Pittsburgh Leaders Discover a Housing Crisis

Pittsburgh’s mayor, Bill Peduto, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) have discovered that there is a shortage of so-called affordable housing (a euphemism for low-income housing) in the area, especially in East Liberty, the focus of recent protestations. Last week, Kevin Acklin, the born-again-Democrat serving as Peduto’s chief of staff, announced that the city would be establishing an affordable housing fund to address the shortage of housing for those with a shortage of income.

It is strikingly surreal that our leaders have “discovered” a shortage of low-income housing because:

1. A casual ride through East Liberty/Larimer reveals residential construction nearly everywhere. In fact, observers have questioned how the newly constructed and soon to be completed apartments and condos will be filled in a city with stagnant population growth. At the same time, the hyper-active East Liberty Development Inc. has assured everyone within ear-shot that they have worked hard to guarantee adequate affordable housing in the neighborhood.
2. The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania reported in early May that there was a shortage of 21,000 homes in Pittsburgh for families at or below the poverty level. Attorney Robert Damewood of Regional Housing Legal Services claimed that the local shortage was severe. Apparently the URA and the mayor’s office had yet to recognize this problem until recently.
3. Recent data from the Census Bureau show a poverty rate of 23.8% of the Pittsburgh population, a rate exceeding the national number by over eight points and the Pennsylvania percentage by over 10 points. Importantly, Pittsburgh poverty increased by nearly a full point (a four percent increase in the number falling at or below the line) in one year! Nearly one out of four residents of the city now lives at or below the poverty line. Until recently, no one in the local leadership thought that increasing poverty equated to a housing crisis.

This “discovery” of a crisis in low-income housing is another page in the ongoing saga of gentrification in Pittsburgh. Actually, “gentrification” is a euphemism for a more insidious process of ethnic cleansing. Europeans have a long history of ethnic cleansing in the New World, displacing peoples to suit their own settlement plans. In the case of native Americans, the answer was to collect them all on reservations. East Liberty was designated for a reservation of poor and African-Americans by an earlier generation of urban “renewing” civic leaders. Now they want it back.

Rather than tend to the needs of the neighborhoods– especially the urban poor– Mayor Peduto, like earlier mayors, has been occupied with bike lanes and other amenities that might attract migrant urban hipsters. His vision is to create a city for Richard Florida’s so-called creative class. He sees providing bike lanes for the 2 to 3% who regularly use bicycles (seasonally!) as a higher priority than housing for the 23.8% of our neighbors who fall below the poverty line.

Peduto likes to remind critics of his bike policy of the success of the bike culture in Amsterdam (apparently his model for the New Pittsburgh). What he doesn’t say is that Amsterdam can be bike friendly without neglecting the poor and disadvantaged. When confronted with a rise in the city’s poverty rate late in 2014:

Amsterdam city council has… recently announced measures to overcome poverty, including giving low-income workers entitlement to receive financial support.
The city has raised the minimum income threshold for support from 110 to 120 per cent of the legal minimum social income. Currently monthly minimum social income is 1.489 euros for a couple and 1.122 euros for an individual.
Amsterdam is setting aside an extra 20 million euros annually, in addition to the 60 million euros already allocated to combat poverty.

Apparently, the Peduto administration and the local foundations missed that element of Amsterdam’s urban planning.


— Greg Godels

8 thoughts on “Pittsburgh Leaders Discover a Housing Crisis

  1. So this and the more recent post of yours both disparage bike lanes. Why is this your hobby horse? The city is putting in a very few bike lanes because they are easy to do: they are very low cost and they are on public property. Of course more equitable housing and income guarantees would be much more useful, but a mayor can’t just do those overnight the way a simple bike lane can. What are the tax levels needed to support a guaranteed income? Would you support those tax levels? Thanks for the interesting blog; will keep reading.


    1. Thanks for the comment, RE. I have been accused by my bike-riding friends of being anti-bike so maybe there is some merit to your point. Apologies all around. But my quarrel really is with priorities. I admire European cities that plan well-funded cycling, public transit, walking, and water ways while respecting neighborhoods and managing a balance between old and new.

      But you put your finger on the problem: bike trails are far cheaper than solving other, more urgent, urban problems. Further, tackling the funding issue would requiring getting around the facts that 40% of Pittsburgh property is untaxed and suburban folks are free riders on the city’s many amenities. Our politicians since Mayor Murphy find it much easier and cheaper to follow the hip prescription of Richard Florida meant to entice the “creative class” to move to the city for bike lanes, climbing walls, restaurants, and the other supposed interests of this elite. I’m not sure that Richard Florida still believes in this vision, but our mayors still drink the kool aid. It ain’t working: population growth is stagnant, income levels are well below the county’s, and poverty is on the rise.



  2. Population growth has been stagnant but it certainly looks as though a few thousand new apartments are being added to the market, with more to come in Hazelwood. Anecdotally it looks to be headed in the direction of greater city population quantity and density.

    I would think the concentration of untaxed property within the city is something the county and the state should be working to solve. How can the mayor solve this, other than by begging for payments in lieu of taxes? Perhaps a merger of the 100+ munis in Allegheny Cty into a single county-level muni and county-level school district would work better — for the City, anyway; I’m sure the per-student budget in the Fox Chapel Area SD would decrease quite a bit.


  3. RE: De-industrialization has led to mass exodus and a surplus of housing stock, but a two-tier market. Lower-income housing is in excess and accordingly under-valued. Thus, it is a ripe plum for speculators, developers, and flippers who want to offer it up to higher incomer clients. Thus, for some time, there has been an overheated market, changing the landscapes of Pittsburgh’s traditional neighborhoods. Only public intervention could (can) slow this from becoming a bubble. It can– and will– burst.

    Yes, government should address the tax question. But it won’t. It will offer lame excuses about non-profit statutes, the home rule charter, the PA constitution, etc, but do nothing. Give credit to the folks that didn’t listen to this nonsense and pushed city council recently to adopt the payed sick leave resolution.

    No, I don’t think metro-merger is the answer. The city’s problems and possible solutions would get swamped by the disdain held by the near suburbs. That’s why they left the city: to escape their urban fears and the costs of paying for urban amenities! They like being free-riders!

    In fact, the spending-per-student in the PGH school district is higher than Fox Chapel’s.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking comments.



  4. Sorry, gentrification brings issues that need to be addressed, but it is not the same as ethnic cleansing.
    People’s values and priorities are changing around here, and more people recognize that living in town provides a better overall lifestyle than commuting out and back from cookie cutter suburban plans. This is a good thing. We need to make sure the increased tax revenue created by the gentrification makes life better for all city residents.
    Consider the ramifications if the flow was in the opposite direction, with wealth migrating out of town and property values declining.


    1. I suspect that my colleague Greg was not bemoaning the presence of people with money, but what their concentration in an area does to the price of housing for those without ca$h. We need to guarantee decent affordable housing in gentrified neighborhoods so that people of modest incomes can live.


    2. Thanks for the comment, Kevin. Gentrification becomes ethnic cleansing when developers are not regulated and politicians look the other way. Folks left or avoided the city for racial and class reasons– real estate agents created a climate of fear and an illusion of suburban success decades ago. They purposely created imagery of “bad” neighborhoods and “good” ones. Migration from the cities earned them big bucks. Truth be told, they did a similar thing to the suburbs, creating the image of even greater status for the exurbs. That’s why Pittsburgh has such exceptional urban sprawl.

      Ironically, they are now seizing an opportunity to invite people back. The logic is simple: Housing values are cheap in E. Liberty, Garfield, parts of Lawrenceville, Hazelwood, the slopes, etc. Buy up properties and construct high end and luxury residences. Sell/rent them for a lot and make huge profits. But to do so, you must get rid of the poor and Black, the people that make the well-off uncomfortable. You must reverse the suburbanization process, undo the fears that drove people from “bad” neighborhoods.

      Nothing against folks moving to the city, just against their dispossessing those less privileged.


  5. There’s no avoiding the fact that some dispossession is inevitable in this process. People that own homes in these areas will be able to reap windfall profits by selling or jacking up rents; renters will be screwed and will have to move to less valuable properties. We need to mitigate the impact on the losers in this process as much as we can by making sure affordable housing is available, and it makes sense to provide assistance to those forced to relocate.


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