The Foundry at 41st, Lawrenceville. Photos courtesy of Chris Litherland, Walnut Capital.

Nearly three years ago, the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force laid out a blueprint for how Pittsburgh can expand housing options while still protecting economic diversity.

“Mixed-income communities do not come about by chance, nor generally does the housing market ‘naturally’ create mixed-income housing developments,” reads the Task Force’s 2016 report. “Fortunately, there is a well-proven policy that can help to create and preserve mixed-income communities: inclusionary housing.”

This week, Pittsburgh City Council member Deb Gross — who represents several East End neighborhoods — answered that call. She introduced an inclusionary zoning measure that would require new proposals for residential developments in Lawrenceville to set aside at least 10 percent of units for affordable housing.

Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Gross said her proposal defines housing as “affordable” if it fits the budget of an individual or family making around 50 percent of the area’s median income. The measure would not apply to developments currently in progress.

According to Gross’s staff, the proposal will go before City Council for a discussion and possibly a vote on Feb. 27. If approved, it goes back to the council for final deliberations and votes over the next few weeks. Mayor Peduto has signaled his support for the policy.

Individual projects elsewhere in Pittsburgh, such as the newly approved Connection @ Southside, have agreed to similar measures in their negotiations with the city and URA. But Gross’s proposal would apply to all new developments in Lawrenceville that have more than 20 units.

Why is Lawrenceville the focus? Development has been happening there at a markedly faster pace than elsewhere in Pittsburgh. Of the 90 neighborhoods that make up the city, only a handful of East End neighborhoods have seen their economies and populations grow in the last decade.

Lawrenceville in particular has seen several higher priced residential developments break ground in recent years, spurring concerns about displacement among housing activists and long-time residents.

“Rapid increases in housing prices are displacing the very people who helped bring about these positive changes and excluding them from these growing opportunities,” says Dave Breingan, executive director of the advocacy group Lawrenceville United. “It’s a matter of equity and justice to ensure that our neighborhood shares the benefits of growth with everyone, and that’s the heart of what inclusionary zoning is about.”

If the proposal is approved, will it work? Inclusionary zoning policies are still relatively new in much of the country, but they have become increasingly prevalent as the widening income gap has left many major cities struggling to provide affordable housing.

According to a study from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy released in 2017, there were 886 jurisdictions with inclusionary housing programs spread across 25 states and the District of Columbia at the end of 2016. Only four were in Pennsylvania, all in the central region of the state.

Of these programs, roughly 70 percent were developed and enacted after 2000. Because many of these policies are relatively new and there is no national standard for data collection, there is no big picture data on the effectiveness of inclusionary zoning.

There have been notable successes: Montgomery County, Maryland adopted inclusionary zoning policies in 1974, and continues to run the largest such program in the nation. The county has seen a sustained increase in achievement levels for elementary school students living in public housing.

Breingan and his organization are long-time advocates for inclusionary zoning measures. Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, he explained that while there is no empirical data measuring the rates of economic displacement in the neighborhood, the available evidence is troubling nonetheless.

According to research from University of Pittsburgh demographer Chris Briem, Central and Upper Lawrenceville have become significantly more white and affluent in the past two decades.

Lawrenceville lost more than half of its Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) units in the neighborhood, which represents a loss of 120 low-income families, Breingan tells us. “We know that a decade ago, 300 of our residents were part of the Somali Bantu community; all of those families are now gone from Lawrenceville, mostly due to being priced out.”

While Breingan applauded the proposal, he says his group would like to see political leaders exploring more active policies to protect citizens from the churning of the housing market, including policies to protect long-time homeowners from steep tax increases.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.