For years, nonprofit CEOs and thought leaders have been calling for a new investment strategy to help create sustainable change in communities. While the call has been clear, the question remains: What do these strategies look like in practice? What would happen if partners, funders, and local leaders committed for the long haul?
Pittsburgh, a community in Southwest Atlanta, is showing the field of community development the power of commitment and its ability to improve the lives of residents. An initiative in Pittsburgh supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been working for more than a decade to demonstrate how community engagement, patient investing, and committed partnerships can stabilize housing and strengthen a community. Over the last 11 years Casey’s work with Pittsburgh leaders has shown the power of long-term commitment.
As most communities face the destabilizing forces of the COVID-19 pandemic, this work also offers timely perspective on the effort and investment it can take to restore affordable housing once disinvestment and predatory practices have taken root in a neighborhood.
African American laborers and former plantation workers established Pittsburgh in 1883 while seeking housing and jobs with the railroads in the area. By the 1920s, the neighborhood was home to a thriving Black business district, including a drugstore, barber shops, restaurants, and several educational institutions.
Over several decades, though, the community suffered from significant population loss caused by a range of factors, including disinvestment, discriminatory policies, highway construction, and predatory lending.
New Focus on Affordable Housing
Since 2001, Casey has been working in the Pittsburgh community as one of two Civic Sites where the Foundation has a special connection and long-term commitment. The work at first focused on people-based programs, including workforce development and early childhood efforts. Over time, Casey recognized the critical need to expand its focus to preserve and create stable housing in those communities as well.
In 2009, in the wake of the Great Recession, Casey began exploring an affordable housing and homeownership strategy. To begin, the Foundation committed $3 million in a program-related investment to buy 53 vacant homes to renovate and sell at affordable prices. The properties were transferred to the Fulton County/City of Atlanta Land Bank Authority, a public entity that holds and temporarily manages vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties to return them back to productive use.
To help incorporate these individual properties into community-wide improvement, Casey brought together range of groups and residents to create the Preservation of Pittsburgh Neighborhood Master Plan in 2012, identifying needs, assets and potential land uses.
A Range of Partnerships and Tools
In collaboration with several committed partners, rehabilitation efforts began in 2015. The project relied on a range of funding sources, including a $1 million low-interest equity-equivalent investment from Wells Fargo, Housing Opportunity Bond financing from Invest Atlanta (the city’s economic development authority), and additional Casey grants. The Foundation launched the next redevelopment phase a year later with Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership (ANDP), a nonprofit development and advocacy organization. In addition to Casey financing, ANDP obtained a federal New Markets Tax Credit investment to help with the costs.
Casey and its many partners relied on several tools to reduce vacancies, increase homeownership, and create a variety of affordable housing options. Community land trusts, land banking, creative financing sources, and down-payment assistance programs were all part of the approach to this work.
Open houses and bus tours were held for prospective tenants, and the Foundation supported educational courses on homeowner protection, first-time buyer workshops, and more.
As of May 2020:
- Casey and its partners had invested more than $8.1 million into the Pittsburgh housing initiative.
- Forty-three of the 53 properties Casey acquired in 2009 have been redeveloped and rented or sold at accessible prices.
- The remaining 10 properties have been transferred to local nonprofits committed to redeveloping them and keeping them affordable.
The Pittsburgh initiative has also focused on supporting community leadership, engaging with residents, and making the area safer and more attractive as a way to strengthen Pittsburgh’s public image and encourage home sales. The project team, for example, distributed “Pittsburgh Pride” house flags and launched a social media campaign to share positive stories from the community. Also vital to the effort were community cleanups and façade improvements for local businesses, stronger housing code enforcement by the city, and grants to help lower-income owners make home repairs.
Casey’s work in the neighborhood and other factors has led to an increase in property values in Pittsburgh. In response, Casey and its development partners began transferring more homes to Atlanta Land Trust, which was established to maintain affordability in neighborhoods at risk of gentrification, and to work on preservation of affordable multi-family rental housing.
Lessons from Atlanta
Casey has carefully considered its work in the Pittsburgh community and documented lessons in a newly released report, Affordable Housing in Pittsburgh. Those lessons include:
- Simply renovating vacant homes and building new ones is not enough to revitalize communities ravaged by disinvestment; that work must be complemented by broader efforts to strengthen neighborhoods.
- Residents and community-based organizations must play key roles.
- Change takes many years. Residents in neighborhoods like Pittsburgh are understandably skeptical given the long history of predation and discrimination their communities have faced. Developers and other partners must establish trust and seek residents’ input continually.
- This work requires flexibility and a willingness to adjust timelines based on resident feedback and broader market trends.
- No organization can create affordable housing alone. Bridging the gap between the cost of acquisition and development and whatlower-income buyers and tenants can pay requires multiple funding sources. Like-minded developers, real estate agents, and other partners are vital to success.
More broadly, the project shows the importance of laws like the Community Reinvestment Act that ensure equal lending opportunities for low- and moderate-income buyers, especially those of color, and those who benefit from homebuyer education and the provision of public down-payment assistance.
This determined 11-year effort that brought together a range of partners and funders has helped stabilize the community and expand homeownership in Pittsburgh. That experience can help guide others around the country working hand in hand with residents during these challenging times to preserve housing affordability and transform neighborhoods into inclusive places to live, work, play and thrive.
Natallie Keiser is a Senior Associate in the Atlanta Civic Site of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.