and into a space where they can keep their belongings. Most advocates said they understood the need to get the language of the legislation right, but stressed that the need for solutions was critical.

“It's hard to understand the urgency that's really required here if you've never slept on a sidewalk,” said Sam Schmidt, a housing justice activist who has experienced homelessness.

Others raised concerns that making those permanent could threaten the recreational nature of the city’s riverfront trails and downtown district. A number of those speakers came from the city’s North Side, where long-established tent camps have grown in recent years.

“We need to have some places [where] people feel they can come for recreation and spend tax dollars for us to be viable,” said Allegheny West resident Fran Barbush, who is a member of the Allegheny West Civic Council.

Public speakers agreed the city should do more for homeless Pittsburghers, but some wondered whether city services would bring more people suffering from housing insecurity from nearby municipalities.

“What is the program going to be around these spaces that people are going to come into?” said Jerrel Gilliam, executive director of Light of Life Rescue Mission. Gilliam said successful models require a commitment on the part of residents to find permanent housing.

“Are we going to go down a road where people who don’t want to change are being provided housing and homes to stay where they are?” he asked. The city could “become a magnet" for a population it wouldn't be able to sustain, he worried.

Commissioners echoed some of those doubts.

“I want us to be super-cautious … about how we step forward with this,” said Commissioner Mel Ngami. “Just to make sure… that those who are going into temporary housing really have a true plan of moving forward.”

Ngami shared she has herself suffered housing insecurity, and said any program to support the city’s homeless should take care not to create new service gaps.

But overall, commissioners said they were eager to get to work on the proposal. They planned to convene a group dedicated to resolving the issues between City Council and the planning department.

“I don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” Commissioner Rachel O’Neill said. “I think it’s an amazing idea and I look forward to working on the legislation.”

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.