PUBLIC MEETING AT EASTMINSTER PRESBYTERIAN, MARCH 21, 2018. PHOTO BY PENN PLAZA SUPPORT AND ACTION.
By Daniel Sun
Bad housing policy, like many problems, is one that shouldn’t exist. We have all the tools and resources to solve the problem, but developers and government enjoy profiting off of other’s basic needs too much to do what’s right. Housing cannot become a human right while it exists in a supply and demand-based world. Over time, we have created a series of contradictions that we’ve become used to living under without ever giving our consent. We have a surplus of roofs but a shortage of homes. We have “house-less” people and empty buildings. We sell public lands owned by the collective to private entities owned by only a few. We throw tax money at developers to chase large investments and refuse to give “handouts” to renters. We have abandoned housing as a human right and instead treat housing as an asset, a mechanism for retirement, a tool to “flip” for more money, a shield against police harassment, and a device to segregate people.
When I work on housing problems in Pittsburgh, I feel all of these contradictions. I witness these problems daily and they are very difficult to unsee once you witness them. They evolve over time at a glacial pace but those caught on the wrong side are crushed by the system. LG Realty decided four years ago that a Whole Foods would make them more money than the Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty. Since then, the victims of LG Realty’s greed, the Penn Plaza refugees, have suffered ailments, second or third displacements, food insecurities, and death. As more and more victims of gentrification are swept up by the tidal wave fueled by capitalism and racism, I offer a reset button. A second chance for renters. A vision.
At S. Beatty St. in East Liberty, there is a parking lot located behind the Ace Hotel owned by the City of Pittsburgh. This parking lot was supposed to be a new home for displaced Penn Plaza residents, as promised by Councilman Burgess and Mayor Peduto. When the news broke, we believed something incredible could happen because this parking lot is publicly owned.
We envisioned a process that looked something like this:
• Create a team to locate displaced Penn Plaza residents. Invite them to community meetings to ask whether they would like to move back to East Liberty and what housing support they need. Have the folks who want to return self-select someone to represent them at stakeholder meetings.
• Solicit the opinions of housing activists on ways housing can be more affordable in Pittsburgh. Find ways to leverage existing tax credits to make rent as low as possible.
• Build a cooperative, where the tenants can collectively buy the building at the end of 30 years. Offer displaced Penn Plaza residents first dibs on living there. Plan and construct the building to last 100 years.
• Incorporate pre-gentrified East Liberty culture on the inside and outside of the building.
• Host multiple community meetings on the subject, focusing on the concept, the planning, and the execution. Invite everyday people to these meetings. Make the process as democratic as possible. Involve people before the request-for-proposal is released.
• End the practice of selling public lands to private developers. We should have as many owners as possible.
I can tell you that none of these things happened. The Urban Redevelopment Authority decided to sell the parking lot to private developers without seeking community input and decided to award the parking lot to Walnut Capital, a developer with one of the worst reputations in the city of Pittsburgh.
This outcome does not surprise me. The city historically and at present continues to be an uninspired institution, doing the collective bidding of developers. However, the people are filled with brilliant ideas, passion, resilience, inspiration, and motivation. I write this in part because I want more people to understand the crisis but also because I want to share the ideas that Penn Plaza Support and Action and I have come up with to move us into a new generation of housing. I ask the reader to push for a new vision in their own life and in the city of Pittsburgh. Seek out those contradictions and work to resolve them. There are a bunch of ways to break the mold. You can co-own a home. You can join a cooperative or community land trust. If you’re a landlord, you can give your renters the option to buy the home.
Lastly, keep the city accountable. It is unacceptable that Councilman Burgess can still win an election in 2019.
Daniel Sun is a board member of the TMC and an organizer with Penn Plaza Support and Action.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 40 No. 10. December/January, 2019/2020. All rights reserved.