If you could, would you? Helping your Neighbors Gain Wealth Part 2

It is 5:45 AM. I am riding my bike to a training so I can drive Z-Trip formerly Yellow Cab. I am coming into Homewood, I zoom past Dream BBQ, usually delicious smells and smoke pour down the street. Make a sharp left at the lights and kick it into low gear. Now I am flying past row houses. Some are owner occupied, others subsidized and in others squatters have taken residence. Then there are the ones that are falling apart.

The light turns red by Salik’s Hardware a long time family owned business serving the neighborhood. A while ago I inquired about the space next door. But Salik’s told me there had been a fire the roof has collapsed, the facade still stands hiding the wreckage. I pedal on, to the left Sonny’s bar closed after a man was killed. Picking up speed on my right the Homewood Carnegie Library a beautiful building and a key asset in the community. Just like the football field located across from it.

I am blasting down Hamilton. The landscape is dotted with vacant lots, a small herd of deer look at me like I am a weirdo. They are thinking, why you the only one on the street this early? Vacant lots have received all types of attention and are like a crucifix at a grave, marking the loss of the steel industry. Philanthropists and the city have invested in incentives to re-use and redd-up lots, but there are many. In the summer they help create temporary employment, community gardens, and weed wacking crews.

Homewood is next door to Larimer where Google offices are located in the former Nabisco factory. The two neighborhoods provide a little bit of flat land in an otherwise very hilly topography. Anticipation in the real estate market is building with high expectations of a tech boom in Pittsburgh. Both neighborhoods are under redevelopment pressure.

The East End where these neighborhoods are located includes more than 2,700 minority and low income homeowners. They stayed when the steel boom ended. Some out of love for their community and sense of place. In Pittsburgh when people ask you where you are from they don’t mean country, they mean neighborhood, it is your nationality, sort of. Others stayed out of necessity, living on a fixed income in a house they cannot maintain.

How can we leverage their equity so they can gain a more sustainable economic footing? If we can answer that question, then we can enable equitable development. Equitable to me does not mean everyone gets the same. Instead we aim to create opportunities for individuals and families to improve their economic futures and well being.

People have said to me, “residents are getting ten times the value of their land” isn’t that enough? Well, the answer is no. The problem is not one of land appreciation and dollar value. The issue is replacing equivalent living conditions. Ten times the value of land does not allow me to remain close to my network of support, my community.

I worked on a light rail transit project relocating minority owned businesses. Eminent Domain provides for replacement value of assets, such as equipment and property. However, it does not provide for compensation of the value those assets generate for the owner. In this case we successfully argued that the business owner needed to have opportunity to replace their business with a similar economic opportunity, that would be equivalent in terms of income, sales revenue and asset value. This approach enabled a convenience store owner to instead purchase a laundromat, or a dry-cleaning business owner to purchase a different dry-cleaner in another part of the city.

The relocation process was facilitated by an intermediary organization. A nonprofit that operated a community loan fund and also provided small business grants. The business owner received relocation technical assistance, presented a business case and requested funds. The organization then curated capital to match the request of funds. Funds included Eminent Domain compensation, small business grants and loans with friendly terms. Using this approach 80% of business owners were able to successfully relocate.

It is possible to establish a market mechanism that allows residents to transition their living situation towards a more sustainable economic future. I believe our community has both the expertise and capital to establish such mechanism. We simply have not created the opportunity to think about equitable development using different lenses.

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