Home Should Not be a Luxury

As I sit down to write this article on affordable housing, I can’t help but focus on the word home. Home means something more than four walls and a bed. It’s a place to find comfort in, to raise a family in, and to grow in. While four walls and a bed does impact homelessness, the level of that basic solution is temporary and often a short-term fix. It does little to resolve the bigger issues creating homelessness. At CHS, we believe that everyone deserves a place to call home, no matter your income or background. If we only provided minimal shelter that people do not feel safe staying in, cannot support their children growing in, and most importantly, cannot rehabilitate in, then we are not empowering our clients to maintain stable housing. If we do not address the social detriments that affect low-income individuals and families, a rise in recurrent homelessness is evitable. Then we are right back where we began.

We are all familiar with the need for a home. Home is universal. For me, home is the house my parents bought in Erie, Pennsylvania for a 1976 price tag of $32,000 (let’s all take a moment of silence over that). While only a house, my parents worked hard off one commission-based salary and another part-time paycheck to make the three-bedroom ranch ours. I still carry the home feelings that space cultivated for me and my two brothers. I looked for it while I searched for my first apartment in Colorado, and it’s something that I created and sustain in my house in Ambridge. Home is something we all look for when we seek out housing options, but the growing issue surrounding affordable housing in Allegheny County and all over the United States is turning that homey feeling into a luxury fewer and fewer people are able to afford.

Let’s take a step back. Before we dive into affordable housing in Allegheny County and what we’re doing as an organization to find solutions, it’s important that I offer some context: in this article, we’ll be focusing on rental properties. While home ownership is being equally affected by low wages, stigma, and neighborhood gentrification, our Housing Assistance Program (HAP) at CHS focuses only on finding permanent housing through rental properties. HAP focuses on three main types of housing:

Shelter: Short term solution for anyone experiencing temporary homelessness, such as a sudden eviction, a medical emergency that has prevented the client for affording rent, or an unsafe situation that would put the individual or family in danger.

Rapid Re-housing: Designed to help individuals and families who don't need intensive and ongoing supports to quickly exit homelessness and return to permanent housing. This includes CHS working with a private landlord (of which we have about 200).

Permanent Supportive Housing: The individual or family lives in their own apartment, but needs financial or case management supports. Clients in this type of housing stay for as long as they need the support.

For additional information on home ownership in Pittsburgh and what that is projected to look like in the near future, you can view additional information that Zillow has put together.


The Complexities of Affordability

Affordable housing is dependent on a variety of factors, ranging from federal to state level specifications to things like what year you were born (sorry millennials). Aging infrastructure, population growth, and low wages also contribute to what is affordable. But those factors aren’t all of them. One of the major obstacles holding back a national resolution is that affordability is not consistent across the country. That’s because affordable housing depends so much on where you live, and I’m not talking urban versus rural. I’m talking neighborhood.

According to Zillow, “Communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent can expect a more rapid increase in homelessness.” We all know how diverse the neighborhoods in Allegheny County are, which makes defining affordability exceptionally challenging. So let’s do some quick math. The median income in Allegheny County is $56,333. Zillow’s 32% estimate of that is $18,026. Divide that by 12 monthly payments, and you are capped at spending $1,500 a month on rent before you’re at risk for homelessness. The median monthly rental for a 1 bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh is $1,241, without utilities. While this is technically affordable, only $250 separates you from that rapid-increase-in-homelessness benchmark, an amount that could easily be reached with utilities or an annual rent increase. And if you’re not looking for a new apartment because you can’t afford that price tag with the income you’re bringing home, I have even more bad news: the current trend of affordable housing in Pittsburgh may end up hurting you more because of it. According to Zillow, “Pittsburgh-area rents in 2018 increased an average of 2.8 percent for poorer residents since last year, while rents for wealthier residents decreased an average of 2.7 percent.” While Pittsburgh’s rental market is still relatively inexpensive compared to other major cities, it’s on track to resemble more expensive markets, which is going to directly affect the population of those living below the poverty line. Because in Allegheny County, 12.5% of the 1,223,348 population is living below the poverty line. That’s 146,000 people who will feel the consequences first as the city’s demand exceeds its supply of affordable housing options.


Availability and Stigma

Homelessness is changing. When basic needs like food and shelter are harder to afford, a rise in poverty and homelessness can only be expected. Like any self-sustaining ecosystem, the systems that affect housing affordability shape the prevalance of poverty and homelessness, and what those two situations look like. They are a reflection of what is working and what is not working. So let’s first take a look at one major component: availability

Infrastructure affects the availability of affordable housing. Pittsburgh has 20,000 abandoned pieces of real estate, but the complexities of deeds and ownership often complicate efforts of rehabbing these buildings for affordable housing. Outside of those, tax credits issued from the federal government also affect how many developers rehab buildings into housing. Developers sell those tax credits on the open market, and with the recent tax cuts to corporations from the Trump administration, those tax credits have become suddenly less valuable. There’s less incentive to rehab real estate for affordable housing, which is how gaps form that only further complicates the issue. In Pittsburgh specifically, recent proposed cuts to the Urban Development Authority could only further complicate housing development.

While turning abandoned buildings into housing is one approach, one tactic that is having negative consequences is gentrification. It’s already happening in areas like East Liberty and Lawrenceville where existing housing units are being flipped to grab a higher price tag. In fact, it's happening in cities all across the United States. Gentrification is unfortunately pricing people of color and lower income residents out of their homes. The average cost of a newly built one-bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh is $1,599. Remember that $1,500 limit based on the median salary? While the city is already short over 17,000 affordable housing units, gentrification is only perpetuating the problem by further reducing the already few options low-income tenants have. And with 1,729 housing covenants soon expiring in 2020, mostly in predominantly black neighborhoods, it’s an issue that needs to be reevaluated soon. A housing covenant is a contract to keep units at a specific cost for a certain period of time. But what happens when these contracts expire and the buildings are renovated for higher-paying tenants? Creating housing that puts people at risk for homelessness or that completely displaces people is not a long term solution. One really great example of how gentrification has already affected Pittsburgh communities is the demolition of the Penn Plaza apartments in 2017. Neighborhood Allies did an incredible case study that examines the creative effort it took the organization to find housing for hundreds of displaced Penn Plaza residents. Most importantly, this case study gives insight into the difficulties low-income residents have in securing alternative housing. Not being able to afford housing is one issue, but when you are disabled or elderly, the physical demands of moving only add to the stress of finding a new place to call home. So while revitalizing aging infrastructure is important and necessary in securing the future of any city, it needs to be done with consideration for people of all incomes.

Outside of being over 17,000 units short to fulfill the needs of affordable housing seekers, we also need to discuss stigma. While it is illegal for landlords to discriminate against a tenant’s race, gender, nationality, or religion, it is legal in 42 states to turn away tenants holding Section 8 vouchers. Pennsylvania is one of those states. So even if tenants in Pittsburgh meet the income qualifications for Section 8 housing and secure those vouchers to help them afford stable housing, they are still facing the barrier of stigma in signing a lease. Stigma plays a huge part in whether or not landlords accept those vouchers, and a recent ruling in a 2015 city ordinance has the potential to relieve landlords of any legal consequences in doing so. Put in place to prevent property owners from discriminating against a tenant based on their source of income, city council passed the 2015 ordinance to address the discrimination facing low-income tenants seeking to utilize Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8). But because Housing for Urban Development (HUD) gives property owners a voluntary option to accept Section 8 vouchers, the mandatory nature of the ordinance is now being considered invalid and unenforceable. Reading the choice words of “numerous” and “often burdensome” used by Judge Joseph James in his ruling to describe the requirements of the Section 8 program, it’s clear how saturated with stigma these vouchers are for the people relying on them whose only alternative options are shelter or living on the streets.


What We’re Doing at CHS

If rehabbing abandoned buildings and gentrifying neighborhoods are not long-term solutions to homelessness and affordable housing, what are? Three factors that we include in any solution we create are innovation, client empowerment, and cost-effectiveness. Our efforts depend on organizations and systems working together. This past year, CHS has had three major developments to help combat affordable housing and prevent homelessness.

On August 13, 2018, CHS UPMC Health Plan announced plans to expand the existing Cultivating Health for Success Program, which provides intensive case management, in-home care management, and permanent housing to individuals who experience homelessness and high rates of unplanned crisis and health services. This program has been shown to double primary care visits, increase specialty care visits, increase pharmacy utilization to manage health conditions, and save significant money from community resources. Studies of the program show that program participants have 42% fewer unplanned health expenses compared to similar people who are not enrolled in the program. The current program saves nearly $160,000 per year in unplanned medical costs. Over the first five years of the program, participants saw tremendous outcomes: 51 out of 60 participants were successfully and permanently housed. The new Pay for Success expansion with UPMC Health Plan will assist up to 250 individuals per year to obtain stable housing and receive permanent housing supports from CHS staff and care management support from UPMC Health Plan staff. In addition to expanding the target population, CHS will now likely be awarded performance bonus payments for keeping program participants stably housed for mutually agreed upon timeframes. Project planning is underway and implementation is slated to begin in early 2019, so we'll keep you posted with updates once this project rolls out.

We also partnered with mission-focused real estate development firm Omicelo to provide supportive services to low-income households in Homewood. Omicelo, the property owner, works collaboratively with CHS staff to ensure tenants in 140 units across Homewood have the social supports they need to maintain stable housing and lasting community tenancy. While these units are being renovated and tenants are shifted within the building, CHS will provide in-home support to help tenants connect to community resources, manage a healthy budget, and provide overall case management. Typically, Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher holders have little or no access to these robust case management services, especially in the home. But from our years of working with landlords and tenants, CHS staff understand that just because someone receives a housing voucher, there are often still many other social and environmental factors that play into a household's self-sufficiency and success. Coupling the housing subsidy with the knowledge and skills of CHS staff will help the community of Homewood build lasting relationships, access and build community resources, and help families thrive in their neighborhood. Most importantly, providing case management supports will help keep residents in their homes and eliminate the need to return to the cycle of finding affordable housing.

Most importantly, listening to people living through these situations is necessary in understanding what supports to provide in order to find a resolution. In January of 2018, CHS formed the Client Advisory Board (CAB). CAB discusses ways to improve direction and how to have a greater influence over HAP services based on feedback from the communities we serve at CHS. The formation of this group helps members connect, engage, and directly communicate issues and concerns about housing in Allegheny County. Doing this serves multiple purposes. First, members develop skills that are transferable to the workplace. Second, it enhances their level of engagement and advocacy within Allegheny County. “It is essential that we get honest feedback about our services directly from those we serve,” says Jeremy Carter, Chief Housing Officer. “They give us feedback on policies, provide advice for changes, mentor other clients in the programs, and help with advocacy efforts. Their feedback is invaluable.” Along with CAB, HAP has developed a Housing Locator Team to help find affordable housing options. This team watches market trends, recruits new landlord partners, inspects units, and negotiates rent and lease terms. HAP currently works with over 200 landlords. The team has been so successful in processing fast housing placements that the average number of days from entering our housing program to signing a lease is 34 days, an incredibly short amount of time for people navigating through numerous obstacles. 

And what are the results from the work HAP has done this past year? Let’s do a quick recap of their impressive work in 2018 alone:

2,020 people served who experienced homelessness or some level of housing crisis.

498 people avoided being evicted from their homes.

93% of people in the HAP program remained in the same housing unit after program exit.

670 households received help with obtaining or maintaining stable housing.

Less than 1% re-entered the homeless system after program exit.

659 children stayed off the street.

The only way to resolve the lack of affordable housing and prevent homelessness is to hear from those who lived through these situations and work together. We need to offer effective support so individuals and families can have long-term success in housing. As an organization, it is our responsibility to engage these voices. Those who have navigated through the various housing systems that control the availability and affordability of housing in Pittsburgh can tell us what works and what doesn’t work. These voices need to be heard. As a program, HAP can read statistics all day long, but if those being affected by judge rulings, stigma, or gentrification push-out remain silent, we are not doing right by the people we serve. We cannot empower individuals and families without including their experiences and we cannot do this work alone. We need supportive collaboration from other organizations and agencies like UPMC and Omicelo and the advocacy of our own staff. And from you. You can advocate for others by listening to their stories, being compassionate and understanding neighbors, and by elevating their voices by standing up next to them. Affordable housing is a real issue that is going to take innovation and experimentation to solve. Most importantly, it’s going to take bravery and progressive thinking. Bravery for organizations to speak out on what’s not currently working and the progressive thinking to create programs that are trying something new.


For more information on how CHS is working to empower individuals and families living in Allegheny County, check out our 2018 Annual Community Report, and to directly help the people we serve, please consider giving a gift to our housing services.

Sarah Nesbella

Development Specialist


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