Walkabout: AGH helps break housing barriers on the North Side

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Adversarial positions drove North Side activists and Allegheny General Hospital officials into reconciliation 25 years ago.

Considering the suspicion and fear with which so many residents regarded the hospital then, it's exciting to realize how fragile these attitudes can be if we have the spirit to accept that. Fear born of suspicion is a paper wall some of us pretend is impenetrable.

A story in Monday's Post-Gazette described the battle a group of North Siders waged against the hospital's proposed expansion plans in the 1980s and how that animus was turned on its ear when they disarmed hospital officials by proposing a partnership.

One of the results has been 100 hospital employees buying homes in North Side neighborhoods. The hospital's endorsement of the North Side as a place to live is what gave Toni Leosewski, a registered nurse and director of cardiac imaging, the confidence to invest. She was one of the first employees to go through the partnership's Workforce Home Benefit program.

Before she bought a townhouse in Brighton Heights and subsequently married, Ms. Leosewski lived in Bellevue, where other single friends who worked at the hospital lived.

"I knew I wanted to buy and I didn't want to live in the suburbs," she said, "but I grew up in a small town in Somerset County and was nervous about buying a house as a single girl in the big city. The program gave me the confidence to do that, maybe because I felt secure at AGH."

A runner who has logged "hundreds of miles in Riverview Park," she said: "I like the convenience. I could run or walk home from work.

"I'm a member of the Walk in the Park committee and I try to make sure people at work know how great the North Side is. I think we've come a long way and I believe the hospital wants to support the community."

The housing promotion program has two-year PNC Foundation funding of $24,000 for advertising and the services of NeighborWorks. It holds four annual workshops.

Through the life of this partnership, more than 400 people have taken the daylong workshops to learn how to get their credit in order, how to pick a real estate agent, how to prepare for closing and how to sustain home ownership, said Laura Smith, the partnership's director.

The hospital offers $1,000 grants to employees who close on North Side homes.

This partnership is likely the longest-running, if not the only, one in the country between an institution and a 14-neighborhood umbrella organization. It has created so many assets that it's hard to believe there's not a swarm to replicate the model.

The Northside Leadership Conference is the umbrella organization. As its executive director, Mark Fatla, put it, the neighborhood saw the hospital as "the 800-pound gorilla" and the hospital considered activist residents "pests, annoyances."

"What changed the most in these 25 years was us," he said. "We now look at each other and say, 'You're a partner and we can get things done together.' "

This is not to suggest there aren't disagreements. If you're a North Sider, you know there have to be. But now civilized and mature partnership is a solution to roadblocks.

Pittsburgh has a slew of institutions that could forge partnerships in neighborhoods to create housing investments. My mind takes off on a flight of fancy with the possibilities. Partnerships modeled after the North Side's could begin to chip away at the 35,000 tax-encumbered properties in the city, 8,000 of which are vacant.

The North Side includes 19 neighborhoods, but the general public over many decades has bundled them into one, with an attitude based largely on fear born of suspicion. This kind of fear inhibits so much well-being. It's the reason for many conflicts in the world. It's why we're critical of things we don't understand and why we don't go to certain neighborhoods, much less invest in them.

If we muster our spirits to punch through the paper wall, the city stands a better chance of a shining future, as does the world.

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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