Less low-income Pittsburgh housing squeezing needy people

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Mixed-income developments that replace old housing complexes are widely credited for stabilizing neighborhoods, and they are becoming the norm. The latest example is Addison Terrace in the Hill District, where a groundbreaking for 400 new units was held last week.

But the changing face of public housing is part of a larger picture that troubles advocates of low-income families.

At the April meeting of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Housing Alliance in Pittsburgh, advocates and public officials said low-income housing is shrinking so much that emergency housing and shelters have a backlog.

"We're losing units like crazy," said Chuck Keenan, administrator in the bureau of homeless services at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. "If the government's not going to build them, where are we going to get them?"

The larger picture shows the effects of funding drops on all levels, including the recent sequestration that has resulted in layoffs and years of anticipated funding shortfalls at housing agencies.

"We're expecting pretty bad things next year," Mr. Keenan said, referring to an anticipated 7 percent sequestration shortfall at the county DHS.

Liz Hersh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance, said that statewide, 200,000 units of low-income units are lacking to households with incomes of $20,000 or less a year.

"All of us are very concerned about the vulnerable people," she said.

Through the mid-20th century, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was the builder, operator and subsidizer of public housing properties. The paradigm began changing in the 1980s. Today, many old HUD buildings are being demolished and replaced or reverting to the private market as HUD contracts expire.

Already substandard by the '90s, old public housing began losing tenants when the Section 8 program allowed them to shop for private rentals. By the time the old housing was ready for a face-lift, the solution was to integrate it and lower the density.

Addison Terrace will be an example. Oak Hill, on the site of the former Allequippa Terrace, is another, with 1,000 fewer units than the site used to hold. Of 718 townhouses, 475 are subsidized by the public, 42 with low-income housing tax credits and 201 are market rate, according to the housing authority.

The housing authority no longer manages these and some other of its properties but continues to subsidize their units of public housing and to monitor for federal compliance, said David Weber, the authority's government relations and special services officer.

Like Oak Hill, Addison Terrace, for which construction begins this summer, is "a way better quality of life, and the scale is much more appropriate," Mr. Keenan said. "But the volume is lower at a time when a lot of people need affordable housing."

Mr. Weber said the authority has been able to move 80 percent of the displaced clients from the old Addison Terrace into vacant units at its other sites and 10 percent opted to use vouchers to seek their own housing.

Mr. Weber said some on the list already have a home and are awaiting a move. Some people would be ineligible based on income or for failing a background check. He said there has to be a waiting list of some size to keep places occupied when people move.

The housing authority is serving "roughly the same number of families we served in 1990," about 10,000, which includes those with housing-choice [Section 8] vouchers.

Mr. Keenan said the county was able to add 1,000 units to serve the homeless with federal money from HUD.

Community Human Services is providing housing and support services to more than 3,000 people thanks to 35 funding sources that run the gamut from foundations to individuals, said Adrienne Walnoha, the organization's CEO.

"When I started here 12 years ago it was 1,500. You'd be surprised the number of people you pass on the street every day who don't have a place to go," she said. "With the state cutting out general assistance, we have a group of folks who have no income. Sometimes they have the luxury of staying with someone or sleeping in their car.

"We have elderly adults making fires in their basements for warmth, people living in houses they own without utilities."

Mr. Keenan said government cutbacks in social services in general are "penny-wise and pound-foolish. Some of the cuts are going to force people into very expensive settings. With cuts in mental health funding, a person loses his case manager and housing support and ends up in the hospital, where the cost is 50 times higher.

"We're doing more prevention work for homeless youth; we're trying to keep people in their current apartments, kids with their parents and all those things without which it is very costly to the government."

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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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