Homewood's sense of place is eroding so fast that 184 homes have been razed since 2011 and another 232 are condemned. Residents are torn. They value the building stock that attests to better days, but blight is outpacing opportunities to save what's viable.
Just in time for the neighborhood's biggest investment in decades, Operation Better Block staff began a door-to-door campaign to motivate hundreds of residents to face this crisis by helping to plan housing strategies.
"Demolition was the only recourse people thought we had," said Jerome Jackson, executive director of Operation Better Block. Even if it is, he added, people need information to be comfortable with that.
A neighborhood advocacy nonprofit since 1971, Operation Better Block initiated a resident-driven plan for the use of vacant land and buildings two years ago in a test area of 46 parcels near Pittsburgh Faison K-5. The school was a crucial reason to strengthen that area, which is also near the East Busway and the ripest area for investment.
Construction of Homewood Senior Station, an $11.5 million, 41-unit apartment building, is now underway nearby on Homewood Avenue, the largest investment in the neighborhood in 30 years, said District 9 Councilman Ricky Burgess.
Two years ago, Operation Better Block targeted the first of 12 areas in which it hopes to replicate a comprehensive residential survey, property inventory and social service blitz.
The process included helping eligible residents enroll for Medicare, apply for property tax reductions and mortgage assistance, get clear title to inherited properties and arrange for renovations to help them remain in their homes, said Demi Kolke, Operation Better Block's community development coordinator.
"We want to make sure the residents who live in Homewood can stay in Homewood" without these insecurities, Mr. Jackson said. "A lot of people who could have left have stuck around, but a lot more people can't get enough money out of their houses to buy a new one."
Most of Homewood's viable homes need at least fresh paint and some repairs. But block after block, mostly through Homewood South, empty homes stand in seas of weeds with gaping roofs, broken windows and slumping porches. Some blocks are long expanses of grassy lots interrupted by one or two houses that remain.
"A lot of people want to save houses but when they see what it will cost to save, they say, 'We could build a new house for less,' " Mr. Jackson said. "We may have a better chance with the new, but we can have a conversation about saving what we can."
Paul Loy, demolition manager for the city's Bureau of Buildings Inspections, said a condemned building "doesn't have to be torn down. A number of these buildings could be saved."
Return on investment is the obstacle: "I can tear one down for $7,000-$8,000, but it will take 10 times that amount to rehab," he said.
On a recent tour of Homewood, Mr. Burgess said the future of Homewood South is about rebuilding, notably the retail corridor of Homewood Avenue.
"Look," he said, pointing out land on either side of Hamilton Avenue between Dallas and Murtland Avenues: "Empty lot, empty lot, empty building, empty lot," he said. "The strategy for Homewood South cannot be preservation. I believe Homewood North is where we should focus on rehabs. They're largely intact and have good bones."
Operation Better Block has inventoried properties in four survey areas so far. Its original test area -- bordered by Tioga and Dunfermline streets within the confines of Hamilton and Braddock avenues -- is a 46-parcel area with just 15 occupied buildings.
"Residents didn't want that area filled in," Mr. Jackson said, "They wanted more yards, so we're looking at just building six new houses" in that area.
Linda Scott, who lives on Tioga Street, has been active in Operation Better Block's plan.
"I liked what they talked about and I asked for help" with a nuisance house nearby, she said. "Two months later, the house is gone. The bad activity is gone. Houses further down the street that were an issue are gone. No longer an issue.
"They've been diligent about how to reconfigure these blocks and to provide us information."
Attorney Irene McLaughlin, a member of Operation Better Block's board and a consultant to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, has trained the staff in the ways of code enforcement, city systems and the courts. Her work was supported by a grant from the Heinz Endowments.
She said the URA has been clearing title on vacant properties to land-bank them for development, a process that frees Operation Better Block "to spend time and resources working with occupied properties."
Operation Better Block also is working with Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh to upgrade 50 units of older, owner-occupied housing, some in the busway area, with commitments of foundation money and a supplemental $100,000 over two years from the URA, said Tom Cummings, director of housing for the URA.
The developers of the Homewood Senior Station, S&A Homes and Oxford Development, also plan to build 30 new townhouses within a few blocks near the senior home and the East Busway.
"The corridors that lead from North Point Breeze are critical, key areas for investment, with access to the busway," Mr. Cummings said. "And we think it's critical that Operation Better Block is engaging the existing home owners. We want them to benefit from the investment happening around them."
The Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development awarded Operation Better Block grants of $87,000 over two years to do the survey and inventory and to implement a plan for parcels, said Sarah Dieleman Perry, program officer at the partnership.
Operation Better Block has identified 12 cluster areas in which to ply the same methods over time.
Liz Hersh of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania said the comprehensive efforts to stabilize home owners while engaging them in planning "is the first approach like that I have seen. They're being very deliberate. It has really impressed me."
Operation Better Block will hold the first of several training workshops on Tuesday to share its methods on how to implement its manual describing the block-cluster planning process. For more details, visit www.obbinc.org.