At “Building Change: a convergence for social justice” held at the Senator John Heinz Regional History Center Oct. 13-15, activists from across Southwestern Pennsylvania gathered to share solutions to some of the regions most pressing social issues. While some came equipped with abstract plans to reshape the region, others brought concrete models of action they had already taken to improve their neighborhoods.

CHANGE AGENTS—From left: Ronell Guy, Cheryl Hurt and George Moses present affordable housing models in North Side and Clairton. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

The workshop “Affordable Housing Crisis and Local Responses in SWPA” demonstrated how progress has been made to expand affordable housing opportunities in African-American communities. Among the presenters was Ronell Guy, executive director of the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing, whose organization was able to take ownership over the Northside Associates Properties, a 333-unit multi-family, scattered site HUD-Assisted rental housing development.

“Our story beings in 1998 when 333 families were evicted from their homes. It was critical that we figured out collectively what we were going to do because they were going to give everyone a (Section 8) voucher and I understood that vouchers aren’t the easiest thing to use,” Guy said. “We didn’t even understand what fair housing meant at that time. It was completely new and challenging. All of the women involved in the process did what they needed to do to be effective.”

NCFH was formed in an effort to stop the evictions of families living in the Northside Properties. If evicted, the low-income families would be forced to move and given Section 8 vouchers to subsidize housing costs.

Fortunately NCFH was able to postpone the eviction and raise the resources to make the property’s owner an offer in 2002. Although the initial offer was refused, along with several subsequent others, today NCFH residents are the majority equity owners of Northside Associate Properties.

“What effected us was the generational dependence on these properties. We didn’t want people depending on these properties for generations so we started helping them to improve their earning potential and to help them improve their life,” Guy said. “We work with families to improve their house keeping, their parenting. We’re looking at working with certain entities to create jobs for people. I think connecting people to civic engagement activities is important is because there’s such a self-esteem issue in our community.”

The model in Clairton, which originated in the late 1990s and was lead by the Clairton Economic Development Corporation, involved the construction of new low-income housing on property that had once been vacant. The Clairton Southside Neighborhood Revitalization also gave low-income families the opportunity to purchase homes with three-bedroom houses costing no more than $56,000.

“We were able to keep all of our residents in Clairton. None of them were displaced. Everybody wanted to stay and that was their fear, that they were going to be displaced,” Cheryl Hurt, executive director Clairton Economic Development Corporation. “Some of the issues we run across, we share with the other organizations. Forums such as this help, just hearing the information allows us to connect.”

Another component of the Clairton plan was to provide grants and forgivable loans for home repairs that would allow delinquent home owners to retain ownership of and improve their properties. Similar to NCFH, the CEDCC is also working to create a community center to provide social service.

“The whole thing that was undertaken in Clairton was necessary to right a wrong. They’re doing a lot of great things out there,” said George Moses, chair of the Board of the National Low Income Housing Coalition who also works in the Western Pennsylvania Housing Alliance office. “Each community is different and they have to replicate it on their own. As we look at what we can do for affordable housing, we look at the funding cuts, the things we have that help provide fair housing, they’re cutting, so we need to reach out to the government.”

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