Wrestling with the two sides of gentrification
If ever there were a glass half full/glass half empty argument, it’s the one regarding the gentrification of Pittsburgh. First, let’s define the word for anyone who’s never been to East Liberty or Lawrenceville. Merriam-Webster offers this mouthful: “Gentrification: The process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.”
In other words, the good news is a place is suddenly desirable and a lot ot outsiders want to invest — and that’s also the bad news.
The city has been my home since 1988, and I’ve owned three successive homes within a quarter-mile radius on the North Side since 1990. For nearly all of that time, I believed Pittsburgh had about as much reason to fear gentrification as it had to worry about erosion of oceanfront properties.
We’d be immune, I figured, because any city that had lost more than half of its population since 1950 would have ample room when people start coming back. I was happy to point out in a column five years ago that eight of 10 places with the highest average gain in home prices in Allegheny County since 1988 were city neighborhoods. So were 13 of the top 25, according to RealSTATS.
I didn’t write the headline, but “Rising Home Prices Tell City’s Uplifting Story’’ seemed apt for a column noting soaring average home prices in Lawrenceville wards (364 percent and 423 percent), in South Side’s Ward 17 (435 percent), and in North Side wards 22 and 25 (294 percent and 278 percent).
In that same period, overall inflation was 97 percent, and home appreciation beat that mark in 23 of the city’s 32 wards. Thus, the conventional wisdom of the early ‘90s — don’t buy in the city, knucklehead — had proven exactly wrong in most of Pittsburgh.
Some largely black neighborhoods had seen little if any appreciation, but I believed then that “the next deal on a great home is waiting in a neighborhood yet to rise.’’ I still believe that, but here’s the problem: It seems less and less true that Pittsburghers are getting those deals.
I knew five years ago that I couldn’t afford my own asking price if I put my house up for sale, and that the American dream of home ownership seems further out of reach for working Pittsburghers every day. I know a guy who bought a home on Penn Avenue in Lawrenceville, just up from The Doughboy statue, for 10 grand in 1990. A comparable house next door sold for a quarter-million in 2015.
Even finding an affordable place to rent is getting tougher. Is our city destined to become part of Renter Nation?
Checking U.S. Census data, between 2000 and 2010, Pittsburgh flipped from being a city where a slim majority of homes were owner- rather than renter-occupied (52.1 to 47.9 percent) to the reverse (47.6 to 52.4 percent). The change came during the global recession. Pittsburgh largely dodged the housing bubble that put so many Sun Belt homes underwater, but it can’t be entirely discounted as a factor in the trend toward renting. There’s no evidence that it’s slowed in the years since.
Longtime renters in neighborhoods such as Hazelwood are feeling this where they live. Amazon’s decision not to build its vaunted second headquarters in Pittsburgh — and specifically Hazelwood Green — was good news for them. Big-city speculators had been buying up Hazelwood properties on the cheap — one New York firm spent $1 million to buy 18 properties around the development site —and worried renters had been calling their landlords to see if their homes were safe.
Hazelwood at least has a playbook going forward. Community groups helped produce the preliminary plan for the 178-acre development site, which calls for a street grid that creates 67 blocks, with affordable housing in the spots closest to existing residential blocks.
In a column (or more) coming soon, I’ll share the thoughts of Pittsburghers who believe the entire American real estate model, with housing as a vehicle for financial gain, needs to be upended. I was led to them by a couple of readers highly critical of an October column in which I generally agreed with an urban scholar who suggested that facing the problems of gentrification beats seeing neighborhoods circle the drain forever.
I plead guilty to writing like a longtime homeowner. I realize “you should have bought decades ago’’ has never been particularly useful advice.