ACTION Housing affordable apartment complex in Crafton. Photo courtesy of Group Gordon.

Since the turn of the century, Pittsburgh has emerged as a story of reinvention and rebirth in the face of a changing economy. While the gains from our emergence as a hub of research and technology are real and hard-won, they don’t tell the whole story.

Since the year 2000, housing — perhaps the most basic human right — has become significantly less affordable in Pittsburgh.

According to a study commissioned by the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force, the average cost of a rental home has increased by $116 monthly, far exceeding the rate of inflation, while the median income of renters has remained stagnant at around $26,000 per year.

The same study estimates that as of 2014, the city is facing an affordable home shortage of more than 17,000 units.

Summarizing the report, the task force wrote, “Pittsburgh is a city that can get [housing] right. In addition to our work, there are numerous other forward-thinking, transformative initiatives currently focused on building our city into a place that is just and sustainable.”

Below, we take a look recent actions from a few of these forward-thinking initiatives:

ACTION-Housing & Bellwether Enterprise

Founded in 1957 by Mayor David Lawrence and philanthropist Richard King Mellon, ACTION-Housing’s projects include a wide variety of services. Everything from developing the real estate for affordable homes to outreach and education services for families.

In recent years, they’ve completed new housing developments in Bloomfield and Hazelwood, with several more to come in Squirrel Hill and Homestead.

Just last week, the nonprofit announced that they had collaborated with the commercial mortgage company Bellwether Enterprise to secure a loan of more than $5 million for two apartment towers they manage in Crafton and in Somerset County that are dedicated to the elderly and mentally disabled.

“This refinance allows ACTION-Housing to reposition capital to support the expansion of its work in supportive housing at a time of critical needs for those services,” says Lawrence Swanson, executive director of ACTION-Housing. “Bellwether’s skill in navigating the complexity of this work was the essential ingredient.”

The Affordable Housing Fund

While it took a while to arrive, the city’s new affordable housing fund offers $10 million in funding for affordable housing projects all over Pittsburgh. The funds and projects will be managed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), which Mayor Bill Peduto has signaled will be a key actor in his administration’s attempts to revitalize struggling neighborhoods.

Speaking to the media at the end of September, Mayor Peduto said “the focus has to become more centered on neighborhood plans that are developed through the planning department being implemented on a much smaller scale. These are all the critical parts of today’s URA, and we need to restructure the organization around that.”

While exact details on how the money will be spent are still to come, the Affordable Housing Task Force (which recommended the creation of the fund) has recommended several specific areas where the money will be applied, including $3.8 million for the construction of affordable rental units and $1.2 million to renovate vacant properties.

Senate Bill 1185

While Pittsburghers may be loath to give any credit to the people of Philadelphia, on Sept. 19, State Senator Tom Killion (R-9) of Delaware County introduced legislation that could remake the housing market of the entire state.

Senate Bill 1185 will create a state tax credit to incentivize private investment in the construction and restoration of low-income housing. The program will be modeled after the incredibly successfully federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, which is responsible for more than 90 percent of all affordable housing built in the United States.

In a heartening example of bipartisanship in these fractured times, the bill’s original co-sponsors included a nearly even split of Democrats and Republicans, including Pittsburgh’s own Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-42).

“This new tax credit will incentivize private investment in new and existing affordable housing in the Commonwealth,” says Senator Killion. “Affordable housing is an economic driver. It builds state and local tax bases, creates jobs, provides homes in proximity to workplaces and revitalizes communities.”

As of Oct. 2, the bill was unanimously passed by the State Senate’s Urban Affairs and Housing Committee and is awaiting a full vote in the Senate.

Lawrenceville United

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