Around the time the pandemic was easing and shock from the Capitol riot was settling in, Jason Tigano had an epiphany: “We all deserve better than getting back to normal.”

It has become his tagline and it’s why Tigano, a consultant with experience in government, nonprofits and real estate, created LEVEL: Equity Buildings, that is testing his idea of developing homeowners while developing housing stock. He wants Pittsburgh to remain a place where Pittsburghers can live.

“I’m tired of not seeing revitalization happening in our communities, and when it does, there’s displacement,” says Tigano. “People tell me their stories; they can’t get a mortgage. It doesn’t make sense. If you’re living in that neighborhood, you’re somehow invested. If you’re paying rent, it’s close to a mortgage.”

Tigano founded LEVEL after a community group in McKees Rocks sought his help to deal with abandoned housing. Tigano and a friend, Marc Little of Emery Construction Services, sorted through the borough’s list of 250 vacant and condemned houses and chose 50 they could fix up.

310 Gardner St

Renovation work at 310 Gardner St. in McKees Rocks. Photo courtesy of First Sip Studios.

Using grants and donations, the nonprofit organization will buy and renovate the blighted properties and then help renters become homebuyers by teaching them how to secure a mortgage, obtain utilities and care for their property. LEVEL’s first remodeled home, at 310 Gardner St., will go to Dennis and Sammie Guy when they close on their mortgage at the end of August.

“Everybody deserves to have a chance to own a home,” says Tigano. “When you can own a home and put down roots and care about your neighbors and the place where you live, you have opportunities. We have to create these opportunities, and it’s not just getting the mortgage; it’s maintaining the home. If you understand how to manage the asset, it’s going to create equity for you.”

LEVEL has purchased nine other homes in McKees Rocks and raised money in grants and donations, including $1.3 million from Allegheny County and $1 million from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. The Hillman Foundation provided $250,000 to the project last year through a grant to Neighborhood Allies. LEVEL is also working with the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation and Focus on Renewal.

McKees Rocks Mayor David Flick says in a Facebook post that he initially wondered whether LEVEL’s idea would come to fruition. Now the nonprofit has sold its first home “at a sensible market rate,” Flick says. “If McKees Rocks is to thrive, it must repopulate with owner-occupied housing. We must begin to create generational wealth here, from the inside out. This project will help us to do that.”

Dennis and Sammie Guy

Homebuyers Dennis and Sammie Guy. Photo courtesy of TrailBlaze Creative.

Many of the borough’s residential properties are vacant, rundown and tax delinquent. The 2020 Census shows 5,920 people living in McKees Rocks in 2,949 households. About 44% of homes in the borough are owner-occupied, according to the census, with a median value of $53,000. Tigano believes the percentage is actually much lower and that deeds haven’t been updated. But no matter the percentage, he says, “when you’ve got that much rental property in a community, you’ve got a problem.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald met with Tigano early on and backs his idea, saying there’s a need to ensure that affordable housing is available in municipalities across the county. LEVEL’s innovative model can provide “a new era of housing,” he says.

Tigano worked for Rep. Mike Doyle, and later for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh. He has served on the boards of Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh and NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania. That varied experience taught him that community organizations, however well-meaning, have limitations — mostly, they can’t afford to purchase large amounts of real estate. Many lack staff and resources.

“There’s only so much money to go around; it’s not because nobody cares,” he says. “Even the most sophisticated community groups need help — they lack certain pieces. There’s a gap in the process. … Somebody needs to get this property and reactivate it. The communities that are struggling can only do so many per year, and it’s not a lot. They’re trying to do five or six a year, and doing five units a year isn’t enough to prevent gentrification and keep residents there.”

Most government funding for housing goes toward developers who produce rentals, Tigano says. “It doesn’t matter where you go in the country, when somebody stands up and says, ‘We just built 100 units of housing,’ all the dollars available publicly for affordable housing are rentals. The low-income housing tax credit for developers is a rental tax credit. And, it’s all income-restricted.”

Rather than bolster rental assistance programs, Tigano wants to help people create equity. LEVEL has signed an agreement with the Allegheny County Housing Authority allowing people in Section 8 housing to use their vouchers for mortgage payments instead of rent. The authority manages about 6,000 housing vouchers.

“Their work to lower the barriers to homeownership and provide sustainable life skills to residents is a model for other communities across the county to collaborate with,” says Frank Aggazio, the authority’s executive director.

The nonprofit took its name from Tigano’s goal to keep people “on the level path to homeownership.” That means teaching people to pay down debt and save money for not just a down payment but also a home maintenance fund.

“We’re trying to meet buyers where they’re at, but they have a certain level of responsibility,” he says.

Jason Tigano

Jason Tigano at the ribbon-cutting event for 310 Gardner St. in McKees Rocks. Photo courtesy of TrailBlaze Creative.

LEVEL also reached an agreement with 5 Generations Bakers in McKees Rocks to create an employer-assisted housing program. Any employee who wants to become a homeowner through LEVEL’s program will get $2,000 toward a down payment and closing costs; Tigano would match that with grant money.

How long this takes will vary from person to person, Tigano says. Some folks might be ready in months, but most will require a year or more, since many people are dealing with generational traumas and other barriers, he says.

“One of the anecdotes I tell funders is that one person said to me, ‘I’ve got a better chance of going to the moon than buying a home,’” he says. “It hit me — what the hell is going on in our world? So we talk about what being a homeowner could be, and why that’s important.”

LEVEL’s work is all volunteer; Tigano has no staff yet. The money raised has gone toward buying and rehabilitating homes. Tigano has no doubt about succeeding, but it’s slow going until he can raise more money. There’s some urgency, since out-of-state investors and those in other countries often snatch up low-priced real estate.

“It’s the fierce urgency of now,” Tigano says. “We are late to the game.”

Tigano’s goal is to renovate 15 to 25 homes a year in McKees Rocks, and eventually to do the same elsewhere in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area.

“I want to own hundreds of properties,” he says. “If you came back three years later, the addresses would be different, because I’ve sold them, but I’d still own hundreds of properties … We need to be invited in by a community, the municipality or a nonprofit. We don’t want to be an outsider pushing our way in.”

Increasing the number of homeowners in a community can change other outcomes, Tigano says, including health, education and workforce.

“So many of the things that are socially valuable, those things all improve with homeownership,” he says. “These outcomes are not insignificant; they are measurable. I’ve made the commitment to McKees Rocks for at least five years. If we can do 100 homes, if we start to diligently and intentionally move through these priority areas, we think there are some really exciting things. We can create equity for the community, for homeowners, for neighbors. If we’re successful at this, we think we can do something very powerful in McKees Rocks.”