Pittsburgh continues to invest in mixed income housing
A. Fulton Meachem Jr., executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, in front of the Pride Center at the Garfield Commons housing complex in Garfield.
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Ramon Williams raised eight kids in Garfield Heights, somehow keeping them away from the public housing community's drug crews.
"I told them they were already in a gang, and I was the leader," the 52-year-old man said last week.
With four kids still under his roof and his wife off at work, he doesn't feel nearly as concerned in the newly rebuilt and renamed Garfield Commons. "I don't hear about drug sales going on here," he said. "Now it's mixed income, which is better, because there's not everybody trying to get something from somebody else who doesn't have anything."
"Mixed income" has been the mantra in public housing for nearly two decades, since the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development started paying local housing authorities to get rid of dense, run-down, crime-plagued "projects."
In most cases, far more homes were torn down than built. That means thousands of poor families once boarded by the authority have had to find other arrangements, often with the aid of Section 8 rental vouchers.
In the Hill District, for instance, Allequippa Terrace went from 1,749 apartments occupied entirely by poor families paying subsidized rents to 718 homes at rechristened Oak Hill, including 243 households paying market rents. The as-yet-unfinished Garfield Commons complex will top out at 225 apartments, with around 50 households paying market rents, replacing 632 units that reeked of "just complete neglect," as Pittsburgh Housing Authority Executive Director A. Fulton Meachem Jr. put it.
There's no good data about where those who didn't fit into the rebuilt communities ended up. "We saw folks that took the voucher and left, then we found out that maybe a year after that they, for whatever reason, had lost the voucher and maybe had fallen through the cracks," said George Moses, a Hill native and chairman of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.
That means that no one really knows what the transformation of public housing communities has meant for a majority of their residents, including seniors dependent on social services and children whose education may have been interrupted. Such questions will arise again, Mr. Moses said, as the Pittsburgh Housing Authority starts a $160 million redo of Addison Terrace, in the Hill.
Mr. Williams isn't too worried about the neighbors he lost in the transformation of Garfield Heights to Garfield Commons.
"It was a neighborhood in distress. Now it's more prosperous," he said. "I love it."
Before 1993, most public housing communities looked pretty much the same: tiny rooms in big three-story brick walk-ups in rows with shared grass lawns, and lots of residents milling around.
That year, HUD created the HOPE VI program, which pumped billions of dollars into creating a new model of public housing. Disabled, jobless and low-wage residents, paying 30 percent of their incomes as rent, were to live next door to people of greater means who paid rents set by the market.
This year, HOPE VI ended, replaced by a program called Choice Neighborhoods (see accompanying story). With the federal budget process mired in partisan warfare, no one is sure how much capital money will flow next year -- and, therefore, whether the transformation of public housing will continue.
"I'm extremely concerned," said Mr. Meachem, as he walked the flower-flanked sidewalks of Garfield Commons.
When he joined the authority in 2006, Garfield Heights was a place where it was "not healthy for parents to raise children," Mr. Meachem said. Parts of the complex were open-air drug markets, and gunfire was more than occasional.
"When you're in a situation where you can't come outside, you just don't feel comfortable coming outside -- I just can't imagine what that feels like," he said.
The authority failed to win a HOPE VI grant for Garfield, so it teamed with Columbus-based developer Keith B. Key Enterprises to craft a complicated financing structure. The authority pledged to pay a flat monthly subsidy for each unit rented to a public housing client.
The state contributed low-income tax credits based on KBK's pledge to cap rents for roughly three quarters of the units at levels affordable to people making less than the region's median income. Companies buy the tax credits, which give them a break on their tax bill for 10 years, and rents at the units have to be kept affordable for 15 years.
The rest of the cost of building, then operating, the development comes from the one-quarter of households that pay market rents. Those households also provide examples of success that might inspire the jobless and create a strong incentive for the developer to manage the property well because they have the ability to go elsewhere.
Mr. Key said there is a waiting list for market-rate apartments at Garfield Commons, noting that the new UPMC Children's Hospital in nearby Lawrenceville has made the area more attractive.
Tammie LaMarr, a hair stylist, is paying the full rent at Garfield Commons, where she's raising her 18-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
"The places are nice," she said, though neighborhood kids "run through your property" and made off with her son's bike. She's sometimes a little miffed that she pays market rate, while "there might be somebody next to me who pays $37."
Mr. Key said that ideally, around one-third of residents should be paying market-rate, one-third should be public housing clients and the remaining third should be below median income but not public-housing eligible.
That ratio is the starting point for the emerging plan for Addison Terrace, which would go from 734 apartments to around 400, with a new street grid tying it to Centre Avenue. The authority picked KBK for that job, too, and has so far dedicated around $41 million to plan the rebuild, demolish part of the 70-year-old complex and build the first 80 new units.
A visit to a one-bedroom unit in Addison reveals a concrete floor, aluminum frame windows, painted plywood cabinets, light bulbs hanging from fixtures, decades-old spigots and a showerless tub. Some residents are happy that their homes are being razed.
"Having some new housing, new places, new digs, is always like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is the best thing that could've happened to me. It's beautiful,'" Mr. Moses said.
But not everybody gets new digs, he said. "For those who don't get in, it's sort of a tricky question. Where do they go?"
In 1993, the Pittsburgh Housing Authority owned 9,388 apartments. Now it owns around half of that number, and hundreds -- mostly in Addison -- are empty.
In the same period, the number of Section 8 vouchers administered by the authority has increased, from around 3,400 to 5,200. Still, the 22 percent drop in authority clientele is steeper than the 13 percent dip in the city's overall population -- and some of it has been caused by the drive to make mixed-income communities.
When the authority used Hope VI funds to rebuild around half of Bedford Hill -- which now includes 61 market-rate homes -- it first built replacement homes across the street from the development to keep from scattering residents to the winds. The Urban Redevelopment Authority is now doing much the same, helping private firm Trek Development Group to build housing on the Hill's Dinwiddie Street before tearing down the nearby Reed Roberts Place.
"The whole key here was to never make a family homeless," Mr. Meachem said. He said the authority works with landlords and the school district to help displaced families to find homes near to their support systems.
All displaced residents are given the right to return to the new development -- with certain caveats.
"They have to meet basic credit qualifications," Mr. Key said, and pass criminal background checks. Felons aren't allowed in.
Mr. Meachem added that public housing residents, except those who are disabled, must either work or participate in a Family Self-Sufficiency program aimed at getting them into jobs.
The transformation of Garfield Heights to Garfield Commons has reduced the neighborhood's population, even as it has made it attractive to investors, said Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.
His community development nonprofit got "a large number of calls" from families displaced from the complex who wanted to stay in the area, he said. "A few families were able to find rental housing in Garfield."
Many others ended up in East Liberty or Lawrenceville, or even as far afield as Beltzhoover or Swissvale, their choices limited by the locations of rentals that are approved for Section 8 vouchers. "You aren't going to find developers in Squirrel Hill who will readily take a family from public housing, even with a Section 8 voucher," Mr. Swartz said.
The shifts continue a long history of population shuffling, according to Mr. Swartz and Mr. Moses. Redevelopment of the Hill District, including Addison Terrace, pushed people into Garfield, Upper Lawrenceville and East Liberty. The culling of subsidized units in East Liberty pushed people to a Baldwin Borough complex once called Green Meadows, now Leland Point. The razing of west Pittsburgh's Broadhead Manor sent people rippling through neighborhoods like Sheraden and Elliott.
"Some people are ending up in good places. Some are ending up in places, because they needed some place to stay, that might not be the best situation," said Terry Baltimore, who has helped families relocate in her role as vice president of neighborhood development for the Hill House. "There are more struggles obviously when people have criminal issues in their background and creditworthiness issues."
Forced moves can be particularly tough on kids, said Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist, Columbia University professor and authority of the book "Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It."
"It's to be avoided at all costs from the medical perspective," she said, because studies show that dislocation increases the risk of illness, poor school performance and eventual addiction.
"All the kids that went through the destruction of the neighborhood have gone through a profound loss," she said. "And all of the kids who ended up in some back alleyway, or God knows where, their lives have suffered setbacks."
Ms. Fullilove, who spent time in Pittsburgh in the 1990s studying Allequippa Terrace, said community residents were there for decades and had complex social networks upon which they relied. "The poorer you are, the more you need your friendship group. Your friendship group is what keeps you afloat."
Diane Thomas lived in Allequippa Terrace for a decade, returned to the site after its redevelopment and is now president of the Oak Hill Resident Council. That panel works closely with Boston developer Beacon/Corcoran Jennison to manage the development.
It doesn't bother her that some of her old neighbors were scattered. "You have to weed out some people because they're never going to adapt to this kind of living.
"Without that, you just have the same people who grew up here," she said. Instead, they have a degree of diversity.
Charlotte Grant, 52, moved from Homewood to Garfield Commons and is thrilled with the new appliances, the computer that her family got through a foundation grant to the development and also her fenced-in back porch. Neighbors are nice, too. She has three kids, including a 10-year-old son with cerebral palsy, and said everybody "looks out for the little one."
"We have a new house that we didn't think we'd ever have," she gushed. "For some people who moved here, it's a dream come true."
First Published October 23, 2011 12:00 am