Homewood beset by concentration of vacancies
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Few communities are beset by a concentration of vacant properties as severe as that found in Homewood, where nearly 44 percent of the land parcels are empty lots, about twice the citywide rate. The 2010 U.S. Census reports that nearly 28 percent of the neighborhood's housing is vacant as well.
It's been 27 years since Elwin Green came to live in Homewood.
The house directly across Race Street from his house is vacant. The house next to that vacant house is also vacant. Next to that vacant house is a vacant lot. On Mr. Green's side of the street, the house beside his is occupied, but a vacant house flanks it. And next to that vacant house is another vacant lot.
"It's just plain ugly to a degree that it sucks life out of your soul when you are surrounded by it," said Mr. Green, who writes a neighborhood blog on his Homewood Nation website and is a former Post-Gazette reporter. "But what might be the most dangerous aspect of vacant and abandoned property is that it can be easy to get used to - that it becomes part of the background of your life that you don't notice anymore. So, a lot of us wind up accepting as normal stuff that should never be normal."
Dealing with such high vacancy rates is one of many challenges several organizations face as they try to stimulate the housing market, raise children's academic outcomes and improve the quality of life in the neighborhood that captains of industry Andrew Carnegie and George Westinghouse and jazz composer Billy Strayhorn once called home.
Homewood grew rapidly after it was connected by streetcar to downtown Pittsburgh and surrounding neighborhoods in the 1890s, and the houses built during that expansion make up much of the housing stock that remains today. Major changes swept through many city neighborhoods after World War II, and Homewood was no exception. The rise of the suburbs and other factors drained the neighborhood of people, retail businesses, jobs, wealth and vibrancy.
Its population fell 79 percent to fewer than 6,500 residents between 1940 and 2010, with the sharpest period of decline occurring over the past 10 years. Crime and poverty rose, as did the rate of vacant and abandoned property.
The housing market in Homewood steadily eroded to the point where today equity is more a concept than reality for most homeowners. Allegheny County Office of Property Assessments data show that 87 percent of the homes sold in 2009 sold for less than $10,000.
An in-depth study of Homewood was released in March by the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research. To get a better picture of home values, researchers eliminated from consideration sales under $500, reasoning that a good number of them might be "love and trust" transfers within families rather than standard home sales. By their calculations, the average sales price of a home in Homewood in 2009 was $9,060 and the median price was $4,325.
For homeowners, the news gets worse. Their homes are often assessed at values much higher than what they sell for. In 2009, the average property tax bill in Homewood was $935, based on the average assessed value of nearly $31,800, more than three times higher than the average sale price in the neighborhood.
Such conditions discourage home improvements and contribute to long-term vacancy, abandonment and blight.
"When you look at the housing market, everything is below the city standards," said Sabina Deitrick, co-director of the Urban and Regional Analysis Program at the Center for Social and Urban Research. "Supply exceeds demand. Buyers are often not people who want to live in the neighborhood. They are absentee owners. Vacancy is high. There is widespread abandonment, huge amounts of disinvestment and nothing gets filled in. If you want to rate housing markets, this is the bottom of the bottom."
Abandoned houses and lots ranked second only to crime as the biggest concerns of 1,000 Homewood residents surveyed last year by Operation Better Block, a neighborhood nonprofit.
"People intuitively understand the relationship between those issues," said John Wallace, associate professor of social work and the Philip Hallen Chair in Community Health and Social Justice at the University of Pittsburgh.
Homewood isn't lacking in amenities that families, in particular, find attractive. In fact, with an elementary school, middle school, high school and an Allegheny County Community College campus, Homewood is one of those rare places where parents can educate their children through the first two years of college without the children leaving the neighborhood or even having to take a bus. Since Mr. Green has moved in, he has seen the local high school and the neighborhood Carnegie Library branch renovated, the Afro American Music Institute move in, and a new YMCA, YWCA and community college campus open their doors. Each has added texture to the neighborhood and the lives of its residents. And each is surrounded by evidence of disinvestment and decline that such redevelopment has been unable to reverse.
The Helen S. Faison Arts Academy (Pittsburgh Faison PreK-8), Pittsburgh's newest elementary school, was built with the hope it would help kindle the revitalization of Homewood. With its modern red brick and glass facade, innovative interior design and grassy five-acre campus, it's clearly a community asset.
But across from the school's Tioga Street entrance is a pair of vacant, two-story houses of aging brick. Two blocks north, an entire block of abandoned row houses dominates Formosa Way, a grim corridor that years ago earned the reputation as one of the city's most notorious crime havens.
It's that environment that Pitt's John Wallace wants Homewood's children to avoid as much as possible. For at least two years, he has planned the Homewood Children's Village, an initiative to improve the academic outcomes and well-being of neighborhood children. The village is based on a model used in New York City's Harlem neighborhood that concentrates educational support and social services around children from "cradle to college."
Organizers of the Homewood project immediately started assessing the conditions of the property around neighborhood schools as a first step of mapping routes that allow children to bypass vacant houses and lots.
"The village itself is primarily focused on programs for kids and education," Mr. Wallace said. "But we have to address these property-related issues. That's part of their environment. There's stress associated with knowing that drugs and other activities often go on in abandoned buildings. We don't want kids to be afraid to walk their street to get to school."
Figuring out what to fix first is academic, experts say. Decades of experience suggest that neighborhood revitalization that focuses on one risk at a time is ripe for failure. Two decades ago in Homewood, redevelopment that focused on restoring the business climate failed largely because of a sharp increase in crime, particularly violent crime, in and around the business corridor.
"Don't think of it as a linear process - that if we do this, this will happen," Ms. Deitrick said. "It's not going to be that way. Things have to happen simultaneously."
The idea behind the Homewood Children's Village is to take a holistic approach. The Harlem Children's Zone on which it is based built a network of in-school, after-school, social service, community-building and health programs, including adult mentors, asthma care and classes for expectant mothers.
Meanwhile, several organizations are trying to stimulate the housing market in Homewood, raise property values and attract investment as ways of creating a healthier, more sustainable neighborhood - something that if they succeed would rank as one of Pittsburgh's finest hours.
Bridging the Busway is a community-driven planning project that has residents, nonprofits and professionals, such as the architectural consulting firm Studio for Spatial Practice, looking for ways to capitalize on the commuting convenience of the East Busway, which separates Homewood from North Point Breeze. Improvements along the busway corridor, they reason, would better position Homewood to draw from the strength of its more affluent neighbor, where poverty and crime rates are much lower than citywide averages and the median sales price of a North Point Breeze home is more than $102,000 - about 25 times higher than Homewood's.
The two vacant houses across from the Faison school are now in the possession of the city. They are among those that Operation Better Block and others are planning to rehab and sell in that part of the neighborhood, where they are trying to grow a small but healthy housing market that they hope will kindle a wider recovery. Directly to the east of the school, sunflowers rise from a community garden that replaced vacant lots.
Behind the school and only blocks from the East Busway, Building United of Southwestern Pennsylvania bought 45 blighted former subsidized housing units from the federal government. In their place, the nonprofit built 10 three-bedroom houses, each with 2.5 baths, a fenced-in backyard and detached garage. The houses were priced at $128,000 with a $50,000 "soft" second mortgage through the Urban Redevelopment Authority that essentially lowered the price of the house by that amount for buyers who live there for at least 10 years.
The houses sold. Another four houses are under construction and already have buyers. And the nonprofit plans to build 14 more houses and rehab two others in the same Braddock Avenue-Susquehanna Street block cluster.
"We're selling them as fast as we can build them," said the Rev. Samuel Ware, executive director of Building United of Southwestern Pennsylvania. "We want this to be an anchor so we can say, 'Look, this works. People are willing to buy in this neighborhood.' "
Elsewhere in Homewood, the Rosedale Block Cluster is continuing to "green" vacant lots with gardens, a practice the neighborhood group began more than a decade ago. It also operates its own landscaping company and trains local youths to do that kind of work. In May, the city gave the nonprofit Homewood-Brushton Community Coalition Organization money to hire an economic development specialist to advance its revitalization efforts.
And there are signs the blight-weary neighborhood is moving more aggressively against vacant properties and those responsible for them. Operation Better Block recently received financial support from The Heinz Endowments to explore with Housing Authority of Pennsylvania consultants ways of using new, more powerful legal tools to combat vacant and abandoned properties.
Of particular interest is the state's conservatorship law, which could allow the nonprofit to force a neglectful property owner to improve a blighted property or face having it taken over by a court-appointed conservator. The conservator would rehabilitate the building or tear it down, then offer it back to the owner for the cost of the work, or sell it under court supervision to someone else. "We're not interested in using it against people who are struggling and need help," said Jerome Jackson, executive director of Operation Better Block. "But I don't have a problem using it against someone who has been sitting on a property for 10 years and hasn't done anything with it. This is about our neighborhood."
First Published September 24, 2011 3:42 pm