I was just at my sister’s and brother-in-law’s apartment in Brooklyn, NY and so was in one of the most talked about places in the country when it comes to gentrification, so I will try to avoid the clichés and focus on a piece that I think connects well to the Hill District and a larger issue re: owner choice when it comes to prices. She has lived in Brooklyn for 11 years and Bed Stuy for the past 8. Nina is a renter and has been blessed to live in an apartment that has not had its rent increased since she moved in. After seeing the housing prices of this neighborhood, I attribute this lack of an increase to the personal values of the owner. The issue of owner values is important because it contradicts the always repeated mantra of “the market” as this is a giant from the hills that we have no control over (Mos Def’s “Fear Not of Man” uses this analogy to talk about people asking about the direction of Hip Hop) . The market as price raising giant. A giant wholly separate of the values of the people who actually own the thing. C’mon. Stop that.
So, at some point we went outside to walk with my nephew and Nina points to a house across the street and notes that what looks like a pretty basic brownstone says “I hear that place is going for $1.6 million.” As luck would have it, the house happens to have an open house going on at that time and so we go in to check it out. The realtor makes a point to say the this three- plex over a two bedroom apartments will be sold “as is”. When we go inside to see the place, we see what he means. Stained carpet, old stove, rickety stairs, just generally kind of funky. Nina is looking around and is noting that there is no way this place costs $1.6 million.
My sister asks the gentleman how much the house is going for and he says not $1.6 million.. but $1.69 million! Wow. So, if you are not familiar with what a three-plex over a two bedroom apartment means, it means three floors of a house above a 2 br apt. I am no real estate expert, and we don’t have any traditional AA neighborhoods that are at this stage of gentrification, so comparisons are difficult, but I am thinking this house is more expensive than what we’d find in Pgh, by a factor of 5. However, what’s more telling is that the #’s were staggering to my sister who, as I said earlier, has been in this neighborhood for almost a decade.
As we were leaving we noted to the realtor that it was a hefty price tag. He commented off handedly that the reason he could have an asking price this high was because there was no space left in Manhattan. This immediately struck me and made me think of the Hill. Around 2:30 pm a ride to my sister’s from Midtown Manhattan was about a 25 minute cab ride. Take into account NYC non-rush hour traffic and we’ll call it a 15 min ride in Pittsburgh. Now keep in mind that Mayor Peduto is said to want 10,000 to 20,000 new residents in Pittsburgh over the next decade (Thanks to Majestic Lane, formerly of Senator Ferlo’s office and now of A+ schools for this info). So, if housing in the Lower Hill District will average about $300,000, what will happen to housing in the Hill District once that housing fills up? Obviously, its likely that housing prices will go up dramatically, though not automatically, since there really is not a price raising giant (there really isn’t). It’s obvious because you can drive across the Hill and back 2x in that same 15 min drive that is needed to get to “The Stuy” from Midtown, so of course we will be impacted by housing in the Lower Hill. What I haven’t really thought much about is what the Lower Hill housing prices might mean to neighborhoods like Manchester and Lawrenceville. If Manhattan, NY’s center city, is driving Brooklyn housing prices, isn’t that akin to the Lower Hill and its surrounding neighborhoods? And it’s not just housing prices. My sister has noted food and daycare prices escalating as well, because owners i.e. are sensing there is money left on the table and making choices to raise prices. The issue of affordable housing is usually framed as an issue where we in the professional and “caretaking” classes talk about the impacts on poor people, but Nina and her husband are professional class folks with multiple degrees between them and the giant is impacting them as well.
Thus, affordable housing in the Lower Hill District is about all of us in Pittsburgh and this remaining a more affordable city than many. Of course we know that the Penguins development is built on land given them by the city for free when they threatened to go to Kansas City and that that land was acquired by the city when it used eminent domain to take the property from its largely African American population. So, the issue of the Lower Hill is also about the increasing ways the public sector is used to enrich those who are very wealthy already, in this case, Mr. Ron Burkle, Mario Lemieux and the Penguins. Seriously, how do they talk so stridently about the market and how it can’t tolerate 30% affordable housing on this piece of land they did not buy. If a housing owner can decide to maintain an affordable rent for a young family in Bed Stuy as personal policy, why can’t major corporate owners have a value for affordable housing as a citywide policy that impacts thousands of people? Everyday we hear allusions and direct references to the values and of poor people, whether in the need for certain kinds of mentoring programs so kids can learn values “not in their homes” or in the “ratchet” videos on Facebook. However, I don’t think we spend 1/2 that amount of time thinking about the values of the very wealthy and the choices they make that impact us far greater than the young men who are sagging. I’ve heard Pgh Black folks get on Pgh Black athletes for their lack of commitment to the Pittsburgh Black community, but what of Mario Lemieux? Honestly, what Pittsburgh athlete has received more benefits from Pittsburgh’s Black community? Who is the proverbial “giant” in this story? Don’t get mad. It’s a fair question.