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A local nonprofit sells affordable housing in East Liberty as its priorities shift

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

On today’s episode of The Confluence: WESA senior reporter Margaret J. Krauss explains why an affordable apartment complex previously held by East Liberty Development, Inc. is being sold, leaving many low-income residents scrambling for housing; and we hear from two parents who, after losing their daughter to a drug overdose, worked with the County Medical Examiner’s Office to bring other grieving families resources and information in the aftermath of a death.

An affordable apartment complex is closing in East Liberty
(0:00 - 10:13)

Many elected and community leaders have called for a greater focus on increasing the amount of affordable housing in the city. Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood has been a flashpoint in the discussion about affordable housing and gentrification, and now it stands to lose additional affordable residential units.

The rapidly changing East Liberty community saw a wave of closures in the 1990s and early 2000s and then came under intense public scrutiny in 2015 with the Penn Plaza Apartments, which were closed by private developers, displacing up to 150 residents who needed affordable housing.

Another closure is happening: 5620 Rippey Street, an apartment complex housing at least a few Housing Choice Voucher recipients.

“Until November of last year, 2021, East Liberty Development, Inc. owned this building,” says senior reporter Margaret J. Krauss. “They told me that their mission has always been to stabilize the private market in East Liberty, so that it functions.”

Krauss says studies have shown large public housing complexes that lack amenities like green space aren’t healthy for residents, so ELDI is shifting its priorities to restoring the market. In pursuit of that goal, ELDI sold the Rippey apartments to Costello Properties, LLC for $1.625 million in November, and residents are now being asked to move out.

ELDI says it wants to support residents to own their homes and build equity in the East Liberty neighborhood, but Krauss says home ownership is not a simple solution.

“Owning a home can be a way to grow and advance wealth, depending on the cost of that home,” says Krauss. “For many people, it may not actually be — when you look at the taxes, when you look at the interest, when you look at the price of the mortgage — it may not be a wealth-generating proposal.”

ELDI does have resources to help people become homeowners, and residents of the Rippey apartments are receiving a $1,000 stipend to help defray the costs of moving. However, many, including advocates like Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition, are concerned this is a pattern of a cascading loss of affordable housing.

The County Medical Examiner’s Office now has more resources to support survivors and family members
(10:15 - 22:30)

The role of the Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner is to investigate deaths, except for those that are clearly natural, where a physician issues a certificate of death, and these investigations can be particularly hard on family members of the deceased.

The office has recently updated its online resources to help families navigate the process.

“Some of the new resources that we've put together for families, the main goal of all of them is to put knowledge into the hands of the families at their request when they want it, when they're ready for it,” says Mandy Tinkey, Laboratory Director for the Medical Examiner’s Office. Those new resources include increased staff training and online tools for families that will tell them what information is accessible at what time.

Sherry Jo Matt and Tom Bott are parents who helped start the process of updating the office’s resources after losing their daughter to a drug overdose.

“It was our first first interaction with the Medical Examiner's Office,” says Bott of losing his daughter. “It was not the best experience for the primary reason that, with our daughter's death being a drug overdose, there was a toxicology report as well as the autopsy, … and we were informed initially that it was going to take eight to 20 weeks to get the results, which was was a bit of a shock to us.”

In addition to the vague timeline, Bott and Matt say receiving the reports via mail came as a surprise.

“I have no recollection if I ever told them it was OK to mail the results,” says Matt. “It just showed up in our mailbox and I started crying at the mailbox and saying, this is so insane and so inhumane that there's no notice. Like you can't track your package. I can track an Amazon package, but I couldn't track toxicology reports.”

Matt and Bott say they feel the new information and training will be helpful for grieving family members.

“Waiting for anything is very frustrating under any situation,” says Bott. “When you've lost a child, waiting for the autopsy report and just wanting to know where things are in the process, that transparency aspect of it would just alleviate a lot of that stress.”

Tinkey says the survivor’s guide will be updated annually, and the latest iteration is also being reviewed by other county departments. She adds that family members will also be given notice by phone whenever materials are mailed to them.

“I have not actually heard much from families giving feedback on the resources, however, I've gotten a lot of requests for reports, so that tells me the families are using it,” says Tinkey. She says moving forward she hopes families will tell the office what is working for them, and what process needs improvement.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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