September 1, 2016
By Angelica Walker
Over the past year, more than 100 residents have been forced to move out of the Penn Plaza Apartments, one of the few affordable housing options left in East Liberty. Residents were given 90-day eviction notices last summer, informing them that their home was soon to be demolished to create room for new “mixed use development.”
While widespread protests by Action United led to extended eviction deadlines, many residents still struggled to find new affordable housing. Residents were given $800 and relocated to various neighborhoods across the city. For younger residents, this meant no longer being able to walk to work or school. For older, limited-mobility residents, some of whom had lived in Penn Plaza for over a decade, it meant being isolated from friends, family, church, and other lifelong activities that had anchored them to the neighborhood.
In a city of over 21,000 homeless and housing insecure families, Penn Plaza is being torn down to build what will be known as East Liberty Marketplace. The highlight of this “marketplace” will be a brand new 50,000 square feet Whole Foods.
Yes, *that* Whole Foods. The store that was investigated and sued for “systematically overcharging” people. The store that sold $8 bottles of “asparagus water.” The store has been condemned across the country as a shining symbol of gentrification. The new location will stand less than half a mile away from the old Whole Foods, which will remain open.
Obviously, the Penn Plaza/Whole Foods situation is one small symptom of a much larger problem. Gentrification has been reshaping the East Liberty area for decades, slowly leading up to the crisis we have today. Local governments and community development associations championed development as a way to get crime out of the neighborhood. Residents celebrated new stores like Target that provided close shopping and jobs, without knowing how they would affect rent prices down the line.
After the first Whole Foods was built in 2002, tech companies moved in and exploded demand for nearby high-end stores and luxury housing. Just two years after Google opened up their East Liberty office in 2010, a public middle school across the street was demolished to build Bakery Living, a new luxury apartment complex known for its heated pools, “meditative garden courtyard,” “doggie mudroom and shower,” and $1,300-$3,600 rent.
We don’t have to “stop” development. We wouldn’t be able to if we tried. The real question is, what are we going to do to protect the families that call East Liberty home as it happens? How can we ensure that, despite all these changes, publicly-funded affordable housing still exists across the City of Pittsburgh?
To combat gentrification, Pittsburgh UNITED just led a widespread campaign to “help keep Pittsburgh home.” Their plan is to create a Housing Opportunity Fund funded by a one percent real estate transfer tax. The tax would raise an estimated $10 million per year. According to Pittsburgh UNITED, this would provide enough funding to rehabilitate 270 units of rental housing, create 234 units of new housing, and provide rental assistance to 180 families every year.
The funding will be especially targeted to help seniors, young families starting out, people with disabilities, and veterans. Decisions on how to spend the money would go through two Affordable Housing Task Force boards comprised of elected officials, city staff, developers, and local community members. For once, actual community members would have a guaranteed say in what happens to their community.
The Pittsburgh UNITED coalition managed in less than two months to get 13,000 signatures on their petition to put a Housing Opportunity Fund referendum question on November’s election ballot. TMC volunteers, led by Gabriel McMorland, obtained over 900 of those signatures. With this strong showing of public support, Pittsburgh UNITED decided to work directly with City Council to pass legislation instead.
Pittsburgh UNITED is still seeking volunteers for the Housing Opportunity Fund and other anti-gentrification efforts. If you’d like to help keep Pittsburgh home, sign the pledge on the bottom of www.opportunitypgh.org and you will be contacted with more information on how to help.
Angelica Walker is an intern for The New People covering LGBTQIA+ rights and criminal justice reform. She is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh studying social work, legal studies, writing, and political science.