Mount Washington housing strategy plan pays off

Advocates working to close price gaps in neighborhood

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No neighborhood is just one place, however small, and Mount Washington is large, with a gaping disparity in property values. A few blocks from a $2 million home, a buyer can get a $14,000 bargain.

The bargains were mounting when the Mount Washington Community Development Corp. hired the Studio for Spatial Practice in 2010 to lead a study of the neighborhood and adjacent Duquesne Heights to establish a 10-year housing strategy.

The data indicated 16 "places" -- micro-neighborhoods that terrain, housing character and market response identified.

One was named Estella for the avenue that extends through the southeast corner of Mount Washington. The study showed it had the most foreclosures, most code violations, lowest median house prices and densest population. The housing strategy called for CDC direct intervention.

"Typically in these kinds of areas, you either have quick flips into low-quality rentals or bulk purchases by speculators," said James Eash, the CDC's director of economic development. "Conversion to owner-occupancy is what we're trying to establish, housing that's affordable and has thoughtful design."

The nonprofit raised foundation money to buy its first houses to renovate, one on Kingsboro Street and two on Eureka Street. The CDC paid $35,400 for one that didn't need much work but didn't have off-street parking.

"It sold [for $66,000] before we even put it on the market," Mr. Eash said. "We lost a little money because we weren't as confident about what we could get for it."

They're more confident now. For the second house on Eureka, the CDC paid $23,000, spent $85,000 on a foundation-to-roof renovation and had it under agreement for $139,900 within 24 hours of its listing.

"That's significantly higher than an average resale on this street," Mr. Eash said. "We wanted to establish a high water mark to prove there is a market for this area."

The area is situated tightly against Allentown and Beltzhoover, neighborhoods that have struggled with blight, abandoned properties, low housing values and code violations.

Realtor Greg Panza was listing agent for the second Eureka house and was a design consultant in its renovation. He said he knew "as soon as I walked in that it had potential. I saw those Craftsman-style built-ins" in the dining room.

Mr. Panza has been an interior designer and spent several years helping business owners as the Main Streets manager for the Mount Washington CDC. He bought his home on Kathleen Street in the Estella micro-neighborhood several years ago, "And my friends thought I was crazy," he said.

"It's a funkier neighborhood, and that was the challenge" on Eureka, he said. "We couldn't do anything too lavish and had to be real creative because the market isn't real strong over here, yet."

In the past couple of years, he said he has seen an upswing.

"There was a house across from me on Kathleen that I put it on the market, and it was gone in three days. A $138,000 house on Kathleen was unheard of. That's when I kind of knew" Eureka would pay off, he said.

"We needed to raise the bar on our design if we wanted to attract new consumers," he said. "There are enough vanilla-box products out there. We did nothing lavish, but we kept what's memorable. We kept the old doors, sanded them down, stripped the paint and restored them. We got retro-style appliances that matched the era of the house."

Contractor Jason Hamilton said he did not have the vision Mr. Panza did but was thrilled to get the job, among his first as a new business owner.

"I grew up right up the street, and this neighborhood had kind of gone downhill, so just to be able to come back and rebuild something was very personal to me," he said.


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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