July 20, 2016
By Rianna Lee
I’ve been around the country, and I’ve been out of the United States a handful of times, but no matter where I go, Pittsburgh always stays true to my heart. I can honestly say that it is one of my favorite cities in the world. One of my favorite things to do when I’m in the city is explore. There are so many neat little stores and shops to visit, places to eat, and things to see, especially in my favorite neighborhoods of Oakland, Southside, and Shadyside.
But Pittsburgh is changing, and I see it every day when I’m in my favorite neighborhoods. Swanky apartment complexes are popping up everywhere in place of small businesses, affordable housing units, and even schools. These apartments are often wildly unaffordable, with amenities that aren’t worthy of tearing down people’s livelihoods to build. I mean come on, a mudroom for your dog, complete with pet wash stations? I look at my city, and I start to think about how inaccessible it is becoming for everyone who isn’t a rich, white person.
One labor-advocacy group, Pittsburgh United, is aiming to change that with a petition that asks for a one percent realty-transfer tax increase to create and fund the Housing Opportunity Fund (originally referred to as an affordable housing trust fund in the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force’s recommendations). If the petition gets 15,000 signatures by August 9th, it will become a referendum for the citizens of Pittsburgh to vote on in the next election.
One percent might not sound like a lot, but it can make a huge difference. Jennifer Kennedy, director of strategic campaigns for Pittsburgh United, says that over the last five years, an average of $9 million per year would have been created if the one percent realty-transfer tax were applied. Last year, the one percent realty-transfer tax would have generated $10 million.
Mark Masterson of the North Side Community Development Fund says that federal housing support funding has shrunk from $25 million to $13 million per year. State funding has dropped even more, from $7 million per year to practically zero. With these local funds produced from the realty-transfer tax, the city of Pittsburgh could begin to adequately address its affordable housing crisis over the next few years.
The wonderful thing about the realty-transfer tax proposed in the petition is that it puts community development in the hands of the community itself, which I and many others believe is the key to solving Pittsburgh’s development crisis. There is no one who knows the needs of a community better than the people who live in it. If passed, decisions on how to use the money in the fund would go through two Affordable Housing Task Force boards comprised of elected officials, city staff, developers, and community members. The funds would then be distributed to local community-development corporations from there. Imagine – city planners and community members working together to make Pittsburgh a better place to live and work, not just for rich, white people, but for everyone.
City development is not a bad thing when it is done with the original members of the community in mind. When expensive housing units geared toward the rich pop up in older communities, the people already living there get pushed out of the neighborhoods where they have built lives and families. With a new perspective on how, where, and why to develop, and the funds and means to develop the right way, Pittsburgh can become the place I’ve always known it could be – inclusive and accessible to every group of people in every community.
Ways to help:
- Follow Pittsburgh United on Facebook for ongoing updates on the situation.
- If you would like to get involved, you can contact TMC’s Gabriel McMorland (email) for more information.
- The petition itself needs to be signed in person so if you are interested, you can do so by stopping by the Thomas Merton Center (5129 Penn Ave.).
- If you would like to help canvass for this cause, you can sign up to do so here (specific event info here)!
Stay tuned for more from the Thomas Merton Center – NewPeople interns will be following up on the status of the petition and Pittsburgh’s city development over the next few weeks.
Rianna is a summer intern for the Thomas Merton Center and a senior at Duquesne University, studying international relations and sociology. She is interested in law and public policy surrounding gender and women’s rights.