Pittsburgh's Larimer revival concerns residents

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Plans to revamp Pittsburgh's Larimer section promise the creation of a new kind of neighborhood, where low-income residents are no longer clustered in housing projects or crumbling apartments, where subsidized housing units are scattered among market-rate ones.

But some are worried that the blueprints for the $100 million housing development would push residents in two places slated for demolition -- East Liberty Gardens and a Pittsburgh Housing Authority-owned project -- farther from transit lines and business districts.

"[The housing authority] is talking about moving me somewhere else," said Robert Morton, who lives in one of 27 units in the Auburn/Hamilton-Larimer complex, which is owned by the housing authority. Mr. Morton, 64, uses a wheelchair. "I can't just uproot and go somewhere else."

The city is currently preparing an application for a highly competitive $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with hopes of building some 350 units of mixed-income housing in the struggling neighborhood, to support jobs, parks and businesses similar to those in neighboring East Liberty.

Councilman Ricky Burgess, who represents the community and chairs the Pittsburgh Housing Authority's board, hopes to commit millions in city funds to boost the application for the federal funds. A bill to approve those funds will go before council this week.

Those overseeing the plans say that every subsidized unit -- around 150 in total -- will be replaced in the new development, though not precisely in the same places. Instead, the new development will be "mixed income," meaning market-rate rental and for-sale townhomes will stand side-by-side with subsidized units.

Malik Bankston is head of the Kingsley Association, a community organization that co-founded the nonprofit that owns East Liberty Gardens. He said the mixed-income concept received broad community support, even from low-income residents.

"One thing that everyone has agreed to is we don't want to create neighborhoods that are exclusively populated by low-income [residents]," he said. "People do not want to live in a neighborhood where only poor people live."

Lee Sims heads the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty, which represents tenants in East Liberty Gardens. COR conducted a survey last year asking residents in the Gardens if they would move farther into Larimer or would prefer to stay put. Around 35 responded and overwhelmingly said they liked the location of the Gardens, on Broad Street and Larimer Avenue.

"It's by everything I need and my job is right up the street," wrote one respondent.

"I really don't have to leave out of East Liberty for anything," another said.

But the respondents also complained about the complex, a series of tightly-packed, low-slung brick buildings.

Asked if she would like to change anything about her unit, one respondent said "Everything!!!"

"Everything in my home is falling apart!"

Ms. Sims said she fears the plan will push out the low-income residents to make way for a demographic with deeper pockets. Low-income residents in the area, she said, have been burned by revitalization efforts in the past.

"We're not fighting change," she said. "We see the big picture, we just don't want to get cropped out of it. [They] moved into this area for a reason ... [They] would like to stay."

While Mr. Bankston said it's true that East Liberty Gardens and Auburn/Hamilton-Larimer residents would be moved, they would stay within blocks of where they currently live. And they'll be living in brand-new energy efficient units.

No replacement unit is more than a 10-minute walk from the Gardens, which is now a half-century old and in need of replacement, Mr. Bankston said.

Furthermore, he said, every effort is being made to ensure that East Liberty Gardens residents only move once, meaning units won't be torn down until the residents have new units to move into.

They plan to accomplish this through phasing construction and demolition so no tenant has to find semi-permanent housing while waiting for a new home to be built.

The same assurances have not been given to Auburn/Hamilton-Larimer residents. A relocation plan has not been finalized. Some residents may be moved into a nearby 40-unit development due to be constructed in the coming months. Others will be given Section 8 vouchers, which could force them out of the community altogether because of the shortage of eligible housing.

They could be displaced for a year or longer, said Chuck Rohrer, a spokesman for the housing authority. He said the authority has already told residents to make plans to move out and plans to apply for a demolition permit in September.

That worries Mr. Morton, who lives in a handicap-accessible unit and cares for three young sons. He said while the unit could use some upgrades, he would prefer to stay put rather than take his chances with a Section 8 voucher.

"Where am I going to take a Section 8 [voucher] to?" he said. "I know what I got [in Hamilton/Auburn-Larimer]. I would like to see it better, but I know what I got."

mobilehome - neigh_city

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.


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