Affordable Pittsburgh on the Ballot

Southside Slopes / daveynin

February 16, 2017; WESA-FM (Pittsburgh’s NPR News)

For the moment, efforts to jumpstart Pittsburgh’s quest for affordable housing rest on the shoulders of first-term mayor Bill Peduto. While efforts by the Pittsburgh City Council to create an affordable housing trust fund are stymied by differences over funding streams, the mayor has announced a spate of executive orders designed to keep the affordable housing issue alive.

Like the more famous (or notorious) executive orders of the Obama and Trump administrations, Peduto is sidestepping a gridlocked legislature to install regulations designed to promote housing development and promote inclusive housing options.

The initiatives are described in the WESA report as ranging from “helping individuals stay in their homes” and “promoting larger homestead exemptions” to increasing tenant protections. The orders encourage developers to make affordable options a priority through tax incentives and improved zoning rules.

Far from being groundbreaking, action-oriented new policies, the mayor’s statement sounds like a political platform. As a first-term mayor with two primary challengers already in the field, Peduto is seeking to cement his reputation as a development and equity leader. The mayor knows that you can’t create policy without being elected—or reelected.

Reaction of traditional Peduto supporters is predictably supportive as the mayor embarks on his campaign for re-election. WESA quotes Action Housing’s Lena Andrews as saying, “So now we’re all paying attention, we’re all focusing on policy, and we’re thinking about a city-wide strategy, and the mayor is spearheading that.”

Facing an African American challenger in May’s primary, Mayor Peduto likely found the response from Pittsburgh’s African American newspaper, the Courier, reassuring. The Courier, looking at a wider range of recent executive orders than WESA had, concluded, “Such efforts underscore the recommendations put forth by the Affordable Housing Task Force.” Likewise, there was support from the University community where much of the recent rental redevelopment and code enforcement efforts have been most evident:

Affordable housing has been an ongoing issue in Pittsburgh, especially for the past few months. Several protests have broken out across the city with one most recently taking place in East Liberty on Inauguration Day as an underlying theme during the Intersectional Women’s march. The protesters who attend these events have called for an increase in quality of affordable homes as well as more low-income homes in developments across the city.

It’s likely that the masses of affordable housing advocates who become “regulars” at City Council meetings will soon return to the streets as the weather improves.

Keep in mind that this is Rust Belt Pittsburgh, not progressive Seattle, Portland or San Francisco. Pittsburgh’s FIRED lobby—Financial, Investment, Real Estate and Development—has been less than enthusiastic about Peduto’s policies. Two more recent stories suggest that the mayor may be setting up “straw men” to oppose his policy positions. In a news article from last week, the mayor cast the Trump administration as the real opponent in the primary campaign, despite the fact that the new president doesn’t have a housing policy as far as anyone can tell. Then, the Department of Public Works Division of Forestry hit a controversial Pittsburgh developer with a $42,000 fine for cutting down 10 trees at the proposed site of a Whole Foods Market that was formerly low-income senior housing. The sacrificial trees had no real impact on the proposed gentrification, but in politics, symbolism goes a long way.

In this heavily Democratic town, the primary is most likely more important than the general election. Clearly, the battle is on.—Spencer Wells