There are three fundamental conditions that impact the availability of affordable housing options: 1) Crime 2) Neighborhood Blight and 3) Market-Rate Pressures
Crime is a key force that displaces families. Research by the Urban Land Institute shows that nearly all households of every demographic demand a safe place to live. If we do not make our communities safe then families will protect themselves by leaving. If they can’t find a place they get stuck renting where the landlords allow the criminal element to run the street. Research shows that 50% of the crime happens at 3% of the addresses. These properties foster the criminal environment that devalues properties, drives abandonment and displacement. Public safety is non-negotiable.
If we allow crime and abandonment to persist it will destroy our affordable housing faster than we can replace it. We must block the one-two punch of decay and crime that is displacing families from our neighborhoods. We need solutions to keep people from being displaced due to either strong market pressures or because of neighborhood blight.
In many neighborhoods home values are so low that many landlords will not perform major repairs to older decaying homes. When the roof begins to leak the tenant moves out. The vacant house now gets stripped for scrap metal. The landlord walks away. The bank walks away. The city ignores the delinquent taxes on the vacant house and does not foreclose. Years later the house is so bad that the city tears it down. The same problem of low home values also plagues homeowners in these neighborhoods.
In a stable neighborhood, a homeowner can borrow against their home’s equity to perform needed repairs and maintenance. However, in neighborhoods like the ones described here, that is not the case. When the homeowner, usually elderly, can no longer maintain their home, they simply abandon it. After the owner dies or abandons the property there is no one to claim it. The property further deteriorates and is eventually torn down. This cycle of decay quietly destroys affordable housing. For example, between 2000 and 2010, Homewood lost 955 units and 2,841 residents. Two families were displaced every week for a decade. As a city we cannot ignore how neighborhood decay is displacing our families. Economic forces and crime fuel blight. The low property values are driven down further as city resources are not available to address the problem of abandoned properties. This problem is allowed to persist because public policy has allowed it. The city must develop viable strategies to address abandoned properties in low-income neighborhoods.
Public policy was set 30 years ago when Pittsburgh was a distressed rust-belt city. Mayor Murphy wanted to “grow the city” out of financial distress by building market-rate housing – with high-priced developments such as Washington’s Landing and Summerset at Frick Park. Mixed-income housing strategies were also used to de-concentrate poverty by replacing public housing projects such as Terrace Village with Oak Hill. Public policy was focused on trying to make markets stronger to build the tax base, not increasing affordable housing.
The financial condition of Pittsburgh has since changed and while the City may not be classified as a “hot market” city, it is no longer a distressed rust-belt city. It is now the right time to shift City policy and focus on preserving affordable housing.
Where neighborhoods have reduced crime and attracted investments we now see a stronger housing market. This stronger market is leading private investors to sell properties that they used to rent as affordable housing. Investors who are purchasing these properties are renovating them for re-sale or market rate rental. While the investment is positive, low-income residents are being displaced. In many of Pittsburgh’s communities, the process of gentrification is well underway.
It is our firm belief that low-income residents must be held harmless so that they are able to continue living in their neighborhood as it becomes a healthy mixed-income community. We must shift our development policy to create affordable housing that will allow these families to stay and thrive in their communities.