Rehabilitation or Demolition: Which Path for Homewood and Hill District Community Development?

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C. MATTHEW HAWKINS

 

It feels like Deja Vu: B-PEP is calling for a moratorium on the demolition of housing in low-income neighborhoods and Bill Peduto, the likely next mayor of the City of Pittsburgh, wants the city to have more arrows in its quiver, for urban development, than simply demolishing abandoned properties. Actually this question of whether to re-hab or demolish housing has been a point of controversy for at least 30 years.

From 1986 through 1988 I was the associate director of Homewood Brushton Revitalization and Development Corporation (HBRDC). During the late 1990s I was on the board of directors of the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development (PPND) and from 2001-2004 I worked as a consultant for PPND, the Hill CDC and other development entities that were at the center of the this controversy.

Back in the 1980s there was a lot of bad blood between HBRDC and Operation Better Block (OBB). The question of what to do with abandoned housing in Homewood was one of several issues at the core of that conflict. OBB wanted to demolish the housing in Homewood and we wanted to preserve and re-hab it. The Hill District was experiencing similar conflicts with neighborhood groups during this period. There were reasonable arguments for both approaches.

We used to argue that Homewood and the Hill District had a unique and sturdy housing stock that could not be replicated, without extraordinary costs, by current developers. We argued that we needed to preserve this housing stock because it was part of the competitive edge that the city could offer over newer developments in the suburbs. We also argued that demolition was leaving the inner-city looking like an urban moonscape and it was creating a shortage of affordable housing in the city. Many residents in Homewood and the Hill District saw what was happening as being part what they suspected was a long-term strategy of gentrification, forcing people to move out of Pittsburgh neighborhoods and into what was rapidly becoming a deteriorating climate in the post-industrial Mon Valley.

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