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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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