Housing Follies


Now that Pittsburgh’s elites have discovered a shortage of “affordable” housing in the city, they are scrambling to attach themselves to “solutions.”  The days of commissions, committees, panels, and other tactical diversions have passed. Resolute activism and community organization have exposed the raw human costs, making academic talk and endless study untenable.

So the mayor and his accomplices at the Urban Redevelopment Authority propose establishing a “set aside” to “underwrite” affordable housing. The source of this revenue is the magical “TIF”—the mechanism for “capturing” future value increments coming from the projected escalation of tax revenues that are expected to follow development. In practice, TIFs have served most often as a method of public subsidy of private developments. Despite the love affair urban leaders have with TIFs, they have at least four unspoken, negative consequences:

•TIFs support the financing of schemes that would otherwise not be financed through conventional means (banks view the project as too risky or the developers as not credible).
•TIFs gamble with public funds.
•TIFs create an environment where every developer expects a TIF for every project (everyone else got one!)
•And TIFs encourage developer speculation and the gentrification that usually follows.

Apart from the evasive language and promissory tone of the mayor’s solution, the TIF-share proposal is merely a call for the bottom-feeding developers to pitch the URA for some subsidy money to participate in gentrification by building HUD compliant non-luxury housing. Peduto’s scheme is far from a genuine answer to the displacement of those forgotten by local government.

Councilman Ricky Burgess offers a different solution that doesn’t employ arcane financial maneuvers or put public funds at risk: require all landlords—without exception—to accept federal housing subsidies available to low income renters. Regardless of Councilman Burgess’s stated motives, this approach isn’t a step towards solving the affordable housing problem. Instead, it’s thin cover for his failure to take action on the city’s callous dislocation of neighborhoods in his district. Burgess knows how ineffective Section Eight—the Federal housing subsidy– has become. He knows that the voucher program is critically backlogged. He knows that the program has been overwhelmed by the destruction of public housing. And he also knows that the stock of potential section eight housing in the city diminishes as gentrification pushes prices and rents upward (to read a more thorough review of the Section Eight problems, see Rebecca Nuttall’s article in the City Paper).

Both the Peduto and Burgess approaches evade the elephant in the room: the unrestrained gold rush to build ultra-profitable “luxury” residence on relatively cheap property while exploiting the tax and subsidy advantages available for “blighted” areas. No one in city or county government has a desire or plan to rein in this monster.

Consequently, we see 1200 units of “market rate” apartments projected for the Lower Hill (the master plan touts the fact that 20% will be set aside for those with 60-80% of the area’s median income, a level out of the reach of the bottom 28% of Pittsburgh households), 326 apartments planned for the perimeter of Oakland, and nearly 900 “high-end” or “luxury” accommodations coming to Lawrenceville (balanced by 9 “affordable” apartments in Doughboy Square), all announced in the last few months.

Add to this the Walnut Capital, Mosites, forthcoming Gumberg, and stealthy Echo Realty projects flooding East Liberty and we have the makings of a luxury residence boom… or bust.

In fact, there is every reason to doubt that each new residence will find a resident. While no developer wants to be left behind in the scramble to exploit explosive property value inflation and big payouts, the expansion will inevitably encounter economic and demographic limits.

With population growth stagnant and job growth lagging behind most counterpart cities (see Pittsburgh Today), that day of reckoning may come sooner rather than later. Is a luxury housing bubble looming in Pittsburgh?

Greg Godels

Under the Radar

This isn’t a story with obvious local implications but I have to comment on the determination and character of the University of Missouri African-American student activists and their supporters, who forced the resignation of a college president and the start of a real dialogue on racism.

Although the students had been complaining about a racist campus environment for years, it finally took the courageous stand of the Mizzou black football players, supported by their coach and white teammates, to grab the attention of the university administration — and the media.

The stand of the football players was singular and unique for these times — they essentially threatened a strike until the university president stepped down — but the activism of the students was not.  When the media finally latched on to this story, it also “discovered” numerous similar struggles occurring at colleges and universities across the country, including such elite institutions as Princeton, Yale and Ithaca College.  These movements existed in plain sight yet somehow flew under the radar of a media that never tires of feeding us Trump, terrorism, sensationalism, and more Trump.

Racism is usually only covered when cops kill an unarmed black person.  Then the narrative narrows to revolve around the “dispute” over just how much force is legitimately needed to control the black menace.  But the Mizzou students — and student activists elsewhere — energized by the Black Lives Matter movement that sprang up in the wake of Ferguson, know that the issue of racism is more complex than that.  They wanted to have an intelligent dialogue but eventually decided that it would take something out of the ordinary — in this case, the football team refusing to play — to have their issues taken seriously.

I wonder what is flying under the media radar in our area?  What struggles are being waged and ignored by the don’t-worry-(except about black crime and terrorism)-be-happy broadcast media and our stodgy, conservative newspapers?

About that budget

Meanwhile, Governor Wolf and the Republicans controlling the Assembly still can’t agree on a bad budget.  Now they’re arguing over just how regressive a tax policy the state can endure, and how to distribute the projected increased revenue among school districts and homeowners.  Fortunately, they’ll agree to State Store reform, providing relief to the hardworking low-income drinker after nine o’clock.

The consequences of the stalemate are serious, however, as I’ve been saying. To list the closed or partially shutdown agencies would be depressing — you can Google them for yourself.  Many school districts, social service providers and counties hadn’t fully recovered from the austerity of 2009.  If or when they ever see state funding again, they’ll find themselves deeply indebted to banks, so far the only winners of this fiasco.  Aren’t you glad to be in Pennsylvania, America?


— Jim Collins

So You Think You Have a Liberal Newspaper…


A. J. Liebling once wrote that “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” In Pittsburgh, that is certainly true. One of the two major papers is owned by the media group which itself was owned by the late Richard Mellon Scaife. Scaife, a rabid right winger who would give Mussolini a run for his money in arrogance and mean-spiritedness, established The Tribune-Review as an answer to what he perceived as excessive liberalism in the dominant newspaper of the region, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Post-Gazette (P-G) is also privately owned as part of the Block group. John Block, the publisher/owner, is true to the Liebling quote: the paper’s content decidedly reflects the owners’ views.

It is a commonplace to follow the lead of the far-right Scaife and pronounce the P-G a voice for liberalism. But that requires brutal violation of the facts. For the recent general election, the “liberal” P-G endorsed Guy Reschenthaler for State Senator, the Republican candidate who could make old Joe McCarthy smile. Running against an authentic liberal in a largely suburban district, Reschenthaler warned that his opponent, Heather Arnet, was an “extreme liberal,” a not-so-subtle red meat offering to Neanderthal elements in the South Hills. She, in turn, dug up his public association with the hardcore radical right.

But none of this fazed the folks at the P-G. They scoffed at the liberal candidate and joined the Scaife paper in endorsing the blustery conservative. This is not an aberration since the P-G also endorsed Tom Corbett for Governor—another conservative—in his successful first campaign. One can hardly count this as an impressive track record for a liberal journal.

Lest we think that Block is a closet conservative, it must be noted that the issue that animates him is the state stores. Both Reschenthaler and Corbett are anti-state store stalwarts. Mr. Block thinks the stores are an affront to civilization, a tragedy that rivals the Johnstown Flood in its consequences for Pennsylvanians (also coincidentally, a lost source of newspaper revenue from private liquor stores). It is of little importance to Mr. Block that– for most Pennsylvanians– where we buy our booze is as burning of an issue as what we think about the new parking meters.

To the P-G and Mr. Block’s credit, the paper employs perhaps the most astute, thoughtful commentator on international matters of any major US newspaper. Unlike the WaPo, NYT, and WSJ columnists, the P-G’s foreign affairs columnist has actually lived and worked in the field, met the players, and studied the countries that the highly-paid gasbags are so anxious for the US military to bomb.

The P-G also has a superb investigative reporter whose talents are wasted on digging into the gossip surrounding Block rival Scaife’s contentious divorce and, now, the even more contentious settlement of his estate between his surviving over-privileged children. While fascinating in the same way as Kardashian sleaze, should we now understand that the P-G is really competing with the National Enquirer? Or is this just an expression of personal pettiness?

How about assigning the reporter to following up on the County Comptrollers’ strong suggestions that there might be something fishy in the Stadium Authority or other County offices? How about revisiting the inequities of property taxes in different neighborhoods? Or consider the assignment of digging into the distribution of publicly-guaranteed loans, TIFs, and other city and county perks to private entities?

But these questions do not interest Mr. Block as much as his signature concern: an abiding compassion and unmatched advocacy for animals. If he has left any indelible stamp on his newspaper, it is this devotion to the animal kingdom.

Apart from the weekly Pet Tales column, the P-G led the fight to bring justice to the intrepid police dog, Rocco. After city police sicced Rocco on a mentally unstable man cornered in a basement laundry room, the man stabbed Rocco, resulting in the K-9’s eventual death. What in most cities would have been a back page story of the tragic encounter between a pathetic young man and a dog questionably employed as a weapon became a front page tale of animal cruelty and the murder of a police “officer.” While even children know that K9 dogs are not really policemen, the P-G persisted in portraying the incident as a crime against society. No one at the P-G dared question the training of dogs as aggressors, the anthropomorphizing of Rocco, the portrayal of a mentally ill man as a cold-blooded murderer, or the lynch mob like hysteria stirred by P-G coverage.

Thanks to the P-G and the publicity around the largest traffic-stopping funeral in memory, Rocco’s death cost a desperate young man a forty-four year sentence—not in a mental health facility (are there any left?)– but in prison. To follow tragedy with farce, our Harrisburg legislature, eager to bask in the media light cast by the P-G, passed draconian laws for transgressions against police dogs.

As an encore, the P-G recently (11-11-15) brought the region’s attention to the dastardly taunting of a dog at a Steeler game. The P-G reports that an Oakland Raiders linebacker raised his blouse, pounded his chest, and barked at a bemused Allegheny County police dog. The article’s author reminds the reader that—thanks to our ever vigilant legislature—taunting a police dog is a third degree felony in Pennsylvania. You may wonder what the bomb-sniffing dog and its handler were doing in the corridor reserved for players to come and go to their locker room. Apparently, the Allegheny police who generously volunteer their time for Steeler home games are jock sniffers as well as bomb sniffers.

So far nothing has come of the charges. Mr. Block’s eager animal vigilantes must have forgotten that you can mess with the homeless, the mentally ill, but not the NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers!

One can only hope that Mr. Block will one day also take a special interest in poor, disadvantaged, and neglected people.

Greg Godels

Give Thanks . . . for Nothing!

Just as breezily as they played chicken with the lives and livelihoods of so many men, women and children in Pennsylvania, our Democratic governor and Republican-run general assembly have decided that they can reach a budget compromise after all — and just in time for Thanksgiving.  How serendipitous!

Wolf and GOP leaders say they have the outlines of a deal and expect to seal it by the holiday.  But Thanksgiving will be too late for lots of people.  While the politicians dilly-dallied, many Pennsylvanians suffered cuts or interruption of their much-needed services. I’ll just give two examples:

  • The Community Progress Council, serving some 16,000 people annually in York County, announced it will close three weeks in November and December, laying off 250 employees.  Services affected include early childhood education programs, a women and infants supplemental nutrition program, a work-ready program for people on public assistance, rent assistance for homeless and near-homeless people, and a foster grandparent program.
  • Domestic violence centers across the state were forced to reduce services this past October: it was National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

It was fortunate for the politicians that they suffered no interruption in pay or benefits, just as those with deep pockets won’t feel the pinch from this budget.  It’s interesting to note that the two sides paved the way for their cooperation by ganging up on organized labor, just like politicians of old.  No kidding. Just a few days before making his budget agreement announcement, Wolf signed a GOP bill that makes it illegal for unions to stalk, use harassment or “[threaten] to use a weapon of mass destruction”– just in case they didn’t already know.

This budget’s best feature is that it will restore to education funding most, if not all, of the crazy Corbett administration’s cuts.  But  everything is to be paid for by the common people.  Get ready for a hike in your income tax rate and an 8.25 percent sales tax in Allegheny County (9.25 percent in Philly and 7.25 percent most other places).  Property tax relief is in sight (disproportionately benefiting you-know-who), and why bother taxing those gas drilling operations that aren’t making any real money anyway?  Say what you want, but these guys really care a lot about the people who are kind of like them.

So Now What?

Suffice it to say, neither party represents the needs and interests of the broad majority of Pennsylvanians.  To some people, this is not news but it is to others.  Well, now that we all know, what should we do about it?  I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have one big suggestion, the logic of which should factor into any and all future political plans: Let’s start acting like we know.

Now that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt how little they value us, when we lobby (those of us that belong to organizations that lobby) let’s not act like either party is our friend, and therefore deserving of our support in money or people power.  When they do the right thing, they’re just doing their jobs; we don’t owe them anything for that except the promise to keep an eye on them to make sure they do the right thing on the next issue.

Obviously, we should support third parties like our statewide Green Party and independent candidates who represent the interests of people (and not things like guns or outdated pieces of paper). When it makes sense to vote for a Democrat or Republican — when there really is no other option — we still vote with our eyes wide open, with the clear understanding of who owes whom what.

And we should get angry, mad angry.  This budget will serve the interests of the wealthy, the greedy, the stingy, the corrupt and the hypocrite.  As will future budgets, from now unto eternity — unless we do something.  Or do lots of things.

The happy coincidence of a budget agreement and the holiday is no cause for giving thanks, unless you happen to be a politician or one of their wealthy masters.

— Jim Collins



There’s Corridors and then…There’s Corridors

What is the fascination of our planners, consultants, and politicians with constructing “corridors”? Why are they so enamored with the word and the deed?

Sometimes, they make sense, as when studies project a fast train corridor from Pittsburgh to the Northeast Amtrak Acela corridor and/or points west. Certainly making it possible to visit East Coast or Midwestern cities in the morning and returning quickly and efficiently in the evening or the next morning could offer large economic and life-style benefits. Of course this “corridor” never goes beyond the “imagine…” stage.

Similarly, a designated express corridor to the airport would seem useful, even with our overly costly, foolishly ambitious, and vastly underutilized airport. The savings in Parkway congestion, time, and inconvenience might well warrant the investment. But, again, only talk animates this discussion.

Then there is corridor-folly. In a city squeezed between two rivers with uncountable natural barriers—hills, bluffs, bridges—and density, the idea of single use, designated pathways should generate skeptical head-scratching.

So when Pittsburgh’s planning gurus broached the idea for an Oakland/ Downtown corridor to replace bus rides that normally take 11 minutes even during rush hour, head scratching began in earnest. What’s the point? Why spend the money? What’s the value?

Despite staging elaborate dog-and-pony shows filled with consultant boiler plate phrases like “strengthening linkages”, “improved access”, “enhanced environmental quality”, and “operational efficiency”, none of our transportation experts or their political sponsors could explain how spending an estimated $200 million on a scheme to shave a few minutes off of a bus ride made sense. Only someone who could love a plan to spend half of a billion dollars to build an unnecessary tunnel under the Allegheny River could embrace this boondoggle.

As boondoggles go, $7.3 million of public funds doesn’t seem like a lot—barely enough to get Donald Trump started in business or provide Hillary and Bill Clinton a fresh start after they left the White House “dead broke”.

But that’s the amount that our Grandees propose to allocate for another corridor linking CMU and the former brown site (stain?) left in Hazelwood after LTV closed shop and dumped on its workers and neighbors. Dubbed “Almono” (no doubt a name created on a cocktail napkin in a hip Lawrenceville bar), the ambitious development in Hazelwood is another build-it-and-they-will-come project based on faith and prayers. The development gurus pray that tech companies are leaning towards leaving the Bay area and relocating in Pittsburgh. All they need, they argue, is a carrot.

To sauté the carrot, the URA is seeking funds to construct a designated, unique corridor that will cut through Panther Hollow and stretch between the tech Mecca of CMU (Pitt’s name is in the mix, though Pitt administrators seem unaware) and the proposed technology center.

“Unlock” the site?

URA head and Peduto chief-of-staff, Kevin Acklin, reasons as follows: “We think it’s a priority project for the city based on the present lack of a connection from Oakland to the Almono site,” he said. “One of the challenges is to unlock that site from a transportation perspective and connect it to the rest of the community.”

“Unlock the site”? “…lack of connection”?

Apparently, Acklin failed to check with Google Maps. It claims that Hazelwood can be readily accessed from CMU in 9 minutes via Irvine Street. Does the proposed connector employ warp speed? Are the techies at CMU holding back on a new technology?

Apparently cars, buses, and cabs are beneath the tech super stars that our politicians hope to lure to the city (There is an existing bicycle lane through the Hollow). Nor do they desire to rub shoulders with the unwashed—those of us digitally non-existent. They want their private lines just as they have insisted on them in San Francisco.

As is typical with our Meds/Eds behemoths and their compliant city bureaucrats, the desires of the Panther Hollow residents do not figure in their calculations. Like most of Oakland, Panther Hollow has had a contentious history with both the University of Pittsburgh and the city. The city has neglected infrastructure, passively allowed refuge dumping, and blatantly expropriated land. A Panther Hollow suit against the city challenged the brazen “taking” of property in the late 1980’s.

Once again activists are standing up to arrogance and power, insisting that their interests be weighed against the building of a Rube Goldberg tech toy conveyance through their neighborhood. It’s a bad idea made worse by the solicitation of public funds.

Greg Godels