Community organizers welcomed the public to Eastminster Presbyterian Church on April 16th with live music and a chorus of “housing for all, housing for all.” The upbeat music made the phrase sound like a promise of what was inside. It was a glimpse of the future community organizers are calling for, where vulnerable residents don’t have to worry about getting displaced yet again.
But inside, community members faced yet another breakdown of the public process in their fight for affordable housing. They were at the second of two public meetings on LG Realty’s plans to develop a site in East Liberty that used to contain 312 units of affordable housing.
Representatives from LG Realty were supposed to respond to questions about the plan that were raised at the first public meeting, and field any further questions from the community.
For the first hour or so, that’s what happened. But then, the meeting lost track of LG Realty’s plan. It instead evolved into a discussion about the general issue of affordable housing in Pittsburgh.
Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, moderated the meeting. But instead of bringing focus back to the plan, Swartz kept asking its opponents how they were helping build affordable housing in East Liberty.
“The truth is, the displacement is going to continue to happen in the East End if good people stand by and do nothing,” he said at one point.
East Liberty has been a rallying point for discussions around gentrification and displacement since 2015, when hundreds of low-income Penn Plaza tenants received 90-day eviction notices. Residents and community organizers banded together to get one- to two-year extensions on these notices. The final residents moved out in March 2017. The affordable apartments were demolished a few months later.
Through it all, people have come together to fight for the rights of displaced tenants. They have had many small victories, such as the temporary stays on eviction notices at Penn Plaza. But they still haven’t reached their ultimate goal: Building Penn Plaza back as permanent affordable housing.
Demolition of trust
After repeated suppression, community members have lost faith in community development organizations, the City of Pittsburgh, the democratic process, and — most of all — LG Realty. This lack of trust was on full display at the public meeting.
Take for example Eddie Norris, a former Penn Plaza resident who has struggled to find a home. He’s on a fixed supplemental security income due to health issues. The lack of affordable rental housing in East Liberty — especially since the fall of Penn Plaza — has made it difficult for him to find somewhere to live.
“All I want to do is have a roof over my head, a roof over [my daughter’s] head, just be able to put food on the table. Something I can afford,” he said. “I’m not trying to do nothing crazy. I’ve been calling everybody, and I just keep getting pushed back.”
Norris wasn’t the only speaker who became disillusioned after being displaced. “[The developers] don’t even care if we live. They don’t care about poor people,” said another attendee. “I’ve been displaced two or three times. The thing is, the decision has been made. These are millionaires. They don’t give a damn. This is a decision they made long before Penn Plaza was torn down.”
In addition to displacement, Penn Plaza tenants and supporters feel they have been left out of conversations that affect them. In 2017, months of closed-door litigation led to a consent agreement between the City of Pittsburgh, LG Realty, and four intervenors. This agreement settled multiple lawsuits surrounding LG’s development plans.
Penn Plaza supporters say they couldn’t take part in this litigation, because they weren’t an intervening group. However, The Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation was one of the intervenors. So people wanted to know why Swartz, BGC’s executive director, didn’t invite residents to the table.
“We had no idea we could try to intervene,” said Mel Packer, a member of Penn Plaza Support and Action. “I’m just curious as to why none of these four community groups thought ‘wait a minute, there’s a group missing here.’ Because [Penn Plaza Tenants] certainly should have been involved.”
Swartz admitted that he failed to invite Penn Plaza tenants, but attributed this to mixed messages from some tenants. “There were some people on the tenants council who were in favor with the rezoning,” he said.
However, according to PPSA, that tenant’s council did not accurately represent the interests of Penn Plaza residents.
“This council negotiated eviction terms with the Gumbergs and then dissolved,” PPSA wrote in a list of talking points distributed at the meeting. “How can a defunct council give input about tenants’ interests? The only organization that has represented Penn Plaza tenants since 2016 is Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition.”
“This is embarrassing.”
Multiple people noted that this fight boils down to one family (the Gumbergs, who own LG Realty) getting its way over 200 families (the residents who were evicted from Penn Plaza). Much of that has to do with the fact that, as Swartz noted, “ownership is nine-tenths of the law.” But that hasn’t stopped the community from continuing to fight for affordable housing at the site. And because of this fight, Penn Plaza has become a symbol for gentrification even outside of Pittsburgh.
“This is embarrassing,” said Celeste Scott, an affordable housing organizer for Pittsburgh United. She had gone to the Equity Summit in Chicago the previous week, and said people there were talking about Penn Plaza.
“People know about Penn Plaza,” she said. “People know that in a 20,000 affordable housing deficit crisis, this city is considering all commercial, all real estate, parking, and no housing.”
For its part, LG Realty has promised to put money from this development into an affordable housing fund. The Penn Plaza site is in a Transit Revitalization Investment District, which means LG receives tax breaks for developing it. As part of the 2017 consent agreement, the company agreed to commit about $2-5 million — just under half of these tax breaks — to an East End Housing Regeneration Account. This money will, in turn, go toward building affordable housing within one mile of the Penn Plaza site.
While LG is the first developer in the city to make such a promise, community members say it doesn’t do enough to help those who were displaced. (Read more about their issues with this agreement in this story on Medium.)
Packer says previous efforts by developers to help displaced residents after the fact haven’t worked. “It’s pretty commonly agreed that the urban renewal projects for displaced residents — mostly black, from the Lower Hill and East Liberty — those were total failures,” he said. “But the Peduto administration continues to give cover to wealthy developers who tear at the heart, the roots and the soul of our communities.”
“Is it really worth it over this one family?” asked Randall Taylor, another PPSA member and former Penn Plaza resident. “New enemies are being made, reputations are being destroyed, all over this. Is this really worth having our city’s reputation destroyed, and having city planning look ridiculous?”
A plan to build back trust
Swartz said that his goal for the meeting was to figure out “how [to] restore the public trust in the process of community change.” Unfortunately, letting a public meeting lose its focus isn’t going to help that. But Swartz’s goal is still important.
Right now, community members are angry about being displaced and seeing their concerns ignored. But behind all that anger, they have solutions.
“These people know what they need. These people have always known what they need,” said Scott. “They’re being pushed out, and I think there needs to be room for people to control the narrative here. They’re tired of being excluded from the table. It’s time to shake the table.”
That’s what happened in Pittsburgh’s North Side, where low-income tenants formed a community development organization called the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing.
“We as tenants, just regular old 20% AMI, we were able to buy our property,” said Ronell Guy, a founding member of NCFH. “Just because you’re low income don’t mean you got no intelligence. The tenants, we can learn to develop this housing ourselves. We don’t need people pricing us out of our neighborhood.”
Right now, PPSA is focused on replacing the affordable housing that East Liberty lost when LG Realty razed Penn Plaza. But it is also continuing the conversation about affordable housing and gentrification in East Liberty and throughout Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s City Planning Commission scheduled its public hearing on LG Realty’s plan for May 15, despite complaints about that being election day. Director of City Planning Ray Gastil said on April 16th he would try to reschedule the hearing, but the commission has not responded to my attempts to confirm the date.
According to the Planning Commission’s website, the hearing is still scheduled for 2 p.m. May 15 at 200 Ross Street. The Commission will vote whether to accept or reject LG Realty’s development plan after hearing public testimony.
Additionally, PPSA is holding a letter-writing campaign asking the Planning Commission to vote “no” on the plan. More information can be found at pennplaza.org.