Rashad Byrdsong calls it “real community development,” and he hopes it becomes a model for building affordable homes in other Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

He’s behind the 38 rental houses, called Susquehanna Homes, that are under construction in Homewood, scattered on several streets around the Homewood Station senior apartments. And he has helped to put local youth to work on the project.

Byrdsong’s Community Empowerment Association and Ma’at Construction have teamed with Mistick Construction as general contractors. The developers are Oxford Development and its partner S&A Homes of State College.

Thirty-eight affordable rentals will be built in Homewood.

Through Ma’at Construction, Byrdsong is putting to work 15 young people from his community organization’s training program. That’s one point of pride for Byrdsong; another is the fact that the project has a 46 percent minority-contractor participation rate.

Some of the property was owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the Homewood Community Development Coalition helped to strike the deal with the developers and builders.

“We negotiated the terms with them coming to our community and they’ve agreed to invest in additional workforce development training,” as well as use the local print shop and hardware store, Byrdsong says. “We’re looking at this as a model. It’s not happening anywhere else. … We’ve been working with public officials on how we can jump-start and stimulate development in our community and not just deal with the brick-and-mortar aspect but also the human potential.”

Oxford and S&A built the senior apartments as a community anchor to complement Faison Arts Academy, a K-5 public school, and undertook the $13 million Susquehanna Homes project as a next phase to help redevelop Homewood, says Scott Pollock, Oxford’s vice president of development. The homes will be ready for occupancy by fall.

Affordable housing can be a subjective term, varying by income and neighborhood, Pollock says, but these two- and three-bedroom homes will rent to families making 50 percent or less of Pittsburgh’s $56,896 median income. Homewood for years has suffered from blight, crime and high unemployment.

“These homes are reserved for families that need quality housing with adequate room, but are without the means to afford that, even at the lower end of market rental rates. The tenants will pay no more than one-third of their income,” says Pollock.

Construction site near Susquehanna Street.

The rent is not subsidized. Instead, construction costs are financed through the sale of $11 million in Low-Income Housing Tax Credits awarded by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agencyan expensive process, but one that removes the need to recoup development costs through market-rate rents, says Ben Kelley, Oxford’s project manager.

Design, amenity requirements, and high site-preparation costs associated with aging infrastructure and infill areas made this a costly project. But, says Kelley, “Pittsburgh is in a unique position to address that issue of high cost. The economic decline of the ’80s and ’90s left thousands of vacant houses and parcels in our city that are an opportunity for providing housing that is affordable for all income levels.”

By agreement, these homes will remain rentals for 15 years. Once they’re offered for sale, the occupants would get first right of refusal.

“At some point we would like to have some market-rate homes being built in Homewood, so we can receive the equity that comes out of home ownership,” Byrdsong says. He is talking with other developers, urging them to get community buy-in for projects, and he encourages residents to learn how to deal with banks, investors and developers.

“We’re nowhere near where we need to be, but we’re definitely in the position where we can negotiate what ‘real community development’ means,” Byrdsong says.

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.