Homewood works on renewal bit by bit

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Decades ago, Pittsburgh divided then-thriving Homewood into three parts -- North, South and West.

Today, as blight eats its way through occupied and vacant properties and tax delinquency and liens pile up, the staff of the nonprofit advocacy group Operation Better Block has come up with a strategy to further fragment the village in an effort to save it.

Deliberating over a map and considering the big picture in bite-sized portions, the group has drawn up 12 clusters for residents in each one to plan what the future of housing could look like.

A series of public meetings begins Wednesday for residents of the first cluster, the blocks bounded by the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, North Braddock and Hamilton avenues and Rosedale Street. It is from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Bethany Baptist Church, 7745 Tioga St.

The process for all 12 clusters will take about 18 months, said Demi Kolke, the nonprofit's community development coordinator. It is being funded in part by the Richard King Mellon Foundation and guided by the Studio for Spatial Practice.

The cluster strategy is an outgrowth of a pilot project Operation Better Block initiated two years ago in the blocks surrounding Pittsburgh Faison K-5. The area consisted of 49 parcels. Of those, 22 were vacant lots. Ms. Kolke said residents nixed the idea of building two solid blocks of Section 8 housing, as one developer suggested. People want more space around them, she said, adding, "And we don't want to create more pockets of poverty."

Even though the site is optimal for a larger development, being near the busway, those residents want six new homes. Jerome Jackson, Operation Better Block's executive director, said developers are being sought to build them.

As if blight and vacancy weren't challenge enough, residents are confronting a thorny legal issue that's not unique to Homewood but plagues the neighborhood: homes that have been passed down without name changes on the titles.

Irene McLaughlin, an Operation Better Block board member who has worked for years on title-clearing projects throughout the city, is in the process of clearing titles of five of the 13 owner-occupied properties among the 49 around Faison.

"I don't know how many there are throughout Homewood," she said, but five of 13 in the pilot area suggests what the scope may be. Citywide, it could be similarly pervasive.

Several years ago, on another project, Ms. McLaughlin helped 250 people structure affordable tax payment plans and found in the process that a third of her clients did not have clear title.

This dodgy inheritance denies people eligibility for grants and services for repairs and upgrades that are otherwise available to low-income homeowners. Without repairs and upgrades, significant investment is unlikely to venture beyond Homewood's edges.

Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh is offering repairs and upgrades in Homewood, allowing sign-ups for people who qualify and are in the pipeline to get their titles untangled, Ms. Kolke said.

The URA and R.K. Mellon Foundation funded that project through April, after which 53 homeowners will have gotten free home repair, said Steve Hellner-Burris, executive director of Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh. Its services focus on low-income seniors and the disabled, he said.

A color-coded map of Homewood shows the status of all properties. Tan and gold designates city and URA ownership. Those cross-hatched in purple are tax delinquent. The map is so dominated by little purple stripes that from a distance no other colors can be seen. The properties not color-coded -- privately owned and not tax delinquent -- are scattered about in almost no concentrated pockets.

In previous efforts to chip away at deterioration, in 2010, John M. Wallace Jr, a professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh, and graduate student Samantha Teixeira interviewed residents and identified the worst conditions within a few blocks of Faison school and Westinghouse High School. They called their list the Dirty 30. They researched the properties, listed the violations and met with residents to target them in a blitz of calls to 311.

"Residents on the blocks nearest each property took charge and called 311," Ms. Teixeira said. "I went out and reassessed those properties after a month and almost all of them had been improved. The city was going out and doing board-ups. One was torn down, others were significantly cleaned up."

Mr. Jackson said the Dirty 30 was "a building block that did spark people's interest, because we weren't talking about 1,500 properties, we were talking about 30, which is manageable. Smaller increments is a better way.

"Normally in community planning, people who don't live near other people are making suggestions for what should happen there. We thought clusters was an easier, cleaner way to focus. And it's like the concept of how to eat the elephant -- one piece at a time."

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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