The Haven model from Module, similar to what will eventually be built on Black Street. Rendering courtesy of Module.

In its ongoing mission to bring economic diversity to their corner of the East End, the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation (BGC) is thinking small.

On Dec. 13 at the Urban Redevelopment Authority‘s public board meeting, the Pittsburgh-based startup Module unveiled a proposal to bring two new modular homes to the neighborhood in partnership with the BGC. It would be located on land currently owned by the URA.

The two-story homes on Black Street in Garfield will be around 1,200 square feet. One of the new homes will be for sale at market value, while the other will cost around $200,000 and include options for new owners to defer payments on the mortgage.  Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, BGC Executive Director Rick Swartz says his organization hopes the project will be among the first in a wave of new modular homes in the neighborhood.

“There’s a real challenge facing neighborhoods like Garfield, which have an abundance of vacant land,” says Swartz. “Can we build something on the land other than rental housing? Can we make it affordable for people who aren’t able to afford a new home?”

After much lobbying from the BGC, Pittsburgh City Council officially passed a resolution in early September that eased zoning restrictions to allow landowners to convert existing property into small occupancy homes of approximately 1,000 square feet. In addition to new construction like the Black Street project, the resolution gives homeowners leeway to alter their property to add additional living spaces.

“You can convert a basement, you can convert a dwelling, you can build onto the back of your house,” says Swartz. The special zoning rules apply only to Garfield and will last for the next two years. After that point, the city will study the project’s economic impact and consider expanding it to other parts of the city.

Now that the sale of the land on Black Street is approved, Module and BGC will go to work on an additional proposal that will lay out the design and full cost of the project and require further approval from at a future URA meeting. If all goes well, they hope to begin construction in the early summer of 2019.

For many affordable housing advocates around the county, modular homes represent an appealing solution for making homeownership affordable for a struggling middle class. In addition to being less expensive, the homes are highly energy-efficient and can slot easily into a neighborhood’s existing built environment.

While the initial focus is bringing more affordable modular homes to the neighborhood, Swartz hopes to eventually see more market-rate models as well. “That appeals to us,” he says, “because we want to see Garfield be economically diverse.”

A 2016 study commissioned by the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force estimated that the city is facing an affordable home shortage of more than 17,000 units. In the same study, experts noted that while rents have steadily increased since the during the past two decades, wages have remained stagnant for most Pittsburghers.

Bill O'Toole

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