Mural of August Wilson in the Hill District by Kyle Holbrook. Photo by sarah huny young/1839.

After several years of strategizing, the Hill Community Development Corporation (Hill CDC) is launching a community land trust to foster development in the iconic and chronically underserved Pittsburgh neighborhood.

“The community land trust will help us ensure that a certain amount will be permanently protected to serve the needs of the community,” says Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill CDC.

The Hill CDC began discussions about the possibility of a land trust in 2014, and the project was announced at a community meeting this past February. The initial phase of the trust will be overseen by a steering committee made up of community stakeholders, experts from the Hill CDC and philanthropic partners.

The project joins several other land trusts around the Pittsburgh region, such one in Lawrenceville that primarily focuses on housing, and the Allegheny Land Trust, which protects natural spaces.

Milliones tells NEXTpittsburgh that the trust will concentrate on both commercial and residential properties, and will primarily work with prospective entrepreneurs and residents making below 60 percent of the area’s median income.

The trust would serve essentially as a bridge: helping residents move into properties while they’re saving some of their own money, and with time, the residents would use their growing savings to take on greater and greater shares of equity in the property.

While Milliones declined to put a timeline on the trust’s first purchases, she says they are “fully prepared” to purchase properties.

That’s good news for many residents: As of 2013, more than half of the properties in the Hill District were vacant structures or lots. On top of that, stagnating wages and rising rental prices have left many long-time residents in danger of being displaced.

“We know that the market in Pittsburgh is becoming more aggressive,” Milliones says. “Low and moderate income renters are more and more vulnerable.”

Milliones also emphasizes that she does not begrudge landlords raising their rents in line with market trends.

“This is not a case against markets rates,” she explains. “This is a case for a more well-rounded and accessible city.”

While studies show that vacant property and a lack of affordable housing are citywide problems, these issues are especially pronounced in neighborhoods like the Hill District, where decades of social and economic policies have left residents isolated from the larger city and excluded from owning homes and businesses.

“There is a very deep and systemic history to why there are such huge disparities in wealth and homeownership,” says Milliones. “The Hill District is a traditionally African-American community, and I do think that context is important because it was, and is, impacted by these systemic issues.”

Going forward, Milliones says she hopes to see broader, citywide policies to complement work happening at the community level. In particular, she hopes to see city hall pass policies requiring affordable housing in every new development project.

Inclusionary zoning is very important,” she says. “Otherwise we’re going to continue to see more displacement in neighborhoods like the Hill District, and there will be continued and accelerated displacement in other neighborhoods that are traditionally more affluent.”

Bill O'Toole

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