A rendering of Penn Mathilda Apartments

In the early months of 2016, development partners ACTION-Housing, Inc. and the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation (BGC) will open the Penn Mathilda Apartments, a new 21,200 square-foot residential and commercial development on Penn Avenue.

The planned three-story building will offer four commercial spaces on the ground floor and include a community space for the residents living above. Half of the 39 units, six two-bedroom and 33 one-bedroom apartments, will be given veteran preference.

BGC’s executive director Rick Swartz says the Penn Mathilda Apartments offer an opportunity to strengthen the community’s vitality and support residents in building successful lives.

“[We’re] taking away physical blight. On the first floor we’ll create economic opportunity. We’ll be delivering housing that’s very affordable which is also an economic benefit,” he says. “From a social standpoint, especially with the preference for veterans, we’re going to be able to help a segment of the population that at times gets overlooked when it comes time for housing.”

He adds that the building at 4800 Penn Avenue has never been more than what it is, an unimpressive expanse of brick.

“This project is going to create a major asset in place of a major liability. And we don’t have to displace anybody to do it.”

Lena Andrews, Planning and Development Officer for ACTION-Housing, says the location offers residents access to transit, employment, and strong community organizations.

“You need all those things to lead a healthy life,” she says. “A lot of times, unfortunately, affordable housing is built in places that don’t have access to those things.”

Pittsburgh is frequently touted for its livability, an accolade that stems in part from a fairly low cost of living. However, Andrews says that as Pittsburgh continues to grow it’s important to maintain high-quality housing opportunities for everyone.

“In Pittsburgh we’ve been really lucky that all different types of people have been able to live in the city and I’m concerned that that might be changing a little bit,” she says. “So as the economic climate in our city changes I think it’s crucial that we preserve these opportunities to have affordability in desirable locations and that’s what we’re doing here.”

The units will be offered at 60 percent of area median income. Andrews adds that ACTION-Housing aims to provide living spaces that enable growth.

“Our goal really isn’t for people to live here forever. It’s to live here and eventually buy a house in the neighborhood or maybe move somewhere else, and then other people can move in. It’s kind of stepping stone housing.”

The existing building was acquired for $165,000 in 2013. Expected development costs are $11.1 million, $8.5 million of which will come from Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency tax credits. Demolition of the building will begin in December, and construction, led by Moss Architects and REPAL Construction Co., Inc., is slated to finish in December 2015.

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.