Whole Foods Replaces Displaced Low-Income Tenants in Pittsburgh

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Whole Foods in Shadyside/East Liberty Pittsburgh / Paul Sableman

July 28, 2016; WESA-FM (Pittsburgh National Public Radio)

You know your neighborhood is hot when Whole Foods puts a second store just two blocks from the first. That’s what’s going on in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, where it was revealed that the trendy upscale food (and more) retailer is moving into the site recently vacated by low-income tenants at Penn Plaza. To be fair, the Whole Foods strategy seems to be to build a new facility with double the floor space and more parking then close down the existing store. Still, the plan has reignited controversy among affordable housing advocates.

When developers announced that they were converting the 312-unit apartment building into a commercial development, Whole Foods was not mentioned. Advocates raced to the support of the tenants, and in short order, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto got involved in an effort to win some relocation assistance for them.

With the announcement of the arrival of another Whole Foods, protesters are raising the issue of gentrification and displacement again. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the developers told the reporters at WESA-FM, “I’m not sure why there’s any particular issue in this case because I think we’ve gone above and beyond to meet everybody’s needs.”

In fact, it seems to be true that LG Realty, the former owners of the apartment, did keep their end of the bargain with the city. Tenants have been relocated and the developer has made a substantial contribution to the city’s new Affordable Housing Trust Fund. According to the mayor’s chief of staff, Kevin Acklin, “There must be a balance between economic growth and affordable housing.”

So what’s the beef? Is this just a kneejerk reaction by dead-enders looking for another payday? Maybe, but it’s more likely these community leaders are looking for a bigger prize: Corporate support for a dedicated revenue source for an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. A dedicated revenue source is “advocate-speak” for a new tax to support the fund to the tune of $10M annually. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, “A coalition of groups gathering signatures for a November ballot initiative in support of such a fund has proposed a 1 percent realty transfer tax to fund it.” Business interests generally do not favor special purpose taxes for public benefits, but they might be persuaded to support a stable predictable “hidden” tax on real estate transactions rather than a public and social shakedown every time a new development comes to town.

Now, here’s where the Whole Foods protest becomes part of a strategy, not just an urban outburst. By raising the flag of affordable housing at every opportunity, advocates keep the issue in the public eye. And what brings mainstream and social media attention better than a Whole Foods plopped down in an inner-city neighborhood two blocks from another Whole Foods in a development that displaced low-income tenants? The phrase “rub raw the sores of discontent” comes from a 1972 Playboy interview with Saul Alinsky, but in this case the advocates aren’t just agitating, they are keeping the issue in the public eye, building community support for civic action, and, maybe, softening corporate resistance.

What a coincidence! The August 2nd edition of the Post-Gazette announces that celebrity scholar Matthew Desmond is coming to Pittsburgh this week for a presentation at the University area Carnegie Library:

Mr. Desmond’s visit to Pittsburgh comes at an appropriate time. With high-profile cases of tenants being displaced in rapidly changing neighborhoods, a recent city task force reporting Pittsburgh faces a shortage of 17,000 affordable units, legislation before City Council that would create an affordable housing trust fund and a coalition gathering signatures for a November ballot question on a housing trust fund, housing affordability issues have been in the spotlight in recent months.

Hmm, maybe this is part of a campaign? With tickets for the Desmond presentation going for $20 a seat, you can bet that the former tenants of Penn Plaza are not the target audience. Keep in mind what Arlo Guthrie told us: “Friends, it may be a movement.”—Spencer Wells