Penn Plaza Residents: The Relocation Challenges They Faced

May 12, 2017
By Zak Thomas and Claire Hortens

During the past year, Penn Plaza Apartments in East Liberty have become a powerful symbol of the hardships that gentrification can create for long-term residents of a neighborhood. The authors of the following article were directly involved in helping those residents relocate.

When Neighborhood Allies first came on board at Penn Plaza (alongside the invaluable staff of Interstate Acquisition Services), there were just short of 200 residents facing displacement, nearly half of whom had less than four months to move. Moving is challenging for anyone, and competing with other tenants for a limited number of options makes it exponentially harder.

A security deposit plus first month’s rent and moving costs were significant for tenants, who were already sacrificing to make ends meet each month. A number of tenants didn’t have cars, making it more difficult to visit potential new housing; and narrowing their options to homes directly on a bus line near amenities in walking distance. Some had issues with credit history or prior evictions. Other tenants just needed help navigating the logistics of accessing and filling out applications, printing, scanning, faxing, and organizing which apartments accepted Section 8 vouchers or applied subsidies to the rent. Others found it helpful to rely on the relocation staff to do the talking and periodically checking in on applications and wait lists.

Although counter-intuitive, applying to a subsidized property is much more difficult than applying to a market rate property. The governmental compliance requirements on the owners are very high, so low-income housing operators have to require a lot of documentation about applicants’ assets and financial situations. The consequences of bending the rules are high, and it can be harder to prove you have a financial need than it is to prove you can pay the rent, although neither is easy.

Where the process gets most complicated is at the intersection of poverty, mental and physical health, and weak social or financial networks.

The elderly tenants experienced the most difficulty in confronting all the barriers; and they were also the most likely to carry with them the baggage of prior displacements and, in many instances, social injustice. They also tended to be the tenants who struggled the most to deal with the emotional, psychological and physical realities of moving.

Our goal was to help residents find housing that maximized the factors most important to them, usually  some combination of quality, safety, accessibility, affordability, sufficiently spacious (large enough to accommodate a lifetime of sentimental possessions and other, financially irreplaceable belongings). When an apartment meeting the tenant’s needs was not an option in East Liberty, we looked for sustainable communities with access to family, medical or social service providers, or quality public transportation. The geographical issue in Pittsburgh is more challenging than in other cities due to the prevalence of large numbers of small neighborhoods with dividing lines that are often as physically stark as the income disparity between them.

It was a rare circumstance to find a unit that suited all of these needs, and in order to pursue such housing conditions in earnest, tenants must first have accepted the loss of their current apartment. It is challenging to perform an effective role as a ‘relocation agent’ in those instances, where the tenants may not actually be ready to leave; let alone embrace or simply accept the new landscape they face. So we have to help the already overwhelmed tenant navigate the tough choice between accepting a lesser but obtainable unit now, or holding out for something better, which may mean ending up somewhere even worse if the better unit doesn’t materialize. Indeed, no one person can play the multiple roles necessary to fully help a tenant who may rightfully feel disempowered by the situation they are in, and who cannot enthusiastically pursue that which they don’t feel they should have to do.

The one clear fact was that the tenants who were fortunate enough to apply for the right wait lists early on and used time to their advantage stood the best chance of improving their situation in the long-run. They often ended up in units of much higher quality than their dilapidated units at Penn Plaza.

There is plenty of thinking and learning to do around this experience. For us, we are advocating for establishment of a fully funded relocation office, staffed with housing specialists who can anticipate the varied requirements of particular types of occupancies, who are familiar with public housing systems and services, and who are trauma and mental health informed. This office could be a successful public-private partnership. Having available financial and housing counseling services would help tenants anticipate vulnerable housing circumstances in the future, and reduce the risk of being displaced again. All relocation projects as well as individual displacements should have access to such resources. Too many residents of Penn Plaza were there because the building was a place they could go, not should go – the warning signs were there (in particular, month-to-month leases) but the system wasn’t coordinated enough to see them.

 

Zak Thomas is Senior Program Officer for Affordable Housing and Lending and works with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and Neighborhood Allies. Claire Hortens is a graduate student in Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, who assisted in the relocation of Penn Plaza tenants.

 

at the intersection of poverty, mental and physical health, and weak social or financial networks.

The elderly tenants experienced the most difficulty in confronting all the barriers; and they were also the most likely to carry with them the baggage of prior displacements and, in many instances, social injustice. They also tended to be the tenants who struggled the most to deal with the emotional, psychological and physical realities of moving.

Our goal was to help residents find housing that maximized the factors most important to them, usually  some combination of quality, safety, accessibility, affordability, sufficiently spacious (large enough to accommodate a lifetime of sentimental possessions and other, financially irreplaceable belongings). When an apartment meeting the tenant’s needs was not an option in East Liberty, we looked for sustainable communities with access to family, medical or social service providers, or quality public transportation. The geographical issue in Pittsburgh is more challenging than in other cities due to the prevalence of large numbers of small neighborhoods with dividing lines that are often as physically stark as the income disparity between them.

It was a rare circumstance to find a unit that suited all of these needs, and in order to pursue such housing conditions in earnest, tenants must first have accepted the loss of their current apartment. It is challenging to perform an effective role as a ‘relocation agent’ in those instances, where the tenants may not actually be ready to leave; let alone embrace or simply accept the new landscape they face. So we have to help the already overwhelmed tenant navigate the tough choice between accepting a lesser but obtainable unit now, or holding out for something better, which may mean ending up somewhere even worse if the better unit doesn’t materialize. Indeed, no one person can play the multiple roles necessary to fully help a tenant who may rightfully feel disempowered by the situation they are in, and who cannot enthusiastically pursue that which they don’t feel they should have to do.

The one clear fact was that the tenants who were fortunate enough to apply for the right wait lists early on and used time to their advantage stood the best chance of improving their situation in the long-run. They often ended up in units of much higher quality than their dilapidated units at Penn Plaza.

There is plenty of thinking and learning to do around this experience. For us, we are advocating for establishment of a fully funded relocation office, staffed with housing specialists who can anticipate the varied requirements of particular types of occupancies, who are familiar with public housing systems and services, and who are trauma and mental health informed. This office could be a successful public-private partnership. Having available financial and housing counseling services would help tenants anticipate vulnerable housing circumstances in the future, and reduce the risk of being displaced again. All relocation projects as well as individual displacements should have access to such resources. Too many residents of Penn Plaza were there because the building was a place they could go, not should go – the warning signs were there (in particular, month-to-month leases) but the system wasn’t coordinated enough to see them.

Zak Thomas is Senior Program Officer for Affordable Housing and Lending and works with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and Neighborhood Allies. Claire Hortens is a graduate student in Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, who assisted in the relocation of Penn Plaza tenants.

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