Last week I was talking with one of my original mentors in the world of non-profits, Sabira Bushra, and she started telling me about how she is moving to another place within her housing cooperative, Belmar Gardens. I wasn’t at all familiar with the idea of a housing cooperative and so Sabira started explaining it to me. This history deserves more attention in Pittsburgh as a story of African American self determination and in the Hill District as an example of how we might fullfill two goals of the Greater Hill District Master Plan. The first goal would be “Build Upon The African American Legacy” and the second goal would be “Family Friendly Housing Without Displacement”. Please click here for a link to “Strategies to Prevent Displacement of Residents and Businesses in the Hil District-working paper” written by attorney Bob Damewood and my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing.
In talking to Sabira, I learned Belmar Gardens was started in the 1950’s as one of the only ways that working class African Americans could own their own home. As I understand the history, a group of African Americans formed a for-profit corporation to purchase a 118 homes in Belmar. This was the first African American Housing Cooperative in Pittsburgh and, according to Wikimapia.org, this was the first housing cooperative anywhere to receive a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage. We should pause here to note that even into the 1950’s, FHA underwriting manuals expressly forbade the granting of mortages unless they were to white people purchasing homes in racially homogenous neighborhoods because the FHA believed that Black homeowners brought down White owners’ home values and in doing so endangered the loan. What has come to be known as “redlining” obviously meant loans were not going to African Americans, so I would think the story behind the initial securing of this mortgage is quite powerful. Fast forward to today and 50 years later the cooperative continues. The structure works in such a way that people own a share in the company and the share represents their ownership of a home. Once a person has purchased a share they pay a monthly fee that is lower then a typical mortgage payment and this fee is then used to pay current expenses like the water bill as well as major capital expenses. For example, this year Belmar Gardens will be installing new kitchens in the homes that are in need of them.
Not sure what would prevent this approach from being implemented in the Hill District, but it sounds compelling and a strategy worthy of being on the table. Maybe this approach could be tried in Addison Terrace? Belmar Gardens is particularly intriguing as an approach to the Master Plan goals noted above when I reflect on the questions I have raised earlier on the Residencies at New Granada Square, particularly the way the family average median income standard will be applied to residences that are largely for single dwellers. Thanks very much to Sabira Bushra for taking the time to answer my questions and explain this history and an extra big shout out to all who have maintained the institution of Belmar Gardens over more than half a century.