Pittsburgh Commission Unanimously Approves New Affordable Housing Pilot

Apr 24, 2019

After three hours of almost entirely supportive public comment, the Pittsburgh Planning Commission approved a trial run for a new affordable housing policy on Tuesday. 

The temporary zoning change would require new housing developments or renovations of more than 20 units to make 10 percent of that housing affordable to people with low and moderate incomes. If City Council approves, the legislation kickstarts a two-year pilot project throughout Lawrenceville.

“Inclusionary zoning is the tool that will help Lawrenceville manifest its own vision for itself,” said City Councilor Deb Gross, who introduced legislation in February. “It may not be the right tool for every situation, but for Lawrenceville where it is now, this is the tool that will help them gain back affordable units.”

A citywide inclusionary zoning policy was first recommended by an affordable-housing task force in 2016. Andrew Dash of the Department of City Planning noted that inclusionary zoning already exists in specific areas such as the Uptown Eco Innovation District, but the new mechanism is different. The proposed pilot in Lawrenceville would require qualified developments to rent 10 percent of units at or below 50 percent of area median income, and for-sale units would be marketed at or below 80 percent of area median income.

Speaker after speaker noted Lawrenceville’s rapid transition from a neighborhood of longtime residents and an ailing business district to one of the most expensive housing markets in the city. Over the last decade, census figures show Lawrenceville lost almost one-third of its black residents, and 300 Somali Bantu residents were priced out, said Dave Breingan, executive director of Lawrenceville United, which worked closely with Gross on the legislation.

“Had this inclusionary zoning been in place five years ago, Lawrenceville would have created 60 additional units of housing for the people most impacted by displacement,” Breingan said. “While it won’t solve all the housing issues in Lawrenceville, it can play a significant role.”

Lawrenceville still has developable land, but even as residents offered their support for the pilot, some wondered if the ordinance is too little too late.

Other neighborhoods will be watching the progress of the pilot closely, said Joanna Deming, executive director of the Fineview and Perry Hilltop Citizens’ Councils.

“We recognize that communities like ours that have not been developed in such a strong way are vulnerable to displacement. We want to get ahead of this issue,” she said. “Every minute that we wait, we are losing affordable homes, and we’re not building them.”

Lawrenceville resident Chuck Gerbe supports creating affordable housing, even if that means raising taxes.

“However, I think this legislation should not be passed. I believe forcing private investors to address social needs like this relieves our elected officials from fulfilling their responsibility.”

But Ed Nusser of nonprofit City of Bridges said the private market won’t create affordable housing on its own.

“This is government action,” he told the commission. “This is government taking responsibility.”

Commission members suggested City Council consider how to market affordable units so that people who need them are aware of them.

After a brief discussion, commissioner LaShawn Burton-Faulk joked members would have to fight one another to make a motion to approve the ordinance and recommend it to City Council. It quickly passed, with all in favor.

More than 900 municipalities across the country use inclusionary zoning.