Affordable urban housing in the Hill District by TREK Development.

Bill Gatti, founder, president and CEO
TREK Development

For the better part of a decade, TREK Development Group has been creating affordable townhouse and apartment units in the city, including Dinwiddie, Heldman, Reed, and Miller Streets in the Hill.

“Mixed-income housing is the wave of the future,” Gatti says. “But creating affordable housing takes many layers of financing. It takes support from the foundation community cobbled together with what the city is trying to do, going block by block for rehab and revitalization.

“For the first time in my career,” he adds, “housing is happening. A lot of city housing is getting built. In part, because people want an authentic urban experience. They want a pedestrian-friendly urban environment. They want to walk to coffee shops, cultural, and sporting events. They want to live with a broad range of ages, incomes and races. All that is what a broad urban environment is all about.

“Now,” Gatti says, “developers are trying to figure out how to serve that broader market. That’s hard to do. Because construction costs are always going up. In fact, we’re paying twice as much per unit as we did ten years ago.

“What’s more, there are twin fears out there. First, there’s the fear that if there’s a lot of regulation slapped on it could kill the market. Second, there’s also fear that people are only attending to the higher end of the market.

“Having said that,” Gatti concludes, “the future of our city depends on figuring out ways to solve these problems. At TREK, we’re happy to be part of the conversation.”

Chris Koch, CEO
The Design Center

Heading up The Design Center, dedicated to helping communities design equitably and sustainably, Chris Koch says that “affordable housing starts with design and planning. For us, public interest design, working with communities, that’s how the road map is created. These projects are very big and very complex. They’re going to take many years to create—revisiting them, making sure who’s going to do it. That’s going to take a lot of people: government, nonprofits, communities, developers all have to be in this together. All those groups need to be at the table.

“You don’t just build something and come back ten years later. There has to be an ongoing process. And there have to be questions asked: what kind of community do you want to be? Over time? To us, the answers have a direct link to the built environment.

“Further,” she says, “equity comes from having many housing choices, across age, race, income. It comes from having jobs, density, and connectivity. From creating spaces that have social mobility, connecting to where people work and live.

“For all those things,” Koch adds, “there has to be a plan. The good news is that for the first time there is nonprofit leadership like Heinz, groups like ours, the Mayor, and others pushing for it. We engage as many people as possible. Asking questions like, ‘what does affordability really say to these people? What’s the best way for the new Pittsburgh? How do we not lose the identity of our city and not leave people behind?”

Presley Gillespie, president
Neighborhood Allies

Being part of the conversation is what Neighborhood Allies is all about. As a forward-thinking, solutions-oriented community developer, Neighborhood Allies works to bring ideas, expertise and resources to distressed and transitional neighborhoods.

“When we think about affordability,” Presley Gillespie says, “it’s not just median income, or the housing cost burden on individuals. We factor in debt, credit cards, cars. Because of housing cost burdens, for example, people are putting off going to the doctor. So it’s important to start defining what affordable housing really means. Once we do that, then we can address strategies.

“One thing we already know is that affordable housing and development are multi-faceted. They have to address the rising inequality of income and wealth. And have to be done in a way that the community becomes a real partner with developers.

“Further, how do we systematically create opportunities to increase financial opportunities, to mitigate gaps in wealth and income. To have workforce development, education, transportation. Overall,” he says, “it’s imperative that we have equitable development strategies in neighborhoods, partnerships with the city’s planning offices, addressing affordable housing and land use.

“Currently,” Gillespie adds, “there’s an intense effort to maintain and increase home ownership. Affordable homes that are safe, healthy, efficient to operate. Preserving neighborhood identity and culture. To that end, we want to increase residents’ opportunity to participate in equitable development. To be more engaged in planning new developments. To make sure that not only do we have community benefits agreements, but also to insure that long-term jobs and entrepreneurship are being developed, helping connect residents to the necessary skills that they need to get those jobs.

“It’s heavy lifting,” Gillespie admits. “It’s hard. And it’s going to take time. But there’s such a convergence around these issues. Because this is a pivotal time for Pittsburgh. Now we are asking ourselves if in the next several decades we can produce a city that is equitable and livable. That everyone can love. Where everyone can raise a family and really call home. With so much cooperation from the foundation community and the city we have so much more opportunity for an alignment of resources.” Gillespie pauses. “I believe we’re going to see some exciting things happen in the next ten years.”

Abby Mendelson

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:...