Partnership goes to bat for Sheraden

A blighted community in the city's western section may finally get the help it needs through partnership


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For years, residents of Sheraden pleaded for help against blight and crime. The police and Redd Up crews would come, but conditions didn't change.

Then the housing crisis swept the country. The alarming result in Sheraden was that of its 2,132 housing units, about 360 fell into foreclosure.

To turn the tide in the neighborhood in the city's western section, city Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith and a reinvestment team began planning in January a multilayered strategy with corporate and foundation donations, state tax credits and federal stabilization grants worth a total of about $500,000.

The partnership includes the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, NeighborWorks Western PA, Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, the West End Alliance, S&T Bank and Northwest Bank.

For one year, this blitz is bringing to the neighborhood financial education classes; credit counseling and foreclosure prevention; residential leadership training; a mapping inventory of property conditions; the purchase of homes for renovation and resale; and two full-time staffers -- community coordinator Steve Novotny and financial consultant Tammy Thompson.

PG map: Sheraden
(Click image for larger version)

The goal was to target the area east of Sheraden Park and prepare the neighborhood to advance on its own elsewhere. Asked if one year is enough, Mr. Novotny said it would be enough "to get a good start. The biggest challenge is mindset. We have to keep people optimistic."

"This is the first time in 20 years that Sheraden has gotten the needed attention for revitalization," Ms. Kail-Smith said. "It's not just a housing effort, because housing problems generate blight and crime."

At her behest, about 10 neighbors joined the property inventory with Mr. Novotny.

Steve Mazza and Lenny Macklin, both residents of Zephyr Street, were among those who walked Bergman, Zephyr, Merwyn, Stafford, Minton and Ashlyn streets with clipboards of surveys to rate the property conditions. Mr. Novotny double-checked and mapped their conclusions.

"Sheraden is in a good position to be marketed as a strong bedroom community because it has good housing stock," he said. "It has a park, a pool, a skate park, three playgrounds and the West Busway runs through. But in the last 10 years, the change [toward blight] has been dramatic."

On a recent walking tour, he pointed out homes that earned ratings from A to F.

"This house is obviously vacant" with phone books piled up on the porch, he said, passing a dilapidated house before moving toward a line of handsome '30s-era homes with porch swings, wicker furniture, blue and pink hydrangeas, lilies, American flags and old shade trees.

"Right here," he said, "it looks like it could be Mt. Lebanon."

Mr. Mazza, the housing chairman for the West End Alliance, is a lifelong resident.

"I hadn't known there had been more than 300 foreclosures," he said. "But I was surprised when we went around that there weren't more vacancies."

He said residents are frustrated that positive attributes of the neighborhood aren't better known.

"We have lots of people who take care of their properties, and there's a lot of pride here. I'm excited that people are coming in to help us. I think they are finally seeing what everyone who lives here knows: That we have something here and we shouldn't give up on it."

Mr. Macklin said disinvestment has taken its toll.

"We have nice houses and nice people, but it's an older community and slumlords came in and rented to whoever," he said. "The city is doing more now. Redd Up crews have been working with us, and a lot more people are calling 311," he said, referring to the city's service line.

With its own volunteers and volunteers from companies that also donate money, Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh has been upgrading water tanks and installing energy-efficient windows, new roofs, grab-bars in bathrooms and other enhancements for low-income, elderly and disabled homeowners.

Program director Alan Sisco said they have improved about 30 homes in Sheraden so far.

"We do $3,000-$10,000 worth of work with a goal of stabilization," he said. "We want that homeowner to be able to stay, because when there aren't a lot of positive market forces, that house could become vacant without it.

"We're a small piece of what a neighborhood like that needs."

At the same time, renters who want to own and who seem capable of doing so are being identified and connected to the treasurer's sale process.

"This is really exciting stuff," said Ernie Hogan, executive director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. "Every vacant property has been assessed, we have inventories and lists of for-sale homes.

"A lot of areas are missing capacity, and this partnership is a way for communities that are slipping to have access to sustained resources."

"This is what we've needed," Ms. Kail-Smith said, "for people with capacity and a history of success and experience to come in. People in Sheraden have been going to meetings for years. They've done a community plan. They're ready for some results."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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