War Zones: Window Frames

By Helen Gerhardt

Two pools of blood – now soaked down into the carpet, now dried, now dark, now two irregular splotches that show where she fell first and where she fell last.

The first splotch is right by where the Christmas tree stood. The last splotch is by the window facing the street. The last splotch is larger. That splotch is where she died.

I am here to help clear the apartment of Ka’Sandra Wade’s last possessions. After her death. Before her funeral. The lamp is not bright. I try to read the remains left behind under that yellowish gloom.

She fell first under the Christmas tree. Maybe, a few days before, mother and son and father had opened presents there together.

She fell last by the window. Maybe, not long before, she had heard two police officers speaking through the glass, but only to the father of her son. They did not see or hear the woman who had called 911 for help.

Sometime after the police left, the father of her son shot her in the head. Ka’Sandra fell, then she got back up from under the Christmas tree. Maybe she was trying to reach the window to be seen, to be heard, by neighbor or stranger.

It is dark outside. Darker than most city streets in Pittsburgh. Vacant houses, abandoned lots, broken-windowed churches, boarded-up storefronts, all dark and blind among the few lit windows along this Larimer street.

Streets and windows empty of the eyes that might have seen the dark shape of Ka’Sandra Wade’s still-living body against the yellowish gloom of the lamp.

We lift the last of her things down the uneven stairs, over the cracked sidewalk, the dirty grey ice, the crusty ridge of salt-pocked snow at the curb. January of 2013. We hurry, although there is no place we need to rush to. We take in more of the neighborhood in brief glances, lit sharp and deeply shadowed in the glare of our car headlights. White paint peeling off yellow and grey, soggy candy wrappers, soda cans, the spiky remains of tall weeds standing dark against the snow. A “Beware of the Dog” sign at the bottom of star-cracked door glass.

No one walks down the street in the hour we take to clear away the last remains. Darkness and vacancy and tension. My heart rate is higher than our movement back and forth from car to apartment explains.

Does the heart rate of Zone 5 police officers rise as they turn to patrol the dark and blighted streets of Larimer? Do they find themselves rushing to be done with any business that they have in that range of their territory? They do not have friendly relations with the residents of Larimer. They do not often walk the streets, do not have the chance to learn the names, the faces, the stories that frame the empty houses and the frequent rounds of gun fire. They are stretched too thin, short of both patrol officers and supervisors. They skim through streets framed by glass and metal, through streets of total strangers.

In Iraq, we soldiers were also stretched thin, often traveling in groups too small and lightly armed to prevent attack. We also absorbed impressions of the country from our moving window frames, in bits and pieces that we did not ask the meaning of. Tumbledown walls, puddles of sewage in the streets, plastic bags hissing across empty pavement.

The slender smoke stacks of oil refineries loomed in the near-distance to either side of our convoys, flaming at their tips as a more piercing ache of orange light against the glaring sky – I can close my eyes now, years later, and see an orange afterburn, like a lit cigarette slowly being pushed against the retina of my memory. I can still see the flames trailing out into smutty-grey smoke, reaching away in long, diagonal arms that gestured our way forward.

For hours our short convoys would follow behind long lines of gleaming silver tankers – when the road curved to right or left in enormous, gentle arcs we could see that their convoys stretched for miles. Our own wheels fell right in line with the blackened trails of accreted rubber left by many, many tires across the light grey concrete. On either side of the roads, broken-down Iraqi cars had been stripped of every detachable part.

Roadside peddler stands, little shacks constructed of three walls and a roof, nearly all woven from flat reeds, frayed by the constant wind, some falling apart. Most of them were fully open toward the road. Inside we could see stacks of soda cans, pyramids of green Sprites and red Cokes gleaming out at us from the meager shade, as well as big white blocks of ice nearly half as tall as the thin men and women draped across ragged lawn chairs waiting for customers.

Overwhelmed by the heat and tension, I occasionally made half-hearted guesses about who and what I was seeing, but mostly I spaced out, still scanning the road for signs of danger, my brain functioning on auto-pilot, but retreating from the labor of any real thought. This state of mind was not restful – it felt like the agitated, fizzing snow of a television screen that had lost signal. My M16-A1 rifle was always propped on the frame of the truck window, at the ready, that rifle my only ready answer to the flat tension in the faces that looked up at us from the streets we never walked. Empty streets meant danger. An ambush by snipers. A bomb.

Only now, years later, do I read the signs in front of my inner eyes as features on a larger geopolitical map: the oil refineries patrolled by Halliburton mercenaries, the tankers moving out the oil for the multinationals, the blocks of ice that had replaced refrigeration, the roadside stands woven from the flat reeds that no longer grew in the swamps that had been drained by Saddam Hussein in retaliation for the Shi’a uprising during the first Gulf War. Now I know that the cans of soda pop we saw stacked in pyramids must have only partly replaced the contaminated local water that had killed over 500,000 Iraqi children since 1991. The sewage in the streets was our gift to the country. We had bombed most Iraqi infrastructure to rubble and for twelve years the U.S. had controlled the United Nations 661 committee to sanction almost everything Iraqis needed to rebuild: their cars, their refrigerators, their hospitals, their telecommunications, their electric grids, their water plants.

Now I know enough to make sense of the concrete details that denoted how an entire economy and ecology had been ground between Saddam Hussein and the United States in a war of attrition and extraction far more deadly to the Iraqi people than the few short months of the official period of either of our conflicts.

When I carried Ka’Sandra Wade’s last possessions out of her apartment, when I looked at the neighborhood that I had helped her move into to escape the father of her son, I did not yet read the signs that showed evidence of systematic and pervasive theft, of the economic and physical violence that had decimated the neighborhoods and the fabric of community that might have intervened. I did not yet see that my friend had lived in an intersection of war zones.

Two stains on the carpet. Two questions. Why did Anthony Brown shoot the mother of his son? Why did the police leave her to be shot?

Will We Be Priced Out? : Affordable Housing in Pittsburgh

Posted by Weenta Girmay

“What is affordable housing?”

That was the question that begun the round table style discussion titled “Affordable Housing for a Changing Landscape: Retaining Affordable Housing in Pittsburgh.”

*In the interest of full disclosure, I will state upfront that I work for the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, one of 3 sponsors of this event (other sponsors were BNY Mellon and Neighborhood Allies).

Held at the Kingsley Association Saturday May 10th, the panel was moderated by Paul Guggenheimer of WESA’s Essential Pittsburgh, and included:

  1. Jerome Jackson, Operation Better Block, Homewood
  2. Carl Redwood, Executive Director, Hill District Consensus Group
  3. David Weber, Housing Authority of Pittsburgh
  4. Tom Cummings, Program Director, Urban Redevelopment Authority
  5. Matt Smuts, Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, Hazelwood Coordinator
  6. Christiane Leach, Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council
  7. Rick Swartz, Executive Director, Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation
  8. Fred Brown, Associate Director of Programming, the Kingsley Association, Larimer

Of the eight on the panel, Redwood answered Guggenheimer’s question most effectively: “affordable housing means you shouldn’t be spending more than 30% of your income on rent.” This is the standard according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a standard that many panelists cited repeatedly.

Guggenheimer presented a few statistics on the rise of housing costs, including a statistic from U.S. Census Data that concluded from 2007 to 2012, the average median rent for Pittsburgh raised from $529 to $649, a 22.7% increase.

In January of this year, Post-Gazette writer Brian O’Neill consulted with South-side based company REALStats to find that over the past 25 years in the City of Pittsburgh, “The average price of a home climbed 156.8 percent,” a fact that O’Neill proudly saw as an indicator of the city’s overall strengthening housing market. His article ended,

“Mayor Bill Peduto was wise to have his victory celebration in Homewood, and to say in his inaugural speech Monday that our city “glows with the hope of revived neighborhoods.” The next great deal on a home is waiting in a neighborhood yet to rise. 

Soaring home values are a double-edged sword, of course. Property taxes rise. Would-be homeowners and renters get priced out. I’m in my third (and final) home in a ward where the median value has quadrupled since 1988, and I couldn’t afford my asking price if I put it up for sale tomorrow.”

– “Rising Home Prices Tell Pittsburgh’s Uplifting Story,” P-G.

January 8th, 2014

Just as soaring home values are a double-edged sword, so are large numbers of vacant and abandoned property. “The City of Pittsburgh has anywhere from 13,000-17,000 vacant properties,” said Guggenheimer.

These properties can be seen as the ugly scar left from Pittsburgh’s boom-and-bust past, or as a golden opportunity for redevelopment, but a golden opportunity for whom?

Throughout the conversation on Saturday, panelists and audience members alike asserted that affordable housing is a struggle most deeply felt by people of color, particularly for the largely black communities in Pittsburgh with high concentrations of blighted property. At the start of the conversation, Redwood was vocal that he felt that there was a concerted effort to push black residents out of affordable housing and outside city limits, stating that in 1980, there were 100,000 black residents in the city, and as of 2010 there were 80,000. He gave the example of St. Clair Village, a 107-acre public housing project in the St. Clair borough of Pittsburgh that was built in the 1950’s, fell into disrepair, and was demolished in 2010.

Tom Cummings qualified Redwood’s statistics and said public housing was built when our city was two times its current population, accounting for some of the vacancy and tear down of public housing.

Christiane Leach, whose organization recently co-sponsored a Health and Housing Fair for Artists, gave a personal example of her struggle to become a homeowner in Pittsburgh, one that illuminated the silent barriers to homeownership that exist for people of color. She had “everything in order” yet was still outbid by “people from China, Korea, California.” This was after 3 years of looking for houses in Homewood, Larimer, and the Upper Hill, all places consistently left blighted and ignored.

“Cash is king,” she said, when it comes to real estate. That is to say, banks told her in order to get the house she wanted, they needed to see the full amount in cash upfront, something that usually only large developers have in hand.

The general term the panel used for these outside developers was “speculators.” Speculators are known to buy whole blocks of properties in struggling neighborhoods. That’s how a guy from Israel bought a whole block in Homewood, said panelist Jerome Jackson. These properties can be kept in limbo for years until the most opportune moment to flip them for profit, raising prices above livable, affordable rates.

Jerome Jackson of Operation Better Block standing in front of blighted properties owned by "speculators" in his neighborhood. Photo from the Post-Gazette.

Jerome Jackson of Operation Better Block standing in front of blighted properties owned by “speculators” in his neighborhood. Photo from the Post-Gazette.

Leach also challenged the root of affordability: poverty. “Why are people making $18,000?” she said. (The Extremely Low income limit for public housing assistance in Allegheny County for a family of 4 is $19,700; the Very Low is $32,800; the Low is $52,500) “This is a matter of how Pittsburgh decides to run itself.”

During the question-answer period, a black woman came to the podium and told a story similar to Leach’s. She made over $40,000 a year, outside the bracket for reliance on public housing assistance, yet like Leach she could not close on a house with city limits. Even with cash-in-hand, she settled on a home that had been foreclosed on in North Versailles. Leach later said she also settled–for a house in Swissvale–which she is in the process of closing on.

The main frustration for these two women was that although they had encountered discrimination in the housing process, it was difficult if not near impossible to prove it. The woman at the podium said that she had been a victim of redlining, and that people of color and women were especially being priced out of affordable housing options. “Thank you for saying that,” said Leach.


 Funds dedicated to developing affordable housing come from federal and state subsidies. According to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, in 2012, over $30 million was cut from federal housing assistance in the state of Pennsylvania.

Given the lack of adequate federal funding, there were a few strategies discussed as to how to “get creative” in generating these funds and keep properties safe from those who would price residents out of their neighborhoods.

Jackson said his strategy at Operation Better Block was to buy the liens on homes so that developers had to deal with his organization upon trying to acquire the property.

Swartz of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation interjected during Jackson’s comments and said this was not going to solve the problem, to which Jackson countered that this was his organization’s way of dealing with the problem, and said that these small-scale solutions could later turn into larger scale solutions.

Swartz strongly disagreed, and said the longer a house was left sitting, the greater its risk in being swallowed up by outside developers. “We need a more active, aggressive, ambitious process,” he said.

He suggested an opt-in/opt-out policy that requires developers to either opt in to making a certain percentage of housing created affordable, or opting out and agreeing to pay a fee that would then cycle back toward subsidizing affordable housing.

He called the process a “delivery system” which needed public policy around it. He envisioned a mixed strategy of building brand new energy efficient housing as well as renovating older properties.

Fred Brown of the Kingsley Association added that he saw job creation possibilities in creating energy efficient and retrofitted homes, adding that the Kingsley Association already trains community members to become energy auditors.

Redwood said inclusionary zoning should absolutely be required of developers. “We’ve got to make [developers] do it. We have the hammer to make them do it…but we’re not using the leverage we have to make them do it.”

However each panelist envisioned it, they were all hovering around the same core belief: affordable housing should be backed by strong public policy that incentivizes or even mandates the creation and continued existence of affordable units.

Considering so much hinged on good public policy in all this talk of vacant, blighted property, I was shocked that it was already into the second hour of the conversation before Guggenheimer brought up the land bank bill, a bill that stirred up and polarized community members and CDC representatives, but which passed city council this April.

Councilwoman Deb Gross, who introduced the bill, stated in an earlier conversation on this blog that it took the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation 15 years to get the titles to 50 homes for their affordable housing development in Garfield, much too long by her estimation. Conversely after a neighborhood is left blighted for years, redevelopment by big companies can hit seemingly overnight (see: East Liberty). Time is of the essence, which is why she felt land banking to be so crucial to Pittsburgh’s future.

When Guggenheimer asked, “Is land banking a possible solution?” discussion was brief. Redwood saw it as “just a tool,” in the larger scheme of the process. Matt Smuts, PCRG’s Hazelwood coordinator said one of the land banks’ more useful provisions is the fact that it requires properties held in the land bank to be maintained to code. That means that existing structures aren’t left to decay and then require teardown before the city can decide what to do with them. There is “suddenly a huge supply of housing” that could be made affordable, said Smuts.

Considering the demand, current supply is low, with long waiting lists for public housing assistance. “For every one affordable housing unit, there are six people looking to inhabit that property,” said George Moses during the question-answer period. Moses, a community activist, was the previous chair of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. He pressed that if there was to be a comprehensive discussion on affordable housing, the developers should be there too, he said, listing them off. One developer he listed was Walnut Capital, a real estate management company who owns 1,000 residential units throughout Oakland, Shadyside and now the newly developing East Liberty. They have a direct hand in much of the Bakery Square development, to which Moses commented, “How come when we talk about affordability and mixed income, we don’t talk about mixed income in Bakery Square?”

Redwood said what he would really like to see is an overall assessment of how many more affordable units are needed in Pittsburgh.

Swartz said foundations are always looking for the next critical project worth funding, and proposed that foundations could also make grants available to CDCs to subsidize a portion of affordable housing units in partnership with a larger development company.

Cummings said in his experience these types of public-private partnerships have produced the best results.

I thought to myself, perhaps prior to or in conjunction with foundation-funded housing units, could a foundation-funded study looking at average income levels in Pittsburgh produce the concrete numbers Redwood was looking for? Looking for reliable, accurate, up-to-date statistics on affordable housing in the City of Pittsburgh was difficult enough in writing this article—I’m not sure what kind of concrete data CDCs or individual citizens have to draw from in order to lobby for policy changes.

One of the final questions at the podium came from a member of the Housing Alliance of PA. She stated that inclusionary zoning was one of the items recommended in the transition team reports. She asked if anyone in the mayor’s office was working on this issue, and as it so happened, there was a woman in the audience from the mayor’s office who was able to field her question. The mayor’s representative said yes, inclusionary zoning was submitted as a recommendation as a part of the transition team reports, but that “there was no official stance on it as of yet.”

Calm and soft-spoken as can be, the woman replied, “Well don’t you think given what we’ve heard today, there should be?”

Grey, Green and Everything in Between: ALCOSAN

Pittsburgh has a problem with combined sewer overflow, yet after years of negotiations and planning, the question of what will remediate the problem is still up in the air.

Posted by Weenta Girmay

In January of this year, The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN)’s plan to stop combined sewage overflow, the plan that took “more than 10 years of research, collaboration and analysis” to develop, was rejected.

The plan was a part of ALCOSAN’s contractual agreement with the EPA that it would act to stop combined sewer overflow and meet the standards set by the 1972 Clean Water Act.

In an official statement following the plan’s rejection, Mayor Peduto said he felt the plan as it was submitted didn’t go far enough. He’s asked the White House “for an opportunity to build a stronger plan, a plan that incorporates a ‘green-first’ approach to save ratepayers money, improve our neighborhoods, and create good local jobs, all while improving water quality and reducing flooding.”

I spoke with Emily Alvarado, a representative from the Clean Rivers Campaign, an organization that advocates the benefits of a “green-first” approach to the problem.

Grey Infrastructure vs. Green Infrastructure

When talking about sewage overflow, there are “green” solutions and there are “grey” solutions. Namely, the “grey” solution to managing storm water was the a $2 billion dollar plan to build 3 underground tunnels that would collect sewage overflow. These storage tunnels would then treat the overflow by pumping it into expanded ALCOSAN facilities. The creation of these tunnels was the focus of the plan ALCOSAN submitted to the EPA.

“Green” solutions refer to a variety of storm water management strategies.

These strategies include:

  • permeable pavement instead of concrete pavement
  • bioswales (green landscaping designed to hold surface runoff)
  • rain barrels and rain gardens
  • the planting of trees and other plants that retain water through their roots

The Clean Rivers Campaign calls for investment into green solutions first, followed by implementation of grey strategies where necessary.

“If we start down the path of building tunnels, we’re not going to have a single dollar left over for green. We’ll never figure out what we’re able to succeed or achieve with green solutions. So they might end up being this added value where you put a rain barrel on a street and you say ‘we invested in green,’” said Alvarado.

The “green” plan is more sustainable, yet because its strategies are varied, it makes it inherently more difficult to implement from a policy standpoint. These are the 4 big reasons why:

Green strategies require more coordination

Sewage overflow sees no boundaries: the integrated sewage system connects Pittsburgh to 83 surrounding municipalities. That means that if the City of Pittsburgh wants to use green in order to meet EPA standards, it will take regional coordination and consolidation between various municipalities if green solutions are to have any impact at all.

Green strategies include aspects that are difficult to quantify

As it stands, there are no proven cost savings to green solutions, but Alvarado says there are many added benefits in green that don’t exist in grey, including job creation, improved street scapes, and alleviation of blight.

“If you live in one of the many communities in this region that has rampant blight, that has been disinvested in for years … and we can make a 3 billion dollar investment that will bring long term local good construction and maintenance jobs to your neighbors that will help to beautify your community…that’s going to be a smarter investment to make than just paying your sewer bill and getting the same service you’ve always gotten.”

Alvarado says jobs that are a part of a grey plan to build tunnels are more specialized and are more likely to be contracted from outside of the area. Jobs related to green infrastructure would create good construction jobs throughout those 83 municipalities that would take place over a longer stretch of time.

“The way we envision large-scale solutions is that ALCOSAN would contract with municipalities; ALCOSAN would fund the project and enter into contracts to determine the work that needs to be done,” said Alvarado.

Green planning requires scalability

A rain barrel here and a rain garden there will not create a quantifiable solution. “If we get to the point where every time Pittsburgh is paving its streets, they’re paving it with permeable materials the costs are going to go down because we have a system in place to make that happen,” said Alvarado.

These solutions implemented on a large scale are what will get results.

Alvarado pointed to the example of The Saw Mill Run Integrated Watershed Management Project, which Peduto has publicly supported. The project encompasses 12 municipalities, demonstrating both the scalability and the type of multi-municipal coordination required for innovative green design to work. A $9 million dollar plan to support the project is in the works.

Green strategies require strong leadership

When asked what was the most important thing holding back implementation of green strategies, advocates of green solutions responded with “confidence” and “strong leadership.”

The most important thing Mayor Peduto has done in just the first short months of his term was to make smart ALCOSAN board appointments, said Alvarado.

“He’s put in demonstrated leaders in green infrastructure and also people who understand the way that green infrastructure can tie with community development, to achieve maximum benefits and he’s made those kinds of appointments to the board.”

These appointments include Brenda Smith, Executive Director of the Nine Mile Watershed Association an organization that gets communities involved in storm water management and Greg Jones, Executive Director of Economic Development South, an organization that coordinates community development across municipalities.

What Do the Next Steps Look Like?

Alvarado says a green plan would start with a Regional Green Infrastructure Opportunity Assessment that would identify hotspots for implementing green solutions.

“We are working closely with the Peduto Administration to pursue the kind of study that could ask the questions of where are the places where this region would be best suited to maximizing green solutions?”

A paradigm shift is necessary if Pittsburgh and the surrounding municipalities want to solve the problem of sewage overflow, making strong leadership and innovative leaders all the more important.

“Historically ALCOSAN has viewed itself only as a place that takes whatever comes to it and treats it,” said Alvarado, but implementing green solutions means that they’ll have to stop thinking of themselves as an entity that meets water at the end of its journey, and more as an entity that works to manage water at the moment of rainfall, which is what green solutions are all about.

Turning to green infrastructure would place Pittsburgh amongst innovative, forward-thinking cities. “This is a place where Pittsburgh can be a leader and I think that’s the vision that Peduto gets,” said Alvarado.