Pittsburgh Renters Fight Back: Build Affordable Housing Now!

Published On June 6, 2018 | By Alex Lucena and Alicia Salvadeo | Housing, Socialist Alternative In Action

Pittsburgh’s celebrated recovery from its decades-long postindustrial slump has meant different things for different people. For technology and health care companies, expansion has meant huge new profits and employing more workers into higher-paid jobs. Amazon now has its sights set on the city for its second headquarters. For developers, this presents investment and “flipping” opportunities which have destabilized and displaced communities for luxury real estate. But for most residents of America’s “most livable city,” “progress” has meant skyrocketing rents, property taxes, unemployment as sections of the workforce are squeezed into dwindling low-wage jobs, and dramatically widened economic inequality.

The most egregious example of this aggressive neoliberal makeover came in 2015. LG Realty, owned by the Gumberg dynasty, evicted over five hundred residents in East Liberty’s Penn Plaza Apartments. Two years later, all 312 units were demolished to break ground for upscale redevelopment. Former tenants mostly black, elderly, or low-income were relocated by the city, in many cases to substandard or non-permanent housing, or to units far from their workplaces, health care providers, and communities.

Penn Plaza’s demolition is just one chapter in Pittsburgh’s dark legacy of racial segregation and displacement. In 1961, the Urban Redevelopment Authority leveled 1,300 buildings housing over 8,000 people in the predominantly black Lower Hill District to construct the Civic Arena. Between 2005 and 2009, three East Liberty public housing high-rises built to accommodate those displaced by Hill District redevelopment were demolished. The business corridor, once comprised of small local businesses, is now dominated by Target, expensive restaurants, and luxury apartments marketed to tech professionals. But many newly developed commercial spaces and high-priced apartments also remain unoccupied, an affront to those now struggling to find accessible and affordable housing in the neighborhood.

“Penn Plaza Lives: Build It Back”

Photo by Heather Mull

Refusing to take such attacks sitting down, Penn Plaza’s “refugees” and supporters formed Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition (PPSA) to aid displaced residents and fight for affordable housing to be built back. “Working people need to be in the city, to be near public transportation, and to be able to walk to their jobs,” said ex-resident Randall Taylor. “What happened at Penn Plaza is a stain on this city, and we need to erase that stain.” Within months, PPSA galvanized enough community support to win their first major battle: they convinced the City Planning Commission to reject LG Realty’s redevelopment proposal, on the grounds of insufficient public process. They also pressured Whole Foods to back out of plans to build the neighborhood’s second store on the lot.

But neither a consent agreement, nor city mediation between the developer and closed community development corporations (CDCs), yielded transparency or democracy. In March, with less than a week’s notice, PPSA mobilized over two hundred people during a winter storm to City Planning’s under-publicized “community meeting” about the “market-driven” redevelopment plan. Chanting “No plan about us without us” with signs that read “Penn Plaza Matters,” participants took over the meeting, calling out city leaders for the lack of on-site affordable housing promised at the start of the project. The community also scoffed at LG Realty’s plans to dedicate a portion of its undeserved tax breaks to an affordable housing fund.

Throughout the spring and at a second City Planning meeting in April, PPSA continued to enjoin the city to purchase the site through eminent domain and rebuild affordable housing on-site, which Socialist Alternative echoed while putting forward a demand for rent control. Other residents and advocates called for higher wages and community involvement in development projects. While moderators put forward their best efforts to funnel discussions away from the key issue of housing, an undaunted community pushed back, and all demands were met with overwhelming applause.

By the Planning Commission’s hearing on May 15 (Election Day), PPSA collected over 1,300 letters calling for the Commission to again vote down LG Realty’s plan. In a filibuster attempt, over thirty people testified to the economic and social harms of the project and the dangerous precedent it set. Nevertheless, the Commission voted 4-2 to in favor of the redevelopment project, despite acknowledging they did not have enough data to determine whether the project would benefit neighborhood residents.

Despite this setback, the Penn Plaza struggle has made significant advances. The scale and dedication of resistance efforts moved the Planning Commission to issue a “resolution of concern.” This tasks City Planning with developing a robust public process policy; it also calls for comprehensive neighborhood studies and an index for evaluating projects’ social, economic, and environmental impact. Furthermore, significant groundwork has been laid for a city-wide affordable housing movement. PPSA and other housing advocates have magnified the example of Penn Plaza to underscore systemic problems around affordability, gentrification, and political accountability in Pittsburgh.

The lack of transparency and public involvement in redevelopment projects are mirrored by the secrecy maintained around the city’s Amazon HQ2 proposal. Some view it as no coincidence that Whole Foods, now owned by Amazon, has reopened negotiations with LG Realty. Concerned Pittsburghers and independent media have called for a public debate about the HQ2 deal, evoking Pittsburgh’s long tradition of corporate handouts. Upon his election, “progressive” Democrat Mayor Bill Peduto dropped a city lawsuit against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) that aimed to strip the anti-union healthcare giant of its tax-exempt status. Today, he continues to “roll out the red carpet” and champion the rights of big businesses and developers behind closed doors. The Democratic city establishment’s attempts to conceal its corporate-allied agenda indicates its recognition of dwindling support for policies that deliver prosperity to a few, while it remains unwilling to tax the rich to pay for infrastructure upgrades, education, and housing. Penn Plaza residents’ experiences have led many to feel betrayed by elected officials they bet their later years on. As 77-year-old ex-resident Myrtle Stern had posed: “If our mayor is so favorable to providing for his people, we do not have to move out of the city.”

Affordable Housing Now!

Pittsburgh’s affordable housing shortage of 17,000 units is no isolated phenomenon, but a nationwide crisis. Seattle and Minneapolis have built movements against developers and slumlords out of victories for a $15 an hour minimum wage. Seattle recently passed a tax on Amazon and other big businesses to fund housing and alleviate homelessness. Victories have been won despite opposition from corporate giants like Amazon, as well as city and state Democrats well versed in progressive doublespeak. Pittsburgh must build a strong movement led by community and activist organizations like PPSA, unionized labor, and not yet organized workers to win truly affordable housing. Bold policies like rent control, as well as tenant protections like “Just Cause” evictions, would be a huge step forward. Socialists agree that housing should be a human right; to take steps toward that, we must also vastly expand public funding for housing and infrastructure projects by taxing the area’s wealthiest employers and individuals, and hold our city leaders accountable to the needs of our communities.

Socialist Alternative continues to fight alongside Penn Plaza residents and all who stand for the right of working people to continue to live in the vibrant, growing city that we’ve created together. We call for the following:

  • Build back Penn Plaza!
    The City of Pittsburgh should purchase the site from LG Realty through the power of eminent domain, and replace all the affordable units lost to demolition, with priority occupation given to displaced residents.
  • Tax big business and private developers! Fund affordable housing!
    Local officials have relinquished massive amounts of public wealth to big businesses and private developers like UPMC, Uber, Walnut Capital — and now, potentially Amazon. To do business in Pittsburgh, the rich must pay increased taxes to fund affordable housing, and guarantee living wages and union rights for their employees. The tax revenue should be used to build thousands of housing units made affordable to low-wage workers, Section 8 recipients, and fixed-income people!
  • Housing is a human right!
    Housing is a human right! Working people need a socialist alternative to the for-profit housing market. Pass rent control to stop skyrocketing rents. Build a public option: thousands of high-quality, city-owned homes, rented at below-market rates, and democratically controlled by the community.

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