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Re-hab or Demolish? Reflections on a 30 year Controversy in Homewood Brushton

Posted by C. Matthew Hawkins on May 22, 2013 at 5:00 PM

It feels like Deja Vu: the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP) is calling for a moratorium on the demolition of housing in low-income neighborhoods and Bill Peduto, the likely next mayor of the City of Pittsburgh, wants the city to have more arrows in its quiver, for urban development, than simply demolishing abandoned properties. Actually this question of whether to re-hab or demolish housing has been a point of controversy for at least 30 years.


From 1986 through 1988 I was the associate director of Homewood Brushton Revitalization and Development Corporation (HBRDC). During the late 1990s I was on the board of directors of the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development (PPND) and from 2001-2004 I worked as a consultant for PPND, the Hill CDC and other development entities that were at the center of the this controversy.


Back in the 1980s there was a lot of bad blood between HBRDC and Operation Better Block (OBB). The question of what to do with abandoned housing in Homewood was one of several issues at the core of that conflict. OBB wanted to demolish the housing in Homewood and we wanted to preserve and re-hab it. The Hill District was experiencing similar conflicts with neighborhood groups during this period. There were reasonable arguments for both approaches.


We used to argue that Homewood and the Hill District had a unique and sturdy housing stock that could not be replicated, without extraordinary costs, by current developers. We argued that we needed to preserve this housing stock because it was part of the competitive edge that the city could offer over newer developments in the suburbs. We also argued that demolition was leaving the inner-city looking like an urban moonscape and it was creating a shortage of affordable housing in the city. Many residents in Homewood and Hill District saw what was happening as being part what they suspected was a long-term strategy of gentrification, forcing people to move out of Pittsburgh neighborhoods and into what was rapidly becoming a deteriorating climate in the post-industrial Mon Valley.


We had two reasons for wanting to rehab housing in Homewood and the Hill District: first, as CDCs that were chartered to preserve and stimulate the growth of small businesses, we knew that we had to increase both the population density of our neighborhoods, as well as the demographic with disposable income. Only by increasing our population density and our disposable income demographic could we begin to approach business to remain or invest in these neighborhoods.


Our second reason for investing in a strategy of rehabilitation instead of demolition was because our assessment of urban poverty, at that time, was that Homewood and the Hill District suffered from "economic apartheid". Black neighborhoods had traditionally had a mix of low, middle-income, and upper-middle income residents because of racial segregation. Once the Open Housing Act was signed, in 1968, residential areas neighboring Homewood – such as North Point Breeze and Penn Hills – gradually became more integrated. This was the result of an exodus of Black middle class households, leaving an increasingly isolated and intensified concentration of poverty behind them. Our goal was to break down this economic apartheid by using a mix of subsidized and market-rate housing to create economically integrated neighborhoods.


Organizations, such as OBB, however were concerned about the amount of time it was taking us to acquire vacant housing in the community and the prolonged process of putting together the finances to rehabilitate this abandoned housing stock. OBB pointed out that while we identifying property to purchase and re-hab, the properties were becoming community hazards. They were attracting heroin addicts, who used the properties to shoot up, and who stripped the property of its copper plumbing so that they could sell it to junk dealers. The properties were also attracting vandals, who would set them on fire.


When we were successful in acquiring properties, and putting together a strategy for rehabilitating them, we got the money from a combination of grants from national foundations, such as the Ford Foundation and the Enterprise Foundation, and coupling them with matching grants from local foundations and the URA. As a non-profit we didn’t have to recoup the cost of rehabbing each unit of housing the way a private developer would have had to because our strategy was more long-term and comprehensive.


However, at the same time we were implementing this strategy the process of de-industrialization in the region was destroying the good-paying full-time jobs that we were relying on to stimulate the rebirth of our communities. This was followed by a real estate bubble, which, although modest in its effect in Pittsburgh, nonetheless made our "economic integration" strategy less attractive to those who could expect a much more generous 5-year return on their investment if they shifted their focus to properties in outlying areas, such as Cranberry Township.


In the final analysis, the whole strategy of community development – focused on inner-city business development -- as the way to address urban poverty may have been flawed from the beginning. Nicholas Lemann makes this argument in his 1994 New York Times essay “The Myth of Community Development”. Lemann’s essay is still highly relevant. The idea of community development fueled by business growth may have been attractive to local government and foundations because it felt like a closer ideological fit to what they already believed underlay urban poverty. Our housing strategy, of the 1980s and 90s, was an outgrowth of that myth. This is not to say that preservation and rehabilitation is, necessarily, a bad idea – it is just to say that we must be careful to learn from our previous assumptions and experiences.


C. Matthew Hawkins


Categories: Real Estate, Citizenship and Governance

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Reply Derrick Lopez
8:03 AM on May 23, 2013 
Brother Hawkins answered the question that I had when I first heard about the moratorium: what is the likelihood that the rehabilitation strategy will actually be implemented on a large scale? My follow-up questions: Our children are walking past abandoned, blighted and in some cases, drug trade infiltrated houses on the way to school, to the YMCA or just walking down the street. What are saying to our children in the community who see these homes as a manifestation of their self worth? Are we seeking to preserve a history that sends unintended messages to our children about their destiny?

My statement: Moratoriums seldom work without a plan with human capital and fiscal resources to support the execution of the plan. Where is the plan here?
Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
5:21 PM on May 23, 2013 
Derrick Lopez says...
Our children are walking past abandoned, blighted and in some cases, drug trade infiltrated houses on the way to school, to the YMCA or just walking down the street. What are saying to our children in the community who see these homes as a manifestation of their self worth? Are we seeking to preserve a history that sends unintended messages to our children about their destiny? My statement: Moratoriums seldom work without a plan with human capital and fiscal resources to support the execution of the plan. Where is the plan here?

I agree on both points. A moratorium must be coupled with a plan to change the situation. It is at least as important to be as clear about what one is for as it is to be clear about what one is against.

Concerning the psychological impact on the children; when I was working with the Consensus Organizing Institute we had a program in Brooklyn where we worked with high school students, many of whom were in danger of not graduating because of disinterest in schooling, and gave them a project to identify community needs and develop a plan to address those needs.

The students were given basic training in organizing based on consensus-building strategies and working with community-based stakeholders and local government.

The students went out, they interviewed people and developed a plan for action, which had them making deals with, and enlisting the services of, university students who had areas of expertise the high school students needed to draw upon, small businesses in the neighborhood, residents who had a vision for the future, and local government officials.

In the process the students honed their reading, writing, analytical, and oral communications skills.

Above all, they became fully involved in the program because, for the first time, it dawned on them that they actually did have both the power and the responsibility to help to shape their living environment.

Having developed these skills they not only graduated high school, most of them got scholarships to go to universities.

I think that what would otherwise be a negative message ("You aren't worth much and you will never amount to much and these dilapidated houses around you show how little you are worth") can be transformed into a positive message ("As a citizen you can have both the power and the responsibility to shape the course of events in your immediate environment").

This happens by working with young people to develop consensus-building community practice skills and having them demonstrate those skills through their work on a specific project that transforms their environment.
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