Each year, the advisory board of the Housing Opportunity Fund must decide how to split $10 million among its programs, from helping homeowners afford necessary repairs to providing emergency funding so people can make rent. On Thursday, the board began work on its 2020 allocation.
While council approved the fund in late 2016, the board wasn’t appointed until summer 2018. That means in just under a year and a half, the advisory board has had to recommend how to spend three years’ worth of money.
Deadlines have been tight. A survey intended to gather public feedback on how to spend next year’s money was up for less than a month. Pittsburgh United and staff from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, in which the fund is housed, held and attended many community meetings to discuss available programs. However, the survey itself didn’t become a major focus until early this fall. That’s because board members at a previous meeting had expressed concern about muddling the message, said Jessica Smith Perry, the fund’s director.
Still, board member Mark Masterson said he’s worried the results don’t accurately reflect Pittsburgh’s housing priorities.
“I just really think this is a flawed way to get input and we need to be extraordinarily transparent in what we’re doing,” he said. “These are city taxpayer dollars. It could go away with the city council vote.”
Board members agreed that next year’s process will allow for a lot more input over a longer time period.
The 289 completed surveys show that half of respondents said all of the fund’s programs are important in their communities. If they chose a specific initiative as most impactful, the top two were the rental gap program and the homeowner assistance program. The rental gap program provides loans to developers to create or maintain affordable housing; the homeowner assistance program helps people make improvements to homes they own.
During public comment, several people said their applications for the homeowner assistance program were denied because their incomes were just above the cap of 50 percent of area median income. Glenn Germany of the North Side suggested a different way to determine eligibility.
“I have children and sometimes I have to take off work,” he said. “So although my paycheck says I should make this much at the end of the year, I’m not coming close to that. But I’m being denied based upon my paycheck and not based upon my income tax.”
Smith Perry said they are working to repurpose an existing Urban Redevelopment Authority initiative, the Pittsburgh Home Rehabilitation Program, to reach homeowners like Germany who are just over the income limit.
The board will discuss a preliminary spending plan for 2020 at their next meeting on December 5.