Wrestling with the two sides of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Perspectives - Brian O’Neill is a colum­nist for the Post-Gazette ([email protected], 412-263-1947, Twit­ter: @broth­eroneill). Brian O’Neill

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.

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