Tag Archives: Hill District Community

Hey, Affordable Housing in the Hill District is About You Too

The brownstone across from my sister’s house.

I was just at my sister’s and brother-in-law’s apartment in Brooklyn, NY and so was in one of the most talked about places in the country when it comes to gentrification, so I will try to avoid the clichés and focus on a piece that I think connects well to the Hill District and a larger issue re: owner choice when it comes to prices. She has lived in Brooklyn for 11 years and Bed Stuy for the past 8. Nina is a renter and has been blessed to live in an apartment that has not had its rent increased since she moved in. After seeing the housing prices of this neighborhood, I attribute this lack of an increase to the personal values of the owner. The issue of owner values is important because it contradicts the always repeated mantra of “the market” as this is  a giant from the hills that we have no control over (Mos Def’s “Fear Not of Man”  uses this analogy to talk about people asking about the direction of Hip Hop) . The market as price raising giant. A giant wholly separate of the values of the people who actually own the thing. C’mon. Stop that.

So, at some point we went outside to walk with my nephew and Nina points to a house across the street and notes that what looks like a pretty basic brownstone says “I hear that place is going for $1.6 million.” As luck would have it,  the house happens to have an open house going on at that time and so we go in to check it out. The realtor makes a point to say the this three- plex over a two bedroom apartments will be sold “as is”. When we go inside to see the place, we see what he means. Stained carpet, old stove, rickety stairs, just generally kind of funky. Nina is looking around and is noting that there is no way this place costs $1.6 million.

My sister asks the gentleman how much the house is going for and he says not $1.6 million.. but $1.69 million! Wow. So, if you are not familiar with what a three-plex over a two bedroom apartment means, it means three floors of a house above a 2 br apt. I am no real estate expert, and we don’t have any traditional AA neighborhoods that are at this stage of gentrification, so comparisons are difficult, but I am thinking this house is more expensive than what we’d find in Pgh, by a factor of 5. However, what’s more telling is that the #’s were staggering to my sister who, as I said earlier, has been in this neighborhood for almost a decade.

As we were leaving we noted to the realtor that it was a hefty price tag. He commented off handedly that the reason he could have an asking price this high was because there was no space left in Manhattan. This immediately struck me and made me think of the Hill. Around 2:30 pm a ride to my sister’s from Midtown Manhattan was about a 25 minute cab ride. Take into account NYC non-rush hour traffic and we’ll call it a 15 min ride in Pittsburgh. Now keep in mind that Mayor Peduto is said to want 10,000 to 20,000 new residents in Pittsburgh over the next decade (Thanks to Majestic Lane, formerly of Senator Ferlo’s office and now of A+ schools for this info). So, if housing in the Lower Hill District will average about $300,000, what will happen to housing in the Hill District once that housing fills up? Obviously, its likely that housing prices will go up dramatically, though not automatically, since there really is not a price raising giant (there really isn’t). It’s obvious because you can drive across the Hill and back 2x in that same 15 min drive that is needed to get toinside the house top floor “The Stuy” from Midtown, so of course we will be impacted by housing in the Lower Hill. What I haven’t really thought much about is what the Lower Hill housing prices might  mean to neighborhoods like Manchester and Lawrenceville.  If Manhattan, NY’s center city,  is driving Brooklyn housing prices, isn’t that akin to the Lower Hill and its surrounding neighborhoods?  And it’s not just housing prices. My sister has noted food and daycare prices escalating as well, because owners i.e. are sensing there is money left on the table and making choices to raise prices. The issue of affordable housing is usually framed as an issue where we in the professional and “caretaking” classes talk about the impacts on poor people, but Nina and her husband are professional class folks with multiple degrees between them and the giant is impacting them as well.photo 2-2

Thus, affordable housing in the Lower Hill District is about all of us in Pittsburgh and this remaining a more affordable city than many.  Of course we know that the Penguins development is built on land given them by the city for free when they threatened to go to Kansas City and that that land was acquired by the city when it used eminent domain to take the property from its largely African American population. So, the issue of the Lower Hill is also about the increasing ways the public sector is used to enrich those who are very wealthy already,  in this case, Mr. Ron Burkle, Mario Lemieux and the Penguins. Seriously, how do they talk so stridently about the market and how it can’t tolerate 30% affordable housing on this piece of land they did not buy. If a housing owner can decide to maintain an affordable rent for a young family in Bed Stuy as personal policy, why can’t major corporate owners have a value for affordable housing as a citywide policy that impacts thousands of people? Everyday we hear allusions and direct references to the values and of poor people, whether in the need for certain kinds of mentoring programs so kids can learn values “not in Mario_Lemieux the businessmantheir homes” or in the “ratchet” videos on Facebook.  However, I don’t think we spend 1/2 that amount of time thinking about the values of the very wealthy and the choices they make that impact us far greater than the young men who are sagging.  I’ve heard Pgh Black folks get on Pgh Black athletes for their lack of commitment to the Pittsburgh Black community, but what of Mario Lemieux? Honestly, what Pittsburgh athlete has received  more benefits from  Pittsburgh’s Black community? Who is the proverbial “giant” in this story? Don’t get mad. It’s a fair question.

Mr. Laing Goes to Washington

Norman's HouseLast week on the sad occasion of the passing of my father, Clarence Laing (love you, Dad), I went back home to the metropolitan DC area. Because of my father’s illness, I have traveled back and forth between Pittsburgh and D.C. over the last month and a half and have felt a sense of foreboding in looking at DC and thinking about the Hill District. Washington is changing. Quickly. Buildings, posh restaurants and Dunkin Donuts are sprouting up everywhere and I see “White” people in places I never saw them before. Even places like where I stayed last weekend, Anacostia/Fairlawn, S.E. Washington D.C. (there is some debate as to whether Fairlawn is in Anacostia or is a separate neighborhood) Together, these characteristics serve as the sign of the feared and/or desired “G- word” (gentrification)

Growing up in Silver Spring, MD, if DC was “Chocolate City” then Southeast D.C. was “Dark Chocolate City” and, like the Hill District, the stories that were often told about it, usually by outsiders to outsiders, were of one form of deprivation or another. When Black boys met and played the “where you from?” card game, saying “Southeast.” was an Ace and saying “Silver Spring” was like a 4, or something. But, also like the Hill, Southeast D.C., one-time home of Frederick Douglass, has brought forth some powerful history and gotten stigmatized by the nightly news, more so than its daily life. So, last weekend, I was kind of bugging off the fact that my wife had booked a weekend stay in Southeast, D.C. (apparently I had been told in advance, but hadn’t listened).  A weekend stay across the Anacostia River? To my mind, just imagining that this part of D.C. could be a place for tourists to want to stay was a bit of a shocker, but I wasn’t hip to a trend that apparently is pretty strong and that is airbnb.com. The online comments show folks from all over the world. I had an interesting texting conversation with the owner of this house, Norman, and he expressed 1) Anacostia has gotten a bad rap for too long; 2) There are some interesting demographic changes; 3) Racial diversity is not necessarily a bad thing for the hood. We really enjoyed our stay and if my mother’s house get’s tight again, we will definitely go back. I just talked with a fraternity brother of mine and he has a friend stay with him for short periods of time while she rents out her upper East Side New York house for periods up to as long as a month. I checked to see if there are Hill District houses on this website and even found one in the Sugar Top section. Apparently this is going on in cities all over the country and with the economy and hotel costs what they are, this will only grow. I was saying to my wife we may want to put the house we now rent out on annual basis on airbnb at some point in the future. What impact might this have on a street? On notions of neighborhood and community?

What does all this mean for the Hill District and my sense of foreboding? Pittsburgh is no D.C. and thus the Hill District is no Anacostia. So, we are not talking an apples to apples comparison. However, I will say that soon after we crossed the bridge into Anacostia there were signs for ONE BEDROOM HOUSING-COMING SOON that put me in the mind of the Hill (see my earlier post on The Residencies at New Granada  Square). But, what is my role in gentrification as a Black person in the professional class who has bought two homes that were built by non-profit community development corps as part of a redevelopment strategy?  Not long after we purchased our home on Dinwiddie St. there was an article in the New York Times, arranged at least in part by the Hill District Community Development Corporation, titled “Revival for a Black Enclave in Pittsburgh” that discussed our family and quoted me in the context of what was then a new phenomenon of “Black gentrifiers”. Interestingly, my wife, born and raised in Hill District public housing, didn’t fit this frame and was not included in the story. Towards the end of the article this trend of Black gentrification was juxtaposed with a quote from a young, unnamed Black man saying “Ain’t none of this got nothing to do with me”. I wonder if this young man had his own sense of foreboding.