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Homewood at the Crossroads

Posted by C. Matthew Hawkins on June 25, 2013 at 10:15 AM

On Monday, June 24th the Black Political Empowerment Project convened a Homewood community discussion about how to deal with vacant or abandoned properties. The discussion was held at the neighborhood branch of Carnegie Library. Homewood Renaissance Association CEO Rev. Eugene Blackwell, Operation Better Block Executive Director Jerome Jackson, Rosedale Block Cluster Executive Director Diane Swann, and Community Empowerment Association CEO Rashad Byrdsong, were among the 50 community and non-community participants in the meeting. Councilman Ricky V. Burgess was the primary speaker.


Councilman Burgess unveiled his legislative initiative to establish a City of Pittsburgh land bank and advisory committee to deal with the city’s distressed properties. The idea is to enable the city to transfer vacant, abandoned, and tax delinquent properties to new owners who will fix them up in a way that would fulfill an overarching strategy for development in each neighborhood.


Bill Peduto, the presumptive next mayor of the City of Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group (PCRG) Deputy Director Bethany Davidson were on hand to elaborate on the proposal and what it would mean for Homewood businesses and residents. Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP) CEO Tim Stevens moderated the discussion.


As I pointed out in a previous column in Homewood Nation, the conflict of vision between those who want to demolish distressed properties and those who want to preserve and rehab them is over 30 years old. We were fighting these battles back in the mid-1980s, when I was the associate director of Homewood Brushton Revitalization and Development Corporation under Mulugetta Birru.


Then, as now, people who wanted to preserve the properties argued that demolition of the housing stock would effectively depopulate the neighborhood, and would likely lead to gentrification. Those who wanted to demolish the properties, on the other hand, argued that these units were unsightly and unsafe – they were daily reminders of a neglected community and they suppressed property values.


Thus far, the problem has been that both sides in the argument knew what they wanted to preserve, or demolish, but neither side had a plan for what should be done after the housing stock was either salvaged or torn down.


Monday night’s meeting provided a concrete proposal to address that problem.


Davidson explained that condemnation and demolition were practically the only options available to the city up until now because state law limited the city’s legal access to the land. Also, with more than 14,000 abandoned properties and more than 20,000 tax-delinquent ones scattered throughout the city, local government was reluctant to seize and hold structures that the city would be liable for if anything should happen on them. The city, she pointed out, does not carry insurance.


Through land banking the properties could be seized and set aside, without the city incurring liability claims, until a buyer could be found to pay taxes and put the property to productive use.


But what use?


This is where the citizen advisory committee comes in. The land bank proposal calls for establishment of an advisory committee, and Councilman Burgess said that each neighborhood should have its own committee, that would identify the “best and highest use” for the land. Establishing advisory committees would give the public control over the acquisition, distribution and use of the properties so that the properties would not have to be sold to the highest bidder in a Treasurer’s sale – which, otherwise, would mean that the houses could be bought by a speculator who might just sit on them until he could find a developer take the property off his hands at a higher price. In other words, the advisory committee would put the process of acquisition, distribution and development in the hands of the residents and businesses in Homewood instead of being in the hands of the highest bidder.


But how is the “highest and best use” of the land to be determined? Councilman Burgess reminded those in attendance that Homewood is currently without an overall development strategy and it needs to create one. In order for residents and other stakeholders in the neighborhood to determine what the future of the community should look like somebody is going to have to come up with a feasible strategy for overall development. Thirty years ago this task fell into the hands of HBRDC. Typically it is the community development corporation, in any distressed neighborhood, that creates, in cooperation with business owners and residents, a comprehensive and workable strategy – otherwise the city does it for them, or the community is just opened up to the random impulses of the market.


Homewood, however, no longer has a community development corporation. What it does have are social service agencies, some of which are variously involved in activities that are somewhat related to aspects of development. This is a hurdle that the community is going to have to come to terms with if it expects to play a meaningful role in shaping its own future.


Let’s be clear: a development plan is not a wish list that is drawn up by a community group; nor is it simply a list of community demands. A development plan is a carefully worked out document based on market studies of the impact of a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, and the right mix of location and destination businesses. A development plan is not wishful thinking; it emerges from a carefully worked out market study.


Many of the participants in Monday night’s meeting opposed the land bank proposal, or – at least – were suspicious about the process of implementing it. The idea of economic development in distressed neighborhoods is always a sensitive issue.


One of the reasons why it is sensitive, and arouses such passions, is because some residents and long-time stakeholders believe that they will be swept aside in the planning process.


If neighborhood stakeholders do not come up with a carefully thought out and viable strategy for economic development, however, then the planning process will be done for them, rather than with them – or the community will undergo transition without a plan and its future will be determined by the biggest speculator with the most cash to buy up the property.

Categories: Real Estate, Citizenship and Governance

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Reply Abdur-Rahman Shareef
12:36 PM on June 25, 2013 
Without a community development corporation, Homewood is at the mercy of speculators and/or random impulses of the market. I don't think that a citizen advisory group or urban agenda or social service agencies will matter because what is really needed is a development plan!! So Mr. Hawkins do you think that a development plan can be created by the citizens or the neighborhood stakeholders? Or better yet, an old one be used and updated?
Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
11:19 PM on June 25, 2013 
Brother Shareef, back in 2003 we made considerable progress toward a development plan in the Hill District through a steering committee of stakeholders (The Hill House, under Jim Henry, House of the Crossroads, Macedonia Baptist Church, First Baptist Church, Dwelling House Real Estate, Wesley A.M.E. Zion, Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, etc.) working with consultants (The Development Training Institute in Baltimore) and the Hill CDC, at that time, was only marginally involved -- it would be generous to say that they were "leading from behind". So, community property owners and stakeholders can do this in partnership with consultants, such as the Development Training Institute. PNC Bank and Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development funded that process. I think this would be the same approach that would be used to update a previous plan. But I absolutely agree -- absent a serious development plan, based on market studies for residential and commercial real estate, there will be no way for the community to steer the development process. Those who think they can just draw up a wish list out of the blue, or issue a series of demands, will set the community up for severe disappointment.
Reply Elwin Green
1:02 AM on June 26, 2013 
CORRECTION TIME: When I read this piece, I didn't pay enough attention to the line, "Homewood, however, no longer has a community development corporation."

Three years ago (!), I wrote about Homewood having not one, but two, CDCs: Building United of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and HBRDC, which still owned some of Homewood's most significant real estate. (To find the post, titled "Does Homewood need a CDC?" do a search above for "HBRDC.") But Building United was not *known* as a CDC, and HBRDC was defunct (it's time to find out whether HBRDC has officially died yet).

In any case, "Bridging the Busway" is the most current planning document we have. So far, it has not been used much, if at all - the name, "Bridging the Busway" has been used A LOT. But not the document itself.

This has both perplexed and annoyed me, because 1) I personally put a lot of work into it, and 2) I believe it gives us a lot to work with. Therefore, I intend to start working with it.

For anyone who has not read it yet, the "Bridging the Busway" plan can be downloaded at www.bridgingthebusway.com.

Watch this space.
Reply james williams
1:36 AM on June 26, 2013 
I like burgess plan, it will or can work for everyone in the area with the righr plan from community experts.
Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
2:48 AM on June 26, 2013 
Hi Elwin, I look forward to reading your posts on the specifics of the "Bridging the Busway" plan. The only thing I know about it right now is what I have read in the papers.

I took the trip down memory lane and read your 2010 piece on Homewood's "two CDCs". I have to say, I'm not sure about the usefulness of a CDC if neighborhood business owners and residents aren't even aware of whether or not the thing actually exists.

A CDC, by the way, is not necessary in order to create a substantive community development strategy. Given a choice between the two, if one has to choose, I would go with the strategy instead of the CDC. The strategy should be based on a solid market study of the area -- so that community stakeholders know what they are working with -- and it should be tweaked and fine-tuned by a steering committee that is looking out for the long-term interests of current residents, so that the strategy will not just be driven by market-forces as if people don't matter.

Homewood needs a concrete and well-researched strategy in order to form partnerships with city government, private foundations, real estate and business interests that will attract resources to the community in a way that will benefit current residents.

A CDC is not indispensable for this; it is more important to have a strong and responsible steering committee composed of community stakeholders who realize that an economic development strategy is more than a list of wishes, and more than a list of demands and grievances. It is based on a solid market study of the area that is then shaped to fit the unique needs and vision of the people in the community.

The development plan should demonstrate that the prospects for success of the development are not just based on wishful thinking or ideas that came from out of the blue. It must be able to say to potential partners and investors that there is good reason for them to believe in one's vision for the future of the community.
Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
4:59 PM on June 26, 2013 
Also, by the late 1990s and early 2000s we started moving away from the neighborhood CDC model. The foundations and city government had decided that the neighborhood CDCs were too expensive and relatively ineffective.

For a while PPND experimented with consolidation of neighborhood CDCs into a much larger entity that was to encourage economic development for large sections of the city. That didn't seem to work too well because of turf wars and questions of accountability.

My guess is that it is highly unlikely that there will be much support for reviving a neighborhood CDC. A serious and well-informed steering committee, on the other hand, may be another matter.
Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
5:29 PM on June 26, 2013 
I just read an email message from Marita Bradley, Executive Assistant to Councilman Burgess. She points out that "Bridging the Busway" is the plan, for the time being, that the councilman is proposing for community development in Homewood:

"Councilman Burgess mentioned Bridging the Busway as an intermediate strategy that serves to inform development in the immediate future. The development that has occurred including the Homewood Station Senior Building as well as the Phase II housing development is a direct result of that plan."

She also confirms that there isn't enough funding support for the old CDC model, and that one would have to consider something like a steering committee, or a collaborative model instead.

"One fact that we have learned is that there aren't many foundations/government entities etc. who are willing to fund the former 'CDC' model which is why we have looked at creating a collaborative that looked at what economic development would [look] like among multiple communities. Although, its a model that has not been used in the city before, we hope that it will put the few resources that we do have to more efficient use."

She says this hasn't been tried in Pittsburgh before. Actually, we (PPND) began to experiment with this back in 2002. There were a number of positive and negative lessons that we learned from that experiment, but whole thing ended rather abruptly, in 2003, due to a sudden change in direction and restructuring of PPND itself.
Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
5:17 PM on June 27, 2013 
Correction: The meeting on Monday was actually initiated by B-Pep, following their initial presentation to City Council on the need for a moratorium on the demolition of vacant or abandoned property in Homewood.
Reply Queen Lucille
5:24 PM on July 1, 2013 
I attended the meeting at the Homewood Library on June 24 hosted by Councilman Burgess and B-PEP and honestly must say that I left more confused than when I entered. The temperature outside was over 90 degrees yet the meeting was held on the 2nd floor of the Library, which has neither air conditioning or fans. As the temperature rose, so did the frustration among attendees. The meeting was entitled "Discussion of Vacant/Abandoned Property and Demolitions" but by the time various representatives of the community, and Bethany Davidson from PCRG, finished speaking there was little time to hear from residents. I was only able to squeeze my question in amid the clatter of chairs and rumbling of voices that ocurred when we were told that the meeting had gone past it's time limit and we were being thrown out of the Library. My question concerned a row property on Homewood Avenue that was recently demolished even though the Allegheny County Real Estate Website showed the taxes paid in full every year, including 2013. Councilman Burgess instructed me to give the information to Marita Bradley so she could investigate why the property was demolished, which I did, and she told me she would be in touch with me the following day. Needless to say I am still awaiting her response (and people wonder why we don't vote?) The agenda was attached to an undated MEDIA ADVISORY from the Councilman's office, along with Resolution #2012-0895, "......authorizing the Mayor, Director of Finance and City Solicitor to establish the Pittsburgh LandBank and Advisory Committee", dated 10/31/12. Did I say that the Resolution was dated 10/31/12? The only reason this meeting was held is because B-PEP asked for a moratorium on demolitions in the Black community. Had that not occured, I'm sure we never would have had any opportunity to attempt to discuss the issue, given that the Resolution is dated 10/31/12, approximately 8 months ago. According to the Resolution, Members of the Advisory Committee would include the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Housing Authority City of Pgh., (HACP), the School District and City Council, each of which are responsible for many of the blighted/abandoned properties in the city! In Homewood alone, the URA owns the majority of the vacant lots which are overgrown with weeds; the School District owns the vacant Belmar and Homewood Montessori schools; the HACP owns the vacant property on Kelly street where the Hi-rise was torn down over 10 years ago; and Councilman Burgess' 501 (c) 3 owns the building at 615 N. Lang Ave which has been abandoned since he was elected to council the first time! So the Councilman's bright idea is to create an Advisory Committee composed of the same governmental entities, including himself, responsible for the perpetuation of abandoned properties in the first place? Brilliant! Not really. While milling around with some of the attendees outside of the Library, Councilman Burgess injects himself into my conversation by asking me what I am talking about, what is my problem, what questions do I have? When I stated the above regarding his LandBank Advisory Committee, he stated to me that that is not going to be the actual committee. Additionally, during the meeting Councilman Burgess also stated that the Bridging the Busway Plan is ".....not a full fledged development plan, but rather a road-map to what the interim development strategy in some key places can be". When is the Councilman going to give us something real? Also, it was announced today that Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle plans to introduce legislation to hold banks responsible for maintaining homes they've foreclosed upon, a measure that he said will give the city a new tool to fight blight. Banks would be fined $100 per day for non-compliance. I wonder if he and Burgess are working together? Probably not! We never did get through the entire agenda, with 4 items remaining completely untouched. I haven't received any minutes or information about a follow up meeting either. Councilman Burgess also exclaimed to the group during the meeting, "Judge me by what resources I bring to Homewood". Believe me Councilman, we do!
Reply Queen Lucille
2:16 PM on November 16, 2013 
It has come to my attention that some of the vacant property in Homewood that is being placed on the demolition list should not be. There was a brick row of houses across the street from me that were demolished a few weeks prior to the meeting. According to the Allegheny County Real Estate website, the taxes were up to date and had been for years. At the meeting, I asked Councilman Burgess why they would be demolished, and the Councilman instructed me to give the address and other information to his assistant, Marita Bradley so that she could investigate it, which I did, and she said that she would get back to me in a few days. Needless to say, I am still waiting for her to "get back to me" (please take note of today's date). Also, I was informed by my current landlord that the property where I currently reside was originally on the demolition list. My landlord remodeled the building beautifully and, as a result, myself and my neighbor have apartments much nicer than many of those in higher income communities. I really would like to know why the building was demolished, so I'm hopeful that Ms. Bradley really will "get back to me", eventually.
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