The Pittsburgh Foundation

“At home” in the new Pittsburgh

Max King

By Maxwell King

President and CEO, The Pittsburgh Foundation

For years, Pittsburgh had a significant problem with its economy, and as a result, it also had a significant problem with its image. 

Like many cities in the Northeast, it was heavily dependent on heavy manufacturing, including steel. When the factories closed, residents in communities next to the mills moved away in droves. Well-off city neighborhoods managed to hold their own, of course, and the suburbs swelled. But on the whole, Pittsburgh had stalled out. Among the many physical manifestations of that were neighborhoods pockmarked with vacant lots and dilapidated houses.  

Fast forward 30 years and Pittsburgh’s fortunes have changed dramatically. The city has a diversified economy on the upswing. There is a new cultural vibe that has attracted national media attention. Suddenly, many communities seen as tired and tattered are being re-formed into hip and happening. Construction cranes, now active in long-ignored neighborhoods, are the markers of a residential-business development boom and all the amenities that come with it.

It’s all very exciting. Well… it’s very exciting to the 70 percent of Pittsburghers who see themselves as ready and able to participate.

For the 30 percent on the outside, affordable housing options in the New Pittsburgh are narrowing, not expanding. For those of us on the ground in community philanthropy, we see the terrible side effects when long-time residents are priced out of their apartments, homes and neighborhoods. 

In some of our communities, efforts to develop affordable housing alongside market-rate units are coming much too late and without much thought to locating them near essential services that make them worthwhile. A national study that examined affordable housing costs, including potential transportation costs, ranked the Pittsburgh region as poor.

Families uprooted from neighborhoods that have been home for generations are reeling from the loss of things that define what it means to be “at home” – the health center a 15-minute bus ride away; the playground down the street; the church congregation at the corner.

In a city that even today is synonymous with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, that quality-of-life essential – having a sense of belonging – will be lost unless we build up our affordable housing stock.

Those among the 30 percent who are outside the benefit streams of the New Pittsburgh are the focus of the Foundation’s 100 Percent Pittsburgh initiative. The goal is to ensure every resident has opportunities to benefit from the new prosperity, but the barriers to achieving that are huge. Many in that group are living at or below the 2016 federal poverty income line – a pathetically low $24,250 for a family of four.

On the income disparity alone, ease of access to public transportation and a grocery store is a critical necessity, not an amenity. But increasingly, these city dwellers in the 30 percent are moving to inner-ring suburbs where access to vital services is more difficult. As affordable housing stock diminishes, so too, does their ability to tap into benefits flowing from the new Pittsburgh.

That’s why we at the Foundation are heartened to see that Mayor Bill Peduto has established a 24-member Affordable Housing Task Force and assigned City Planning Director Ray Gastil to lead it. Gastil built his reputation in several thriving urban centers, including Seattle during the Great Recession, and Manhattan in the period after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In all his positions, he’s worked closely with residents to provide affordable housing in proximity to transit centers and jobs. The Task Force is hosting a month-long series of community forums in which residents will work side-by-side with city government officials to develop affordable housing recommendations.

Other ideas worthy of consideration are offered in Abby Mendelson’s illuminating story for NEXTpittsburgh on five Pittsburgh leaders who are deep into the issue. In a discussion at the Foundation’s spring board meeting, the mayor singled out affordable housing as essential to bringing more of the 30 percent into the opportunity streams offered in the new Pittsburgh economy.

Through 100 Percent Pittsburgh, we at the Foundation are placing a top priority on helping the city create more affordable housing in neighborhoods most affected by new development. The way we see it, unless affordable housing is available across the city, Pittsburgh is at risk of becoming a community where only the prosperous feel at home. 

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation