Video by Dean Mougianis; featuring Helen Gerhardt, of PPT and Just Harvest, and Myrtle and Mabel, Penn Plaza refugees and members of the Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition
The fight for housing justice at Penn Plaza
The Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition is a coalition of residents and supporters that formed around the displacement of hundreds of residents from the Penn Plaza apartment buildings in East Liberty, at the intersection of Penn and Negley.
The Coalition has pushed back against the cruelty and greed of LG Realty, which received public money for the property in 1966 under the condition that it remain affordable housing and is now seeking to create luxury retail on the remains of people’s homes. The demand is that the city use eminent domain to purchase the property from LG Realty and create tenant-owned affordable housing on the site.
PPT was a member of the coalition at the time the displacements were happening and wants to lift up the work they have been doing as a great example of housing justice organizing in Pittsburgh. Check out their Facebook page here for more information about their work and how to get involved. Crystal Jennings, housing and transit organizer with PPT, has done and continues to do a tremendous amount of work with the coalition.
In 2015, hundreds of residents, many of them seniors, received a letter from LG Realty that they would be required to move within ninety days. It was clear that the company had planned this for years and would be forcing hundreds of long-time residents from their homes with short notice. Most of the residents had lived in East Liberty for decades and had built community and networks of support there. With the accelerating gentrification happening in the neighborhood, they could not find housing nearby.
This sparked community outrage and hundreds mobilized to defend their homes, communities, and neighbors. A memorandum of understanding was signed between the City of Pittsburgh and LG Realty, extending the move-out time and providing very marginal support for residents.
Even the minimum requirements of the MOU were not met by the company, which turned off heat in the bitter cold winter months, started removing windows and asbestos tiling while residents were still living in the property, which create bad air quality, and sought to create an inhospitable and hostile environment for the residents. Most of the residents ended up in unstable housing situations, displaced to areas far outside the city with limited to no transit options, and faced immense trauma from their forced removal from their homes.
Additionally, an important part of the initial MOU was that LG Realty would engage in robust public process with the community to ensure that any movement forward that would happen with the site would be done while incorporating community needs.
The only public meeting that happened was held last minute the night before the proposal for luxury apartments and a Whole Foods was to be presented for a vote at the city’s planning commission. The community was outraged at the deception, and more than 50 local residents testified in opposition. To this date, LG Realty maintains that it held 35 meetings “with the community.” 34 of those meetings were closed-door meetings with no residents present.
The massive public backlash led the Planning Commission to delay and then deny LG Realty a permit to move ahead. Both the city and LG Realty were involved in litigation with each other, and as a result, a separate negotiating table was created to try to resolve the disputes without participation from any of the Penn Plaza refugees.
The second round of negotiations resulted in a consent decree, which said that LG Realty would apportion a small percentage of their tax breaks to fund “affordable” housing within a mile of the original site. However, the criteria used to measure affordability are NOT affordable (not affordable to people who are at 50% or less of the area median income, and those using housing vouchers) and would certainly not be affordable to the displaced residents of Penn Plaza. In addition, former residents of Penn Plaza were not given first right of return to the housing that will be built.
And, as members of the coalition and other housing justice advocates have pointed out, the irony of framing giving back public money (our money) as some sort of gesture of generosity is absurd. Nothing about us, without us!
Relationship to Transit
Transit riders across the city are being pushed out of the City and away from access to good transit because of the lack of affordable housing. The East Liberty Transit Center, a key stop on the MLK East Busway, was located less than a half mile from the former Penn Plaza site. The Penn Plaza residents, many of whom were transit-dependent, have been forced to find housing in communities like Verona, Penn Hills and North Versailles, which have infrequent and inconvenient access to transit service. It is both bad for riders themselves and our transit agency that our regular ridership– the core riders– are being displaced in favor of “choice riders”, who use transit infrequently and who have other options for getting around.
The Penn Plaza consent decree uses the East Liberty TRID (Transit Revitalization Investment District) to create the East End “affordable housing fund.” Tax dollars from that fund are intended to help support connections to transit, infrastructure improvements for the transit stop, and stimulating ridership. While affordable housing could in fact help stimulate ridership, the proposed housing fund would not be affordable to low income residents at 50% AMI or less, and the housing that would be created could be built as far away as a mile and a half from the East Liberty transit center, which is too far to be accessible.
Find out More
The struggle continues, and Penn Plaza has become synonymous with displacement in Pittsburgh. It has brought the housing struggle front and center and has forced the city to contend with the fight for housing justice as a fight that will not be silenced and cannot be ignored. Follow the Penn Plaza story here!
See these great articles by “Citizen Vrabelman” at Downstream highlighting the struggles and stories of Penn plaza residents: