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REAL ESTATE: An alternative path to a moratorium

Posted by Elwin Green on May 23, 2013 at 2:15 PM

The demolition of houses in Homewood is a complicated story, with multiple facets, so expect a number of follow-ups to yesterday's news.

 

Like this one.

 

This is about Race Street, and me, and different ways of doing things.

 

For those who don't know already, I am chair of the Save Race Street Committee, a resident group formed in November 2008 to make our street safer and more beautiful. Early in our work, we began experiencing the value of partnership, including partnering with the City.

 

I am also a preservationist at heart. Anyone who has spent time with me in recent years has probably heard me extol the quality of Homewood's architecture (even people who don't know me heard me do so last September, when Homewood Nation partnered to present "Hidden Gems: The Architecture of Homewood."). While some of my neighbors want to see abandoned houses torn down, I want the Save Race Street Committee to learn what it would take obtain a historical designation for our street.

 

In the past decade or so, five houses have been torn down in my block. After the fourth one, I began asking what it might take to get some sort of moratorium on Race Street demolitions.

 

And this is where we get to the part about different ways of doing things.

 

I didn't take any public action. I kept asking who I should talk to until I got a face to face meeting with Paul Loy, manager of the Bureau of Building Inspection's Demolition Department. At the time that we spoke, seven properties on Race Street were rising to the top of the demolition list.

 

When we spoke, I asked questions about the properties and about the condemnation process. And I learned that Paul Loy is - or at least, in this meeting he was - willing to work with someone who gives him something to work with.

 

I wanted a moratorium on Race Street demolitions. He wanted someone to assume responsibility for the houses. And we made a gentleman's agreement. I could have the moratorium, if I would assume responsbility for the houses. No legal documents; a handshake. 

 

After that, I began consulting with Operation Better Block staffer Demi Kolke and board member Irene McLaughlin (DISCLOSURE: I am also on the board of OBB). Ms. McLaughlin is an attorney who has worked closely with Ms. Kolke on issues of vacant and abandoned property. They helped me navigate a process of requesting that six of the seven houses be taken through a tax sale, so that the City can take ownership of them, so that the City can sell them to Operation Better Block, so that Operation Better Block can sell them to me.

 

Well, not really to me. The deal is for OBB to sell the properties to Homewood Capital Partners LLC, a company I formed for the purpose of investing in Homewood real estate. An LLC is a type of partnership, and the central idea of HCP is that if residents of Homewood, and people we know, pool our money, we can buy, rehab and sell enough Homewood properties to make a major positive impact on the neighborhood - while making a profit.

 

The first result of all this is that when the demolition crews got busy this year, they moved from Idlewild Street to Monticello Street, skipping Race (with one exception - a house across from me that even I agreed might not be worth the trouble of acquiring - first, because of its condition, and second because the owner's recent death created a new nest of legal issues).

 

The second result is that I have a deal for Homewood Capital Partners to acquire five houses on Race Street, probably in a year or so (the City's process for selling property is slow).

 

All of this happened by asking questions, assuming responsibility, and not assuming ill intent on the part of others. All of that may constitute naivete. We'll see if it all blows up in my face.

 

A couple more points: some of my neighbors seem to hold the view that doing something privately is the same things as doing it secretly. I think that's silly. Most business is conducted privately, not because it needs to be hidden from the world, but because it is not the world's business - it is the business of the parties engaged in the transaction. I would not be telling this story at all if the journalist in me had not decided that the story of how one man has dealt so far with demolitions on his street is relevant and possibly useful.

 

I am also perplexed when people talk about the land in Homewood in ways that seem to ignore the question of "Who owns it?" - a question that I consider essential to much of the conversation that needs to happen in Homewood.

 

Finally, I am preparing to make units of Homewood Capital Partners (think of them as shares) available to others. This will not be a public offering.

Categories: Real Estate, Business

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5 Comments

Reply DIANA NELSON JONES
3:50 PM on May 23, 2013 
BEST OF LUCK to you Elwin. Keep me in your loop. You know I value what you are doing.
Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
4:48 PM on May 23, 2013 
This is a classic example of the mode of community organizing that is focused on building consensus among stakeholders. I particularly appreciate the points you have made about: (1) knowing whether or not the person you are talking to has the power to do what you want that person to do; (2) negotiating in good faith and not assuming ill will; (3) getting what you want by helping your negotiating partner to get what that partner wants; (4) finding areas of common interest that you both can agree to and build upon; (5) negotiating sensitive matters in private, but not keeping the affected community in the dark once the deal is done; (6) not just focusing on what you are against, but offering a solid, concrete, and constructive plan the embodies what you are for; and (7) including other stakeholders in the community because no individual or organization can do everything on their own. Great and educational blog post.
Reply Elwin Green
5:39 PM on May 23, 2013 
Wow, Matt - you got all of that out of it? I'm impressed with myself! :)

Ms. Jones - will do!
Reply Elwin Green
5:53 PM on June 3, 2013 
As I read this post now, I think I did not give enough weight to the work of the Save Race Street Committee. The Committee's work and reputation gave me a basis for requesting a moratorium that a lot of people don't have. We, as a group of residents, had already spent nearly four years recognizing the value of our street and working to preserve and enhance that value.
Reply Derrick Lopez
10:13 AM on June 7, 2013 
One additional perspective is also lost in this call for a moratorium: that is the perspective of the children of Homewood who walk past these buildings everyday. First, our children have articulated that these buildings are unsafe because of what goes on inside them. People squat in many of these homes and may sell drugs, engage in prostitution, or verbally accost the children as they walk by. Secondly, our children see themselves reflected in the abandoned and dilapidated buildings. The children don't see the possibilities that the more mature citizens of Homewood may see because they remember the Homewood of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. They only see today, and that perspective leads to a diminished self worth. Finally, from a macro perspective, unless there is a plan and attendant resources to facilitate a plan to bring many of these homes back on line, they will remain as an eyesore and perpetual blight in the community. Homewood was once residence to 35,000 people; and now the population is just north of 6000. The community does not need all of this housing stock, and to rehabilitate one of these homes is upwards of $75,000 to $100,000 depending on its infrastructure. A plan should have preceded the moratorium.

In sum, the interests of the community should not just be seen from the vantage point of the adults. Rather, it must be seen also be viewed from the perspective of our children who must navigate these streets daily. Their life perspective and their life prospects are adversely affected by the blight each day. We should think about a plan that will give them a more hopeful viewpoint. A moratorium, in and of itself, just perpetuates their disbelief in the prospect of a positive future.

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The Homewood Chronicles

Oct. 2005 - March 2010

Reports from a community in transition

In October 2005, after a bullet came through his living room window, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Elwin Green began writing "My Homewood," the first blog on the P-G's website. For 4 1/2 years, "My Homewood" shared stories of tragedy and beauty, of perplexity and hope - stories that live again in "The Homewood Chronicles."

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