A Departure

When Mayor Peduto first came into office and announced his Transition Teams, I knew we were at a turning point. I jumped at the chance to be a part of creating this blog, tracking Pittsburgh’s political process under this new Mayor, and collaborating with Helen, whose ever-thoughtful and constructive point of view I’ve always appreciated. I’ve had an amazing time digging into these pivotal issues but I’m writing this post to announce that I’ll be leaving the blog and shifting my focus to other projects. I’m signing off with a big thank you to Helen, for opening my eyes and being my guide through this process. I know that only the best is yet to come from this project and its extremely talented author.

–Weenta

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.

 

Can Pittsburgh Implement Universal Pre-K?

I spoke with two local experts about the shift happening in early childhood education, Michelle Figlar of PAEYC, and Dr. Stephen Bagnato, a researcher in early childhood development. 

By Weenta Girmay

When Mayor Peduto met with President Obama, he asked him to make Pittsburgh a laboratory in early education initiatives, including universal preschool. New York’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio has made more recent headlines for campaigning on the issue and continuing to push for its support. It seems the conversation over universal pre-K has reached the height of a crescendo, with research that now supports the conclusion that “the longer society waits to intervene in the life cycle of a disadvantaged child, the more costly it is to remediate disadvantage.”

The most cited and well known longitudinal studies on early childhood education were The Perry project and The Abecedarian project of the early 1980’s. The children in these studies were retested at 5, 8, and 18 with the recent results that individuals who were enrolled in a quality preschool program had higher IQ scores and were more likely to graduate from high school, to own homes, and to have longer marriages. The New York Times reported for those who had fallen behind, the studies also showed that “the difference in cognitive performance was just as big at age 18 as it had been at age 3.” Studies like these are reinvigorating the push for a reinvestment in early childhood education to close the “achievement gap” often cited in children and families who come from poverty.

“There’s never been this much emphasis and talk about this in my 25 year career,” said Michelle Figlar, of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC). She’s urging that elected officials get behind her Pre-K for PA campaign, a statewide campaign advocating for high quality Pre-K for every 3 and 4 year old in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has many funding streams dedicated to early childhood education that trickle down to us on the local level.  Pittsburgh Public Schools utilizes the full range of funding streams, which includes federal and state Head Start, state Pre-K Counts, the Accountability Block Grant, and Early Intervention dollars.

On the surface it seems like Pennsylvania’s doing great in the field of early childhood education. So what’s the problem? The money has not been enough. Pittsburgh Public Schools currently offers free Pre-K, but there’s a waiting list because there isn’t enough funding to make up the number of slots needed. The Accountability Block Grant that funded part of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ free Pre-K program was cut 3 years in a row, and as a result, PPS is forced to charge tuition for families that would have fallen into that funding stream. Even if you’re a family that qualifies for free Pre-K, it’s only offered for 6 hours a day, which for a lot of working parents, especially those in struggling families, isn’t enough.

According to PAEYC, The public funds available for Pre-K in Pennsylvania help “less than 20% of eligible 3 and 4 year olds access high quality programs,” “high quality” being the key here. There’s a variety of public and private options available to a parent, but high quality care is what makes the socio-economic difference in the trajectory of a child from a struggling family. What Figlar and others are advocating for is money that will go towards building and strengthening these high quality programs.

What defines high quality care is its comprehensive approach; it is concerned with teaching healthy social behaviors as well as the cognitive skills that children will need to be better learners and students reaching beyond kindergarten and into the rest of their formal education.

What Figlar said most people would be surprised to know is that funding for early childcare in the United States is a relatively new thing. It grew out of welfare reform in the Clinton Administration and was more focused on getting parents to work than it was in educating their children.

What’s exciting about early childhood learning in on the federal and state level is that for the first time in years, “money has shifted to think about quality,” she says.

The President has proposed a Preschool for All proposal under which “Pennsylvania is estimated to receive $82,900,000 in the first year it participates…This funding, combined with an initial estimated state match of $8,300,000, would serve about 10,129 children from low- and moderate-income families in the first year of the program alone.”

To top it off, in December of 2013 Pennsylvania was awarded $51.7 million over four years to improve program quality through the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant, along with six other states.

“If Pittsburgh wants to do something before the federal and state dollars increase, which I think we do, we’re going to need to have a public-private partnership to make it happen,” said Figlar. “It has to be Pittsburgh public schools working with private childcare providers working with nonprofit providers, because these are the people that have been serving people in the city for a really long time.”

Dr. Stephen Bagnato, a collegue of Figlar’s as well as a premier researcher in the early childhood field says he supports Peduto in his aim toward universal preschool, but that “it appeared to me that in the very beginning, he was very naïve about this, universal preschool in the Pittsburgh area, because you can’t do that alone in the Pittsburgh area unless you know what’s going on at the state level, unless you know what happened before…we had a lot of lessons learned.”

One of the most important lessons learned on the local level is that these public and private partnerships have to be informed by experts on the ground. Bagnato gave the example of the failed Early Childhood Initiative of 1997-2003. The initiative was pushed by community action groups and funded by the Heinz Endowments among others. The program suffered from managerial problems, and a conflict of interest between “expanding child care (“more slots for more kids”) or creating quality early care and education options,” as detailed in a report through the Heinz’ Scaling Progress in Early Childhood Settings (SPEC).

“Unfortunately what the early childhood initiative group did was they tapped United Way to run these programs. United Way has no experience running any program, let alone running preschool programs…That’s why in 2 years, the initiative initially collapsed,” said Bagnato.

He says the role elected officials play in this process is “to have the good idea, and then they need to get out of the way. They need to hook up with people who know what they’re doing in this area. Unfortunately when people begin to run on these platforms they get input from people and then their staff begin to make policy and recommendations that they don’t know anything about.”

Bagnato adds that all providers need to be in a network, “making the un-system, a system because there is no system in early childhood, almost in any state…[although] we’ve gotten closer to it than a lot of other places.” This network of providers would bring all providers at the local level together to provide a menu of options for parents and would also provide a way for parents to recognize which programs were high quality. “Every region should have some of the same foundations, which is again Head Start early, Head Start, Pre-K Counts, early intervention,” he said.

As an educator, early childhood learning can be a stressful place to be. Children from struggling families are bringing stresses from home and the accompanying behavioral problems into the classroom. The specific tactics needed to redirect these behaviors require staff not just trained on the job, but trained through higher learning with certifications in education or early childhood. This training is also a core element of what makes a high quality program.

Bagnato and Figlar have also consistently agreed on the need for training and support for teachers and professionals in the early childhood field, as well as higher compensation, yet the average salary for a head teacher in an early childhood classroom is $9.00 an hour, which makes for high turnover and teachers leaving for other fields.

While the specifics of the design of a universal Pre-K system are still being worked out, Figlar speculates that it will look much like federally funded Head Start programming looks like now: “built into the programming might be a social worker, a family advocate, a mental health specialist…quite frankly that costs more per child, but it should and I think that’s what we should be able to say that we’re going to invest in.”

Interview with a Jitney Driver

East-Liberty-Giant-Eagle

By Weenta Girmay

My quest to ride a jitney for the first time and what I discovered after talking to a driver just trying to get back on his feet. (Audio featured)

I had arrived at a corner bus stop, a stop you only know about if you live in the neighborhood. The construction on the main street had caused a detour, and though there was no sign that marked this as an alternative stop, people just knew to wait here and the bus just stopped here. This is what I think of when I think of Pittsburgh public transit. It doesn’t quite make sense but you just go with it.

As I approached, there was an Asian woman waiting behind the imaginary bus stop, under the awning of a building. I asked if she was waiting for a bus to which she replied, “ I called a cop.”

“What? Why?”

“The bus didn’t come and I had to walk and walk.”

“So a cop is coming to pick you up?”

She corrected me. Her accent was thick–she was waiting not for a “cop” but for a “cab.”

“So now I have two rides,” she said.

“You know, cab service in Pittsburgh isn’t that reliable,” I started to say, and before I could elaborate she corrected me again.

“Well,” she said lowering her voice, “I use a jitney.”

She told me she lived just up the street and she used the guy all the time. He was reliable, and a ride to a neighborhood close by would go for around $8. Sometimes she would need a ride back from somewhere far out like Monroeville, that would cost her $20.

It was maybe 5 more minutes before she said she saw her “cab.” Her calling it a cab made me instinctually scan the street for yellow and as I scanned, she started walking away, drifting further and further, while still looking back at me, saying “it’s here,” me not knowing where or what car she meant. I walked back to the bus stop, peeking around the corner a few seconds later out of curiosity, but she was gone.

I’d never used a jitney before, but I’d heard about them often, even been solicited by one without knowing. I was waiting for a bus and he was stopped at the light. He’d asked, “need a car?” a typical phrase drivers use to introduce themselves. I’d said no then, but today I would seek one out, my first jitney ride.

The woman at the imaginary bus stop had given me the number of her guy, but when I called him from the grocery store, he said he wasn’t available.

I chose this particular grocery store, the Giant Eagle in East Liberty, because it had a parking lot commonly filled with jitney drivers, or so I’d heard, but I couldn’t spot a single one. The lot was peppered with guys sitting parked in cars, but people wait outside store parking lots all the time, I thought.  I saw a guy walk up to meet a shopper out front, carting the shopper’s groceries to their car, but this also seemed normal. That guy could be a husband, a cousin, a friend. I couldn’t assume just anyone was a jitney driver—I’d look a fool. So I asked a few women waiting behind the store’s front doors whether they knew where I could get a jitney. They said they were out there, usually around the side, but that there were a lot of people waiting for them. Again, I walked out, this time further around the building, only to be met by a loading dock and some dumpsters, no cars idling, no people waiting. I was ready to give up, making my way over to the closest bus stop, but it was freezing. The “polar vortex” was in full force and it was the coldest day Pittsburgh’s had. So I asked again at the bus stop, “Do you know where I can get a jitney?”

A woman there assured me that if I just went back to the grocery store, or even the store next to it, holding my bags and looking like I needed a ride, someone would come up to me and ask, “need a car?” So I went back and scanned the parking lot again, until finally I saw three young people, teenagers maybe, hands full of groceries, being led by a guy to his car. “Need a car?” I’d heard him say, and I ran towards them. Turned out there were too many of them to fit—the driver had low bucket seats in the front that didn’t easily accommodate more than two, so I asked him “How much?” and he said “Seven” and I paused for a bit, until he said, “c’mon baby, it’s cold out, get in the car,” and he was right, it was cold, painfully cold, so I got in.

“Have you had much business today?” I asked.

“I’m a movie dude.” He replied, but I didn’t quite get it.

“How many rides have you given today?”

“I’m a movie dude,” he said again. “I sell movies. The movies are selling today. You’re probably… ride number 3.”

“You sell movies? From where?”

“Outta the back,” he said motioning towards the trunk of his car. “DVD’s, CD, I’ve got it all.”

Driving a jitney was more of his thing on the side. He drove me maybe a mile and a half up the road and dropped me off at my house. I said I might want to take a jitney again, so he shuffled around his car to give me his information.

“I can write it down,” I say.

“Naw, I don’t like writing,” and then he pulled out a stamp, which he pressed against a piece of scrap paper he’d rustled from the compartment between us, holding the scrap paper up against the steering wheel, pressing the stamp against it, making me an instant, if unofficial, business card. I shook his hand and we parted ways.

Movie Dude had been an intriguing first jitney ride, but I wanted to talk to a driver who made driving his true livelihood. So I went back to the same grocery store parking lot looking for another ride.

This time I brought a friend along, hoping to look more noticeable, and it worked. Almost the second we passed through the automatic doors into the cold, there was Lou,* asking us if we needed a ride. He walked us eagerly to his car, smiling, with a spring to his step.

In the car, he told us he had driven years ago and was just now back at it after losing his job. He was in school for civil engineering at a community college and he’d just gotten a D in his Philosophy course.

“I will never take a Philosophy course again,” he said, explaining that he had studied the wrong text for the final, which made up the entirety of his final grade. I liked this guy. He had personality.

He charged us $10 for a shorter ride than Movie Dude, but after interviewing him about his current circumstance, I wouldn’t blame him for it.

He’d been let go from a housekeeping job at a hospital for veterans. “I know I’m cleaning up feces and urine, but I’m proud to serve those people, they fought for our country,” he said. He was wearing an official United States Veteran hat when we sat down for an interview about jitney driving and his struggle to find employment. I am excerpting parts of the interview here because I believe too few people ever hear these drivers’ voices.

Part 1: “I says ok, this gonna be my new next time job.”

How Lou got his start and what driving was like over 20 years ago.

Part 2: “They called the police on me.”

Competition amongst jitney drivers.

Part 3: “Do you see the position I’m in right now?”

Why Lou just can’t get a break.

Part 4: “No one wants to go in the hood and get robbed and all that…”

Are jitneys a good thing? Lou’s opinion.

What intrigued me about Lou was that although he himself had never been robbed, he recounted the days when drivers, usually younger men in their teens or twenties, were robbing jitneys, or passengers were getting in jitneys to rob drivers, though he said generally, drivers and passengers trust each other. I asked him if he ever thought about the threat of violence, as in the past, jitney drivers have been shot and killed and recently a female passenger reported an attempted rape.

Lou’s only protection against violence is his street smarts, and it’s merely a preventative measure at that. “You got instinct. I’m not gonna put no 2 or 3 dudes in the back looking real quiet. You read it from being in the streets,” he said.

The threat of violence is overtaken by the need to make a living. “It’s something I’m not thinking about being that I’m desperate right now to make it,” he said.

Soon after I met Lou, I rode the 89 bus through Garfield for the first time. I met a woman on that bus who had just moved from Garfield to Homewood. I told her about this blog and asked what changes she would like to see in her neighborhood.

The one thing she mentioned: she would like the 74 bus to Homewood to run later.

The 74 bus that runs from Squirrel Hill to Homewood out to East Liberty stops service at about 10:58pm, with no service on a Sunday.

The 89 has similarly bad service. It’s the only bus that runs through the Garfield neighborhood and it’s an extremely short route—I rode its entirety within 15 minutes. Its service runs until 10:45pm at the latest, with no service on Saturday or Sunday.

Homewood and Garfield are both neighborhoods with frequent jitney drivers and jitney customers.

I was surprised to find however, that unlike Garfield, there are 4 buses besides the 74 that go through Homewood. The 71D gets you to Homewood outbound from Oakland or Downtown. The 86 will get you to Homewood on the way from East Liberty through Bloomfield to Wilkinsburg. The 71D and 86 have service going as late as 1:30am and 1:45am.

The 77 goes right by the East Liberty Giant Eagle and through Homewood by way of Frankstown Ave, but like the 74, its service is poor: on a Saturday and Sunday when you might be doing your shopping, it comes once every hour.

The P1 Busway is also right by the Giant Eagle in East Liberty. Its service is fast, frequent, goes late, and can take you from the Homewood Busway Station directly to the Giant Eagle in East Liberty or Shadyside. Homewood Station is central, but with bags in your hands, it may not be close enough.

Shopping poses a particular quandary: there are those who are elderly and can’t carry their groceries on the bus. There are those who can’t afford a bus pass and multiple bus trips to the grocery store instead of one big trip. There are those who have kids to bring along with their shopping bags.

Then I’m reminded of something that is all too often assumed: that people would have to travel outside their neighborhood for amenities–that there isn’t a grocery store in Homewood and there isn’t a grocery store in Garfield, and there isn’t one in the Hill District, where jitneys are also popular.

Still, I found my mind wandering back to those 3 young teenagers who almost got in Movie Dude’s jitney. They were young and able-bodied. They had only a few bags in their hands. They could have easily gotten on the bus. So why didn’t they?

I asked a young man from Homewood, who has a long list of jitneys he used to use before he got a car, why someone like him or someone like those teenagers would choose a jitney over the bus. He simply said, “It’s convenient. Why pay $3.50 on the bus, when you can pay someone $6 to get you to your door?”

Our bus system is one of the highest priced compared to other cities in the country, high-priced enough that jitneys can compete.

Jitneys might have started because “Yellow Cab wouldn’t go into the ghetto,” as Lou said but they’ve become much more than that. They are a service that has become casual because it’s affordable and convenient, two markers of great transit. They’re a service created and managed by these communities to serve their own people’s pressing needs, and that they endure is remarkable. Maybe this is why, when I asked Lou in part 4 of our interview if there was a better solution to how people from these communities get around, he couldn’t come up with one.

In the words of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. “… There’s a niche and people have filled that niche. I don’t know that it’s a good thing, but people have to get around.”

*This name has been changed to protect my source.