A summit for wonks, fighters and dreamers

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .


The 4th annual Community Development Summit had something for everyone, from wonk to dreamer, in its two day run at the Omni William Penn Downtown Wednesday and Thursday.
Every year, it attracts hundreds of people in community development, neighborhood advocacy, policy and planning fields and from a spectrum of non-profits, mostly from around the region. These are people who sit through sessions on affordable housing; building capacity by sharing services; new planning strategies for changing demographics — hey, quit yawning! — without yawning. 
This is pretty dynamic stuff when dynamic people talk about it, and the good news is that Pittsburgh has dynamic people talking about it.
The Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group presents the summit, with lead support from PNC Bank, and although nothing gets solved and no news breaks, there’s much to take away. I took in two discussions.
One dealt with affordable housing, a critical issue that is becoming more of an issue, and the other dealt with the need for cities and planners to accommodate demographic trends in housing and other developments.
This post is about the former; a subsequent post will deal with the panel on planning for demographic change.
Developers need incentives to provide affordable housing. Inclusionary zoning ordinances can enforce it. There are IZ ordinances in a number of hot-market cities, some that are mandatory, some that are voluntary.
With a wry little grin that forewarned of community development humor about to happen, Bob Damewood, an attorney for Regional Housing Legal Services, said ordinances that require certain percentages of affordable units are more effective than those that merely encourage them. The crowd laughed uproariously.
Pittsburgh does not have inclusionary zoning, except for the IZ tied to the special district created for redevelopment of the Almono site in Hazelwood — where J&L Steel used to make coke and steel bars. But Pittsburgh may be talking and hearing more about inclusionary zoning as our market heats up. And it should.
Requiring that a portion of housing be made and kept affordable for low-income people has to be the way forward in any development, otherwise society will deal with a mash-up of crises related to substandard housing and homelessness in the near future, as if it already isn't.
Fortunately, people have wrestled this issue into various shapes. One is IZ that comes with goodies for developers, from cash subsidies to relaxation of zoning ordinances to allow for greater height and density, less minimum parking and quicker permitting.
Another option is land trusts.
Marcus Presley, organizing director for the Women’s Community Revitalization Project in Philadelphia, said his group worked on a community land trust that owns and stewards sites set aside permanently for affordable housing with commercial space, community services, farms and green space.
Individuals are lease holders who own their home improvements and benefit from resale.
He said in an area of north-east Philadelphia that was gentrifying quickly, his group “did an intensive project to get a sense of what people wanted and they wanted control over their lands. We organized 47 community, faith and labor groups to form a land bank we could trust.
“There is fear of land banks being a tool for developers to displace residents, but we made sure that some land, in spite of market pressures, must go to equitable development.”
How to ensure this, he said, is “with community representation on the land bank board, public access to knowledge of each sale and land transfer and an annual impact statement. This has taken a ton of organizing, with large neighborhood clean-ups and calling attention to blight.”
Ronell Guy, head of the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing, told the story of a group of tenants who fought eviction of their and other families in 333 properties when changes in HUD’s program threatened the landlord’s subsidies in 1998. Because of their tenacity and willingness to scale steep learning curves, a group of leaders emerged from among them and formed the coalition. They got help from the Housing Law Project and attended conferences and began consulting with experts.
Legal volunteers found a way for Northside Associates, the landlord, to opt out of HUD’s mark-to-market rent reconfigurations and eventually, the coalition and Northside Associates reached agreement on majority ownership for the tenants.
“The community was so stressed out that we made a commitment to somehow acquire these properties,” she said.
The 333 properties are in Perry South, California Kirkbride and the Central North Side, much of which had already gentrified by 1998.
Ms. Guy said because of the limited number of affordable units and with so many demolitions in response to blight, especially in California-Kirkbride, “about the only properties left in some of these areas are ours. We have turned deficits into assets. We have had kids graduating from college. We’re working on a home-ownership program.”


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