Work under way for 45 new homes in resurgent Garfield
February 25, 2012 3:00 PM
Financial and political supporters of a project that will create 45 new rental homes in Garfield break ground Friday on the site of one of the homes on Dearborn Street.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ten years ago, officers of the Bloomfield Garfield Corp. plunged the first shovels into the ground to signify their intent to make Garfield a neighborhood where civil people would want to live.
After breaking ground Friday for 45 new homes, the nonprofit is on the last leg of a journey that has consolidated 300 blighted properties into 90 new homes. Another 10 homes have been renovated.
Completion of four, for-sale homes will bring to a close the decade-long, $24 million scattered-site effort that has coincided with a 45 percent drop in crime.
The first of the rental homes will be ready to lease in May. They are being built over a 12-block area mostly on Dearborn, Broad and Kincaid streets.
The work is far from done, said Rick Swartz, BGC's executive director, "but after this, there will be a pause," adding that cuts in governmental housing assistance will make it harder to continue the trend.
Garfield still has 140 vacant houses and more than 500 vacant lots, but it benefits from its proximity to Lawrenceville and East Liberty, neighborhoods that have tipped back to good health. Garfield's new housing has brought a mix of incomes and more racial integration already, Mr. Swartz said.
Tim Cimino has lived on Dearborn Street for 18 years. Two blighted houses beside him were demolished to make room for a new rental home.
"When I was first here, there seemed to be gunshots every night in the summer," he said. "That's all gone away."
The public housing also has been improved.
In 2010, the Pittsburgh Housing Authority began replacing Garfield Heights -- 58 buildings of squat row houses -- with Garfield Commons. To date, 175 detached homes are available for several levels of income, with 29 market-rate rentals, and another 50 will be built next year, according to authority spokesman Chuck Rohrer.
Mr. Swartz said the agency's housing initiative started with ownership to create stability, though the process was slower than filling rentals. It required several banks, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the city. Garfield Jubilee also helped, screening and mentoring new buyers.
The new rentals will be professionally managed. S&A Homes is the builder and neighborhood group's partner landlord, but the properties technically are owned by a limited partnership that owns the tax credits that were necessary to keep the cost of building down and rents affordable for low-income residents.
Andy Haines, executive vice president of S&A Homes, runs a division of S&A that has built affordable and market-rate housing in the city, including East Liberty and the Central Northside, but he had to convince the company the Garfield partnership was wise.
"They asked, 'What's the neighborhood like?' and I said, 'I think the neighborhood is coming back.' "
In the late 1990s, while planning its housing strategy, the neighborhood group worked with Friendship Development Associates to reclaim the derelict Penn Avenue corridor by buying and pitching vacant storefronts to artists. Artists were followed by galleries, architects, new shops and a smattering of restaurants.
In the 1990s, gangs, drugs and violence led to "abandonment that was knocking everyone's socks off," he said. "Fifteen years ago, we were renovating two to four houses and bringing them onto the market each year only to see another 30 to 40 being abandoned."
For the new rentals, about 115 people are on the list to apply.
"Before we lease the first house we want to have orientation classes to let people know that we have a standard of acceptable behavior," Mr. Swartz said. "So people can decide up front whether their comportment is going to meet that standard."
Rose Johnson, a Brown Street resident of 24 years, said the new homes have had a positive impact. "We still have a lot of houses that need to be torn down, but I do think it's a lot safer today. What they're doing is good."
Jeanette Coleman, a 20-year resident, said the neighborhood has lost a lot of architectural character to so many demolitions.
"Some of the new housing looks superficial," she said. "It just seems you could build affordable houses with some bricks in them."
The agency and S&A Homes will act as landlords for 15 years, after which tenants have the option to buy for $1 over the outstanding mortgage, Mr. Haines said. "Our hope is to give people a place where their kids can play in the yard and they can sit on the porch and maybe own it all one day."