Affordable urban housing in the Hill District by TREK Development.

The clatter of new housing construction reverberates all around the city. There are thousands of units planned, under construction and up for sale. Buncher and Oxford are bringing hundreds of units to the Strip. More than 1,000 units are coming to the Hill, 500 units to the South Side, 360 to Eastside III. Hundreds more in Lawrenceville. By some estimates, 10,000 units will shortly come online. But only 300—that’s three percent—are currently earmarked for low-income buyers or renters.

With the explosive changes in city real estate after a decades-long flatline, there are too many people priced out of new construction and the hot neighborhoods where most of it is happening. As rates rise, as older housing is torn down, as once-challenged neighborhoods become gentrified, older, less wealthy residents increasingly find themselves left out. And younger ones can’t get in.

Affordable housing is one of the hottest topics in town. So who’s doing what about it?

“The problem we have now,” says Bill Generett of Urban Innovation21, “is that things are out of control. We need 20,000 units of affordable housing—housing for people on fixed incomes, for people making $30,000 and less—and we need them now.”

Generett, whose Urban Innovation21 creates successful partnerships with some of the region’s most successful players in some of the city’s most impacted neighborhoods, is used to articulating challenges and finding ways to create workable, win-win solutions.

“In the past,” Generett points out, “we didn’t look for ideas. Now we have to. Because this is the issue for our times. How serious do we want to be? Pittsburgh is a fast market now. We could have put in safeguards all along. Should have. Now we’re going to have to.

“Some 30 percent of people live below the poverty line—or straddle just above it,” he says. “To ameliorate their needs we’ve got to make some big moves and make them quickly. By now, however, the problem is so complicated that it’s going to take all of us—all of us—putting our heads together to fix it.”

To address this significant challenge, NEXTpittsburgh assembled a virtual roundtable of some of the region’s leading players—public officials to foundation professionals, developers to designers—in an effort to define the challenges and seek viewpoints and solutions.

Bill Generett of Urban Innovation21
Bill Generett of Urban Innovation21 at the Energy Innovation Center

Bill Generett, president & CEO
Urban Innovation21

“First,” he says, “let us agree that when a developer receives a public subsidy that developer is no longer a strictly private developer.”

Keeping that in mind, Generett outlines five points:

1. “Developers have to put together a plan and work with the community. Not around the community, with the community. And what is promised must be delivered.”

2. “We have to have a sense of urgency. We can make changes. In Pittsburgh, we make changes better than most cities. Race? Inclusion? Poverty? In the past, we’ve never set metrics. We’ve never held people accountable. We have to do both. And we have to do it now.”

3. We have to change the rhetoric. A sad thing about affordable housing, equitable housing, is that people say it’s not developer-friendly. To counter that kind of thinking, we have to look seriously at community benefits. What are best practices for equitable development?”

4. We must have a realistic conversation about how much public subsidy is necessary. We’ve never done that. We need to begin now.”

5. “We have to make sure that the City and URA own significant land bank properties that can be used for affordable housing.”

Mayor Bill Peduto

To hear Mayor Bill Peduto talk, he would have set all Generett’s rubrics in motion decades ago. But he couldn’t. Instead, he created the Affordable Housing Task Force to find the best ways to preserve neighborhoods while securing affordable housing. “We have to plan for a variety of options that allows long-time residents to stay in their communities,” Peduto says, “while also creating new housing in the city.

“The need to provide affordable housing is one of the greatest challenges facing Pittsburgh,” he adds, “and we’re working every day to find the solutions we so desperately need. Our city needs to grow, but housing insecurity cannot grow with it.”

Christine Mondor, principal at evolveEA
chair, Pittsburgh Planning Commission

As principal of a cutting-edge design firm, and chair of the city’s Planning Commission, Christine Mondor has been at the forefront for a decade and more searching for affordable, sustainable design. It’s a huge challenge, she says.

“We’ve been in a housing bubble for the past few decades,” she adds. “Housing has been below market value. Now it isn’t. What do we require for affordable housing in publicly funded projects? What is the right formula? There’s no check or balance in place now. So what’s our next step? Do we set numbers? Do we create quotas for development? Right now we’re trying to figure out how to do it.

“What was affordable not so long ago was affordable in a completely different market. There’s a housing realignment across the city that we don’t have a handle on. To get that handle, we need to think systematically. We need data sources to make informed public policy decisions. But we don’t have those data sources in place yet.”

FortyEighty Architecture won an AIA Pittsburgh Design Award for this Action Housing project.
FortyEighty Architecture won an AIA Pittsburgh Design Award for this Action Housing project.

Larry Swanson, Executive Director
Linda Metropulos, Deputy Director

In 1957 Mayor David Lawrence and philanthropist Richard King Mellon established an organization to address the region’s housing issues: Allegheny Council To Improve Our Neighborhoods-Housing. ACTION-Housing has long worked to develop real estate designed to address community needs and serve the most vulnerable populations.

Following its charter, since 1985 ACTION-Housing has played a significant role in the development of more than 4,500 housing units for the elderly, disabled, homeless, low-income, and other at-risk populations.

“Right now,” Swanson says, “a full 80 percent of people who need affordable housing live in privately owned, unregulated houses. So to make the market function, we need that supply of naturally affordable housing. Having said that,” Swanson adds, “62 percent of people living in poverty live outside the city—in areas where there are also huge surplus housing markets. So for the short-term at least, the question is how do we integrate those markets in the city? McKeesport, for example, is just 12 miles away. It’s ludicrous not to see it as part of the city. Duquesne is just six miles away. We need to think of the county, not the city.

“For the past 30 years,” Metropulos adds, “the city housing market has been flat. Six years ago, in 2010, people realized it was undervalued—and it stabilized. Then things really moved forward. Then came the challenge: how not to displace people.

“It’s hard to build new housing for moderate-to-low-income people,” she adds. “We can’t do moderate-to-low income housing without a lot of subsidies. Construction costs are very high—$250,000 to build a 1,500-square-foot house. That means it’s virtually impossible to make affordable, moderate-to-low income housing. So we need to look at existing housing.

“What should happen?” Swanson asks. “Right now, we should use the existing housing market. When people move out of standard property, owners reduce rents to attract tenants. People will move in. Will that create enough inventory? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.

“But there are tremendous issues of inequality in our society,” Swanson adds. “To demand that 10 percent of a new housing project be affordable? Twenty years ago you couldn’t sell it. Can you now in Bakery 2.0? No. But there’s great housing stock that isn’t far from that market. Homewood is affordable. So the question might be, ‘how do I participate? How do I benefit from something in Homewood?’”

“Those discussions are underway,” Metropulos adds.

“This is Pittsburgh,” Swanson says. “There ought to be a place for everybody.”

Rob Stephany, Director of Economic and Community Development
Heinz Endowments

A place for everybody is just where the foundation community generally, and Rob Stephany specifically, are headed. Traditionally a necessary—and willing—partner in funding affordable housing, foundations like the Heinz Endowments continue to lead the efforts to make the city affordable. Stephany, former URA executive director and East Liberty Development Inc. director of real estate, begins with certain definitions.

“There’s a bubble around our city,” he says, “that starts from the Central North Side and ends at Regent Square, from Greenfield to North Point Breeze. Inside that bubble stands intense concern about taxes, rent—about whether folks feel welcome in the places they’ve lived. Outside that bubble, in neighborhoods from Arlington to Dormont, there’s still a lot of affordable housing.

“But,” he adds, “we have very stark market pressures now. High values bump into depressed areas. There are double yellow lines that divide wealth from poverty. The spatial segregation is stark. It’s palpable.

“Sure, there are exciting projects underway in Larimer, the Hill, and East Liberty. But how do we integrate long-term residents into those successes? That’s our question.

“People have struggled in East Liberty, Lawrenceville and Highland Park,” Stephany continues, “Section 8 voucher holders, seniors on fixed incomes, people displaced when older housing is torn down. Demand has outstripped supply. So the challenge will be that revitalization benefits long-term neighborhood stakeholders.

“Currently, the effort is to use land trusts and tax credits and other mechanisms to create affordable housing. And to create systems where we can tie families to the support systems they need—social, transit, and so on. To take a census of who’s lived in that neighborhood for a long time to understand who would be compromised if rents and taxes were to increase. To see how to make that constituency a part of the agenda.


“There are a lot of good people working on a lot of fronts,” Stephany adds. “Hopefully, we’re going to see some innovative activity here.”

Abby Mendelson is a veteran Pittsburgh writer and reporter. A novelist and short-story writer, he is also the author of numerous Pittsburgh-related books, including Arena: Remembering the Igloo, Pittsburgh: A Place in Time, Pittsburgh Prays: Thirty-Six Houses of Worship, Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred, and The Pittsburgh Steelers Official History. As a journalist, he has written on countless subjects in a wide variety of publications, local and national, print as well as electronic.