Issue #138, November/December 2004
The Housing That Community Built
By Patricia Murphy
In 1993 President Bill Clinton visited Pittsburgh to promote the new HOPE VI program to residents of the Hill District. The program was developed to reform severely distressed public housing through physical and management improvements, and by providing social and community services to address resident needs. Fittingly, Clinton spoke outside of the Civic Arena (now Mellon Arena), which was itself the result of earlier urban renewal efforts in the city. To many Hill District residents, urban renewal meant the encroachment of downtown Pittsburgh into their beloved, vibrant neighborhood, the demolition of homes and the displacement of long-time neighbors. The sting of the city’s 1960s and 1970s urban renewal was still fresh in the minds of many of those in attendance. They remembered when the Hill was a center for black culture and entertainment. But after the urban renewal efforts of the 1960s, many middle-class families had fled, nearly 5,000 residents had been displaced and thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses had been demolished or relocated.
Today, the Hill District is still a vibrant, strong community with a thriving cultural and commercial center. Hill residents take pride in the community and regard it with a sense of ownership. The area’s community-based groups and its CDC are positively engaged with city officials, and strongly encourage residents to speak out about their concerns.
Following Clinton’s speech, one of the local community groups, the Hill District Community Collaborative, encouraged residents to write letters to the president expressing their feelings and misgivings about the HOPE VI program and its possible negative effects on their community. Terri Baltimore, who was the director of the Collaborative, recalls feeling that, “even if the letters had little or no impact, families and residents needed to become advocates for themselves.” Since 1992, the Collaborative has been involved in “fostering a healthy community by advocating and planning for policies and services that strengthen families.” According to Baltimore, “in supporting Hill families, the Collaborative was looking for places where their voices needed to be heard.” HOPE VI proved to be such a place.
The unanimous feeling was that HOPE VI redevelopment was inevitable. And if it was going to happen, those who lived in the area wanted to have a say in what happened, when it happened and how it happened. Elbert Hatley, who was then executive director of the Hill Community Development Corporation, remembers feeling that, “the new HOPE VI was coming and the Hill was targeted.” In the early 1990s, the Hill CDC spearheaded an effort to form the Hill’s first community-initiated redevelopment strategy. The goal was to have active citizen participation in futurre redevelopment from conceptualizing to planning and implementing.
Mike Eannarino, a senior development and planning specialist with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh (HACP), had already targeted a “severely distressed area” in the Hill District as eligible for HOPE VI redevelopment: the 480-unit Bedford Dwellings Additions complex. Bedford Dwellings Additions was built in 1954 to complement the original 420-unit Bedford Dwellings that had opened 14 years earlier. These 900 units were part of the 3,625 public housing units in the Hill District the most in any Pittsburgh neighborhood. The Hill District and Bedford Dwellings Additions were chosen for redevelopment for several reasons. One, the Hill District had a long, rich history, and new mixed-income housing would boost the community economy. Two, the Hill was in close proximity to downtown and Oakland (the home of many colleges and universities). And three, the Additions had never undergone modernization or rehabilitation. In 1995, Eannarino approached the president of the Bedford Dwellings Resident Council, Ruth Pitrell, with the idea of submitting an application for a planning grant to study redevelopment options for the Additions. Eannarino and Pitrell agreed that any planning and redevelopment must have the approval of the council, which represented the residents of Bedford Dwellings Additions, as well as the approval of the greater Hill community.
Principles for Community Planning
As the HOPE VI planning process began in earnest, Bedford Additions residents were unsure of what the process entailed. HACP took residents, sometimes as many as 40, to tour other HOPE VI projects and to meet housing authority and resident council representatives who had already experienced redevelopment in their cities and communities. They even attended planning meetings in Atlanta, Seattle and Norfolk, VA. What they learned was that successful planning took serious community participation and strong working relationships with city officials. The Hill District and Bedford Dwellings Additions residents were more fortunate than other communities in that the HACP executive director, Stanley Lowe, and Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy were completely committed to a successful HOPE VI redevelopment. Both championed the idea of active resident participation and were actively engaged within the community. (Lowe and Murphy had previously been community organizers. Lowe founded Manchester Citizens’ Corporation and the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, and Murphy had organized two CDCs.)
Bedford Dwellings Additions residents were also unsure about the overall vision for this redevelopment, or about its implications. They were worried about whether the planning committee would consider their needs and factor in how the redevelopment would affect their lives. Would the redevelopment only include new and better housing? Or would community services be offered, and would youth activities and job opportunities be available during and after redevelopment? Members of the Consensus Group and the Hill District Collaborative suggested that the Additions Resident Council be responsible for creating the vision because its members were active in the Hill community and had a certain degree of influence. Members of the council were already engaged in the community planning process and had tenure on the Hill CDC board, and some held professional positions in the city and community.
Many Additions residents were concerned that family and friends would be uprooted from their homes and neighbors and become scattered around the city. They were witnessing it with other HOPE VI projects already happening in Pittsburgh, like at the Hill District’s Aliquippa Terrace (now Oak Hill) and McKees Rocks Terrace in Pittsburgh’s West End. It was a tough challenge getting some residents to believe that there was a place for them in the planning process, and that they had a say in determining how the redevelopment would benefit their families. Many of the residents felt that “it was water over the dam, HOPE VI was coming and what could we do now.” Eugenia Boggus, former executive director of a Pittsburgh Head Start program recalls, “the group had a vision and tried to keep the process rolling even when only a few believed there would be any good. Outside people were coming into the Hill saying things are going to change for the better, but not in the residents’ eyes. Having heard such stories before, there was well-founded fear and mistrust.” To counter these concerns, the group encouraged greater community involvement. The only way to combat the negativity and the misgivings was to keep the community informed of progress and to have them participate in decision making. They posted meeting notices and went door-to-door inviting people to attend. Initially, meetings were small, but, over time, more residents began attending.
The Revitalization Plan
Additions residents were concerned that they would be displaced during the course of redevelopment. Most wanted to continue living in close proximity to their current homes. The Hill District’s resident and business owners were worried that their properties would be obtained by eminent domain to make way for the new project. The Hill CDC held public forums for residents to voice their concerns and offer solutions to displacement and alternatives to eminent domain. Andrea Wright-Banks, current Hill CDC executive director, says that it was the CDC’s role to “support the community need for choice, not eminent domain, and to support those who chose to leave and help them make the transition” outside of the community. Hill residents wanted to find a way for Additions residents to stay in place while new units were being constructed. The Resident Council relentlessly made their voices heard at forums, public hearings and community meetings and, with the support of the housing authority, it was decided that Additions residents would remain in their homes while the new units were being built. In choosing who would be able to move to the new units, the Resident Council decided on seniority as a criterion those who had lived there the longest were first on the list.
Bedford HOPE VI
The first phase also included the construction of a new community center. Bedford Hope Center, which was completed before the housing units, generated a great deal of interest among Additions residents because it was to be the place where they could receive family support, job development and placement services, and children could participate in after-school programs.
The first residents of the 74 public housing units named Bedford Hill moved in October 2003. The Additions Resident Council, as a project partner, ensures quality supportive services are provided, resolves post-construction issues and helps residents adjust to a new environment. The council is also involved in the design and construction of phases two and three. And, although Bedford Hill is a few blocks away from the old Additions, residents remain connected with their former neighbors through the council and the activities and services at the community center.
The Hill CDC is organizing a Homeowners Association of HOPE VI residents and nearby homeowners. In order to support a successful future move to homeownership among Additions residents, the CDC provides technical assistance to the Resident Council on housing and homeownership. DaNita Solomon, a development specialist for the CDC, says she is concerned that, because the HOPE VI redevelopment is close to downtown and the universities, the neighborhood may be subject to gentrification. Vigilant monitoring, community outreach and education continue to be a part of the ongoing redevelopment strategy.
Boggus, chair of the relocation sub-committee, says “people’s surprise over what the Bedford Additions Resident Council and its members have accomplished may come from their wrong belief that residents of public housing have little little money, little skills, little usefulness. Many people with a good income choose to live in public housing among long-time family and friends. It is a real community. Many public housing residents have professional jobs in nursing, construction, social services jobs that take skills and education. We are like residents of any community, any neighborhood. We have hopes and dreams and want the best for our children. We deserve respect like all other people want and get. And we have a right to be heard.”
Bedford Dwellings Additions