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Pittsburgh task force on affordable housing to convene Thursday

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Sarah Jack, left, 79, Jerry Murray, 57, pray after the Penn Plaza Apartments tenant meeting July 18. The affordable housing task force’s first meeting comes about two weeks after Mayor Bill Peduto’s office stepped in on behalf of the residents, who were given eviction notices.

By Robert Zullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A city task force charged with developing a “suite of affordable housing policies” to help prevent people from being priced out of Pittsburgh neighborhoods undergoing rapid development will hold its first meeting Thursday, nearly six months after it was created.

The Affordable Housing Task Force, birthed in February after the passage of legislation introduced by city Councilman Daniel Lavelle, was originally intended to deliver its recommendations before the end of the year, though that timetable may have to be pushed back.

“As much as we want to get this done soon, at the same time we want to do it right,” said city planning director Ray Gastil, one of two co-chairmen of the task force.

Mr. Gastil said the 24-member task force, which includes city and state government officials, state and federal elected officials, and representatives of neighborhood groups, organized labor, private business and nonprofits, will review policies from around the country designed to preserve housing options for people of all income levels.

Mr. Lavelle, the other co-chairman, said the work will include identifying a revenue stream to fund more affordable housing projects, grappling with definitions for “affordable” and “workforce” housing and addressing racial disparities.

“It’s critical because if we’re going to be an inclusive city and a city that allows for all income ranges to live here and prosper, you’re always going to need some affordable housing,” he said. “It’s really a conversation that is very timely, that is very needed.”

Some cities require developers to set aside a certain number of units as affordable or pay a fee, as is currently under consideration in Seattle, where Mr. Gastil worked as planning director for nearly two years. Others provide incentives, such as the gap financing offered to developers of affordable housing in Austin, Texas.

The task force’s first meeting comes about two weeks after Mayor Bill Peduto’s office stepped in on behalf of low-income and disabled residents of the Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty, who were given 90-day eviction notices by Pennley Park South Inc., the corporation that owns the buildings, to make way for a redevelopment project. The landlord agreed to rescind the notices and to a 60-day stay. The mayor’s office is also pushing the company to include affordable housing in plans for the site and to create a fund that would provide financial assistance to help tenants move.

“We’re behind the eight ball already,” said city Councilman Dan Gilman, who was also named to the task force. “The real estate market in the city, particularly in the East End, is in an absolute boom.”

Mr. Gilman said he envisions a local model that matches the vast number of vacant parcels and abandoned buildings in the city’s possession with the demand for affordable housing.

“There are best practices from across the country we need to look at, but not all fit the Pittsburgh model,” he said.

Tim Stevens, CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said the Penn Plaza situation illustrates an “inherent struggle in the quest for progress and how you define progress.”

“Obviously, if you own property, if you want to sell it, you want to get as much money as you can,” he said of spiking real estate values. “A lot of people will never own property. They’ll never have enough income to own property. … We want to see the city develop. But we don’t want to see the demise of those who don’t have the income to buy into these high-level apartments.”

The task force will meet at 1 p.m. on the sixth floor of the City-County Building, 414 Grant St. Though Mr. Gastil said the first meeting won’t be closed to the public, he described it as largely an “organizational” endeavor.

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909. Twitter: @rczullo.

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