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How Demands for Affordable Housing Are Defining Pittsburgh’s Mayoral Race

A disproportionate number of Black residents have left the city, and advocates say the next mayor needs to ensure greater access to housing.

Pennsylvania state Representative Ed GaineyPhoto by Justin Merriman/Getty Images.

Between 2013 and 2019, Pittsburgh’s Black population fell by nearly 8,000, more than 10 percent of all Black people living in the city. During the same time, about 1,200, less than 1 percent, of white residents left, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey Five-Year estimates.

Pittsburgh is one of the most gentrified cities in the country, according to a 2019 report from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. More than 10 percent of the city’s Black residents have left since 2013, compared to less than 1 percent of white residents. Advocates say increases in rents and home prices are part of the problem. They’re calling on the next mayor to make housing more affordable.

“The question is not why Black folks left Pittsburgh,” Allegheny County resident Roxanne Scott said Wednesday during a public hearing of the Pittsburgh City Council on the loss of Black residents. “The question really is why didn’t it happen sooner and how bad is it going to get?”

Scott, who is Black, said she left Pittsburgh for one of the surrounding suburbs because the city had become unaffordable for her and lacked the opportunities she needed.

Carl Redwood, a housing activist and chairperson of the Hill District Consensus Group’s board of directors, also spoke at the hearing. “In Pittsburgh, over the last four decades politicians have promised a city that would be economically and racially diverse,” he said. “But one mayor after another and one Cty Council after another has accelerated existing class- and race-based inequities.” 

Bill Peduto, who has been mayor since January 2014 and is seeking a third term, has campaigned on Pittsburgh being among the most “livable cities.” But he acknowledged to The Appeal that that may not be equally felt.

“For too long we’ve had two Pittsburgh[s]—a Black Pittsburgh and a white Pittsburgh—where the white Pittsburgh reaps the benefits of growth, while the Black Pittsburgh absorbs all of the negative impacts,” Peduto wrote in an email. “I want to create a more equitable Pittsburgh for all of our residents. Every resident should have the same opportunity to thrive, regardless of their neighborhood.”

But state Representative Ed Gainey, Peduto’s main challenger, attacked the mayor’s record, saying he had promised to make housing affordable in the city but hasn’t delivered.

Peduto has failed to realize that “when you lift up the most vulnerable, you lift up the whole city,” Gainey told The Appeal.

Peduto told The Appeal he has overseen the creation of a $120 million Housing Opportunity Fund for the development and upkeep of affordable housing. He noted that he has supported inclusionary zoning in parts of the city, which requires private developers to build affordable housing units as part of all new housing construction. He has also created a program to provide up to $30,000 for housing rehabilitation for people making less than 50 percent of the area’s median income.

In March, Peduto announced the OwnPGH program, which will provide loans for home purchases for families who may not have access to traditional credit because of their income, as well as provide loans to renovate and rehabilitate homes.

Peduto also joined a national pilot program in July that provides a basic monthly income of $500 to 200 families earning less than 50 percent of the area’s median income. He has prioritized directing those funds to households led by Black women. 

“This program will have a huge impact in the lives of these women,” he said, “and we can leverage the results of these pilots to push on the federal level for a more robust program.”

Alethea Sims, president of the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty, said more needs to be done to address housing for low-income people in Pittsburgh. Affordable, subsidized apartment complexes are being renovated and turned into market-rate buildings that the residents can no longer afford to live in, she noted.

“Whoever’s in that office needs to choose to make it better, even if it’s going to tick off some rich folks,” Sims said.

During the public hearing, activist Randall Taylor criticized the city over its land bank, which was created during Peduto’s first year in office and allows the city to take over blighted properties to sell and create more housing options. Taylor specifically took aim at the handling of properties in Homewood, a majority Black neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Peduto lists the creation of the land bank as one of his accomplishments on his website, but last year he said it was one of the failures of his administration. As of December, the land bank had not turned around a single property it has bought. There are more than 200 vacant properties in the land bank’s inventory.

Gainey’s campaign has promised to expand affordable housing options through the city’s Housing Authority and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). He said last month that the $10 million allocated annually from the URA isn’t enough to create affordable housing. He also said he wants to use community land trusts and the land bank, and is a strong proponent of inclusionary zoning. 

“Now, instead of talking about affordable housing units as an add-on, it’s embedded in the proposal,” he said of the zoning approach.

Some residents have criticized Gainey for his role in creating the conditions that forced Black residents out of the city as a member of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.

“Ed sits on the URA board,” resident Carmen Brown said during Wednesday’s hearing. “In 2014, that’s when Ed Gainey got appointed by Bill Peduto. That’s when it seems the gentrification surged during that process.” 

Gainey and Peduto are the clear frontrunners for mayor, but Tony Moreno and Michael Thompson are also running. Moreno said during a candidate debate in April that he wants to start a program to train people in plumbing, carpentry, and other skilled labor jobs to help renovate or rebuild abandoned properties that can be turned into “as-needed” housing units. Thompson has described housing as a human right, and he notes on his campaign website that he lives in public housing but provides little detail on how he would make housing more affordable if elected. 

Ensuring that longtime Pittsburgh residents can continue to have a home in the city is critical, said Sims. “The people who lived there and endured the bad times should also be able to benefit from the good,” she said.