Day 2 — Pittsburgh Tour: Nimble Advocacy in a Changing Pittsburgh

The learning tour was grounded in building and investing in community power, multiracial movements, and multi-issue organizing at the local level and regional level. Presenters highlighted the intersections between anti-displacement work, economic development, housing rights, worker rights, environmental justice, electoral strategies, ending the school to prison pipeline, education justice, and immigration justice approaches within the Trump Administration era. The tour bus travelled through Pittsburgh's Hill District, East Liberty, Penn Plaza, Homewood, Beechview, and the new Almono development site.

Watch the video of the learning tour here.

"We have to find the intersections in our campaigns and in our struggles—to building community power not for one thing but for building our community for an equitable region and our state."

— Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, Managing Director of Pittsburgh United

Lois Campbell, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), supports bringing the faith voice to the coalition, a coalition of 50 congregations, mosque, and other faith institutions.  She mentioned that:

“I realized too much of our work was focused on the consequences of race and poverty.  While we focused on the consequences of race and poverty, the needle was moving in the other direction.  Two and half years ago (PIIN) decided to purely focus on the structures, knowing that this was a long-term process and knowing that it implied that we had to do some internal work to look at our racism and our own bias and our privilege.  It made us realize that you can’t go after the structures of racism and equity as any one organization.  It requires all of us.  It’s going take all every bit of our energy labor, faith, community and environment, and anyone else of like mind and like value.  We will demonstrate the intersections to go after the big things and not the things that move the chairs around.”  

Affordable Housing in Pittsburgh: Wins & Challenges

On the tour, we passed through the commercial core of East Liberty. Historically, the commercial core of East Liberty was diverse and flourishing as a mecca of black culture, but the neighborhood's residents have been displaced and the culture erased under the guise of making it safer for the community. The neighborhood has recently become a beacon of Pittsburgh’s post-industrial reinvention, but some argue it comes at the expense of its traditionally lower-income and black residents.

Celeste ScottPittsburgh United's Affordable Housing Organizer, highlighted how public housing had been trampled on over the years in favor of higher-end housing developments. In response to these challenges, Pittsburgh United formed the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Taskforce, which brought together bankers, non-profit developers, and community groups. The city commissioned a needs assessment of city housing stock that lifted up key questions, including, “Who is Pittsburgh affordable for, and who can afford to live here?" 

Celeste said that rents have been rising faster than renters' incomes. New developments are outside of most Pittsburgh residents’ price range, and the city has fewer income-restricted apartments than people who need them. Over the last 20 years, the average rent has increased over 150% per month.

As we went through the neighborhood of East Liberty, Celeste told the story of the former residents of the Penn Plaza apartment complex. For nearly 50 years, the 312-unit complex offered below-market rents—a provision legally enshrined in the ownership of the property since the city completed construction using federal funds. But in 2015, the real estate company that owned the apartment complex issued mass eviction notices to Penn Plaza's 500 residents, demanding them to leave within 90 days in order to facilitate the development of a higher-end residential complex and a Whole Foods. In response, the residents formed a tenant union to advocate for a city policy that requires developers to provide a 12-month notice and relocation funds for residents affected by mass evictions in the future.

In 2016, Pittsburgh United and its allies moved the Pittsburgh City Council to create the Housing Opportunity Fund, an affordable housing trust fund with the goal of raising $10 million annually for the construction and rehabilitation of low-income housing, plus assistance paying rent. While the fund was a victory for the city's affordable housing advocates, it’s currently unknown where funding will come from.

Community Health Issues in Homewood

We travelled through the Homewood neighborhood, which has seen more population loss than any other neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and economic development has been nearly nonexistent for decades. Over the last five years, 75% of its homes were foreclosed on and tax delinquent. Since Homewood is one of the flattest areas in the city, outside developers and property investors are taking advantage of this to obtain land in the area.  

According to Larry Meadows Jr., Director of the Office of Child and Community Health at the Homewood Children’s Village, vacant lots that were sold for $10,000 ten years ago are now going for $30,000, and demolished or abandoned homes are being sold at $100,000 or more. Rents have gone up 200% to 300% per year over the past five years.

Every time a family can no longer afford housing and is displaced from the neighborhood, they lose the services of Homewood Children's Village, which include case management, mentoring, and job training programs. Larry reported that data has shown that students can go up one full grade letter for every 100 hours of tutoring they participate in through Homewood Children's Village. A recent mass eviction in the area intended to make way for new development resulted in over 200 students leaving their services.

To address some of the effects of land grabbing, the Homewood Children's Village helped nine local institutions form the Homewood Community Development Collaboration, which established guidelines for developers to hire locally, use green building materials, and minimize harmful environmental impacts on children and families.

Workers' Struggles and the Fight for 15 Movement

Pittsburgh residents are fighting for workers' rights and higher wages. Activist and artist Blak Rapp M.A.D.U.S.A. of 1Hood Media and Fight for 15 spoke about how the campaign sought to engage with workers at the intersections of health, education, and community power-building. As an "artivist," a lot of M.A.D.U.S.A.'s work focuses on economic justice and ending mass incarceration as a result of the school to prison pipeline.

As a Fight for 15 organizer, M.A.D.U.S.A. reached out to McDonald's employees in Pittsburgh, many of whom were dealing with wage theft, racial discrimination, and sexual harassment in their jobs. Even though a number of these people were working two jobs and still facing eviction or utility cut-off notices, M.A.D.U.S.A. said a lot of them still had to be convinced they were worth more.

In the last four years, Fight for 15's organizing efforts have won increased wages for half of all the people in America's workforce. One of their major campaigns was to target one of the biggest opponents of the most basic protections for working people, such as minimum wage increases, paid sick days, and enforced break times. They advocated against CEO of CKE Restaurants Andy Puzder's nomination as Secretary of Labor, ultimately leading to his withdrawal from the nomination.

Fight for 15 also held a march in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to discuss the economic challenges faced by low-income communities and people of color. Hundreds of people marched together to remind people that King was more than just civil disobedience—he also fought for economic justice, including his support of a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, TN the day before he was assassinated.

M.A.D.U.S.A. closed with a thunderous rap focused on black empowerment, justice, and self-determination for all oppressed peoples.

Almono Development Site

Our learning tour was the first group to traverse the renovated 178-acre Almono site, a prominent riverfront location and plateau terrain offers an extraordinary opportunity to become a premier innovation hub to feature unparalleled residential neighborhoods and public open spaces in Pittsburgh. It was former steel mill and is adjacent to a Hazelwood neighborhood and the the new development is hoping to be a catalyst for the neighborhood without displacing long-term residents.

The property was purchased by local foundations in 2002, but the site developers are still grappling with some key questions: 

  • How do we use this site to be catalyst for the adjacent distressed neighborhood?
  • How do you create a site that will be a regional asset and a place for experimentation and innovation?
  • How do you really measure real, sustainable social and environmental benefits on a site in a soft market?  

The project manager of the Almono site, Rebecca L. Flora, President & CEO of ReMake Group, discussed the p4 Performance Measures that facilitates a collaborative planning process with over 100 participants engaged in the development of a framework and assessment tool for real estate development projects in Pittsburgh. 

The most visible work so far has been that of ACTION-Housing, which invested in several non-housing projects at the request of The Heinz Endowments. The combination of these efforts and the ongoing community organizing to engage renters is continuing to build opportunities for residents in neighboring communities to have a voice in the Almono site's planning process.

The adjacent Hazelwood neighborhood was impacted by the closing of the steel mill and resulting loss of hundreds of jobs. The Heinz Endowment has made nearly 25 million dollars in major investment in community organizing and community benefits. They also created the Hazelwood Initiative, which buys vacant homes to rehabilitate for lower income families to purchase at affordable prices. The Almono site is expecting to create construction jobs for nearby residents and is working with the local neighborhood for other long-term employment opportunities.

Immigrant Rights and Justice: Sanctuary Community

The last stop in the learning tour was in Beechview to learn about the local context for the challenges and resiliency of the undocumented immigrants in the area. The Latino population is less than 2% in Pittsburgh and a majority of the families are from Central and South America and majority of them are undocumented. Many undocumented residents live near the transit corridor in Beechview, mainly because they are prohibited by Pennsylvania state law from obtaining a driver's license and rely heavily on the local transit system. The neighborhood's housing is relatively affordable, but rents are slowly increasing due to the market pressure of new development.

Their dependence on Pittsburgh's trolley system is threatened by a new "pay as you go" ticketing system that involves monitoring by armed Port Authority officers. Monica Ruiz, a Community Organizer with Casa San José, spoke about how the Port Authority is in communication with ICE, "so you may encounter a faulty machine for $2.50 and be deported." Undocumented families can utilize Casa San José's rapid response call system to get legal help if ICE raids their homes and places them in local detention centers.

Casa San José is also a community resource center that organizes undocumented workers and advocates for workers' rights. Sister Janice Vanderneck, Director of Casa San José, spoke of how many people in Pittsburgh's immigrant population are victims of human trafficking, wage theft, and unsafe working conditions. A lot of them are still learning English, and some of them are learning Spanish as a second language because their first is an indigenous language.

“We work in solidarity with the Freedom Cities and making our communities safe for African Americans so everyone can also feel safe”, Monica said. "We do not use the word "sanctuary" because we don’t want to live in fear.”  

The tour concluded with a deep reflection on the critical need to continue to support intersectional organizing, networking, and building power together. After the tour, we had small group discussions on housing and gentrification, low-wage worker and worker’s rights, and p4 measures for working with government and community stakeholders to address equity development. 


Photos courtesy of Tom Hoffman, Sierra Club