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This new, 95-bed facility, Second Avenue Commons, providing housing and social services Downtown for the unhoused, opened in November 2022 and was full a week later, becoming instantly a symbol of the dire need for safe and secure housing for the unhoused and for the larger population of people who confront housing precarity daily.

Image by Joshua Franzos

Securing Housing

Pittsburgh Foundation works to ensure a roof over every head
by Ryan Rydzewski

When Second Avenue Commons opened in November 2022, it offered a low-barrier, one-stop shop for emergency housing, healthcare and more. Officials lauded the 95-bed Downtown Pittsburgh facility, hoping it would mark, as KDKA reported, “the beginning of the end of the homeless crisis.”

It didn’t.

The shelter was full within a week. Its staff scrambled for extra space, clearing out storage rooms and putting beds in the cafeteria. But as the number of unhoused Pittsburghers grew, the need eclipsed what even a state-of-the-art shelter like Second Avenue Commons could provide. In January 2023, Pittsburgh’s City Council declared homelessness a public health emergency, and advocates warn that homelessness is only the most visible symptom of the larger problem of housing insecurity.

Lisa Schroeder, The Pittsburgh Foundation’s president and CEO, frames the situation plainly: The lack of affordable housing “is one of the most significant barriers we face in positioning our region to thrive for the long term. Housing that is affordable and livable affects quality of life for everyone, even those who don’t have to worry about having access to it.”

More than 900 Allegheny County residents are unhoused. Meanwhile, thousands of renters live at the edge of homelessness themselves, grappling with low wages; a shortage of safe, low-cost housing units; and the ever-present threat of eviction. In the City of Pittsburgh alone, a shortage of more than 11,000 affordable housing units daunts low-income renters. The waitlist of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh includes tens of thousands of residents, many of whom will remain in the queue for years before getting a voucher. In the meantime, housing insecurity makes economic mobility impossible, keeping families — and the region as a whole — from reaching their full potential.

That’s why the Foundation, in its latest strategic plan, made housing its primary impact area. And there is another reason. “We know that this problem is entirely solvable,” says Schroeder. “What is required is multiple work sectors putting attention to it and providing some resources. The Pittsburgh region is not as enveloped in this as other large cities and suburbs.”

The Foundation’s grant-making dollars support everything from emergency shelters to programs that boost home ownership among Black residents, who comprise a disproportionate share of Allegheny County renters. But grantmaking alone, Foundation officials say, isn’t enough to solve the region’s housing woes.

“Making progress against huge, systemic problems means changing the systems themselves,” says Phil Koch, vice president for Policy and Community Impact. And together with policymakers, advocates and key nonprofit partners — including Regional Housing Legal Services, ACTION-Housing, Neighborhood Allies and the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania — Koch says, “That’s exactly what we did with PHARE.”

Housing that is affordable and livable affects quality of life for everyone, even those who don’t have to worry about having access to it.

Lisa Schroeder President and CEO

The Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement fund (PHARE), established by the Legislature in 2010, supports affordable housing across the state. Funded in large part by Pennsylvania’s 1% realty transfer tax, PHARE is a particularly potent tool for keeping community members housed, advocates say. While other funding streams tend to be earmarked for specific uses — say, rental assistance or rehabbing old buildings — communities can use PHARE however it’s needed most.

“You can use it for shelters. You can use it for new construction. You can use it for myriad other things,” says Koch. “It is by far the most flexible funding source for housing that we have in Pennsylvania.”

In Allegheny County, for example — which received more than $8 million from PHARE in 2023 — funds support everything from landlord–tenant mediation programs to the development of hundreds of affordable units. But legislators originally capped PHARE’s allocation from tax receipts at $40 million per year, leaving lots of projects unfunded. In 2019 and 2020, Allegheny County received about 52% of the funds it requested from PHARE. Westmoreland County’s share was even smaller: just 43%.

Then came COVID-19, plunging countless Pennsylvanians deeper into housing insecurity. In the state Senate, the crisis sparked a bipartisan bill to raise PHARE’s annual cap. “Our partners in the field were telling us how important this could be in terms of alleviating housing insecurity,” says Koch. “So we said, ‘OK, let’s get folks to the table and see what we can do.’”

The Foundation turned to the Pennsylvania Community Foundation Association, a long-dormant affinity group that Koch and others had recently resurrected. Charged with helping Pennsylvania’s community foundations connect, learn and — when appropriate — act collectively, the association improves public policy via issue-specific, opt-in “action teams.”

Led by the Foundation, an affordable housing action team set out to build statewide support for raising the PHARE cap. “When the bill was in committee,” explains Koch, “we would see which committee members correlated with which community foundations. So, if the team needed to reach a representative from Lancaster, the Lancaster County Community Foundation could leverage its relationships and pick up the phone.”

More than a dozen community foundations joined the action team, and their efforts paid off. After more than a year of advocacy and lobbying, lawmakers not only raised the PHARE cap from $40 million to $60 million, they also created an affordable housing grant program using $100 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Affordable housing advocates were thrilled. “The expansion of PHARE will allow ACTION-Housing and its many partners to expand our work by 50%, meeting critical community needs,” says Larry Swanson, executive director of ACTION-Housing. “Community foundations played an essential role in making that happen. Without their engagement, I don’t know that the bill would have passed.”

The campaign’s success also rejuvenated the Pennsylvania Community Foundation Association. “We’re proving that a diverse group of community foundations in a single state can work together to make Pennsylvania better for everyone,” says Mike Batchelor, who joined the association as president after 31 years of leading the Erie Community Foundation. Now, he says, “there’s huge potential for improving other public policies too.”

As for The Pittsburgh Foundation, its advocacy for affordable housing is just getting started. Already, new bills in the Legislature aim to raise PHARE’s share of the realty transfer tax receipts from $60 million to $100 million per year. It’s a potentially game-changing policy, officials say — one that could keep more families housed and, in turn, make Pittsburgh the vibrant, equitable and just region that its families need it to be.

“It’s not about one foundation doing this solo,” says Koch. “It’s about working with the people and partners closest to the problem: listening to them, amplifying them and working side by side with them to make policies work for everyone.”

Ryan Rydzewski is an author and freelance writer.

Lawmakers originally capped their allocation for the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement (PHARE) fund at $40 million.
Because the original allocation level left lots of projects unfunded, the Pennsylvania Community Foundation Association and advocates pushed for its increase.
Now the association and advocates are working to raise the funding level again so more affordable housing can be constructed to meet the need.

Innovation City

by Ellen Mazo

Huddled in a corner of Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s conference room on the fifth floor of the City-County Building, ready to take on their chief executive’s impending one-word challenge, were staffers Kyle Chintalapalli, Kim Lucas and Sarah Kinter.

The trio were among a half-dozen teams of city directors participating in a weekly training session designed to flag departments’ operational issues and challenges and devise innovative solutions. Chintalapalli is chief economic development officer; Lucas, director of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure; and Kinter, then-director of Permits, Licenses and Inspections.

“Mobility,” declared the mayor, with the same gusto found on the popular Shark Tank TV show that requires contestants to make quick decisions. Within a few hours, Chintalapalli, Lucas and Kinter returned with a proposal to develop a safety repair plan for the more than 1,300 miles of Pittsburgh’s public and private sidewalks, including details for everything – procuring cement, hiring laborers, securing permits, developing a sliding scale payment program for residents, complying with myriad regulations and more. It’s a template for how city departments should work not in silos but in tandem to improve city services. It’s also a plan that can be used for sidewalk repair by any future city administration.

This process began in the summer of 2021, after the mayoral primary election. With consent from the candidates and the sitting mayor, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments funded an expert consulting team, led by New Orleans–based Michelle Thomas, a veteran of government- and private-sector leadership positions, to analyze two dozen city departments, agencies and authorities. The intent was to improve the mayoral transition process as well as operation of the city.

The review by Thomas Consulting, which has provided good-governing guidance to other cities, produced the City Government Guidebook. It spotlighted strengths and weaknesses and provided the city with tools to solve problems and efficiently operate as a coordinated unit.

The guidebook set the stage for the weekly meetings, one of which produced the sidewalk repair proposal.

We’re not telling them what to do,” says Phil Koch, The Pittsburgh Foundation’s vice president for Policy and Community Impact. “We’re not telling them how to fill the potholes. We’re just pointing out where the potholes are.”

Moreover, while sidewalks are now being repaired, the takeaway from this exercise represents the city’s commitment to “transparency and community engagement” – key components of The Pittsburgh Foundation’s vision to support local governments, Koch explains.

In many ways, the weekly innovation sessions stem from a good-government project, Talent City, that was enacted a decade ago as Bill Peduto took over the mayor’s office.

The support, which ensured a smooth governmental transition, was invaluable, says Dan Gilman, Peduto’s former chief of staff. “Given the short time period and lack of resources incoming mayors have to fully fund an appropriate transition, it’s incredibly valuable for a nonpartisan organization to come in – to be the North Star for good government for all.”

Funding the search firm to assist the new mayor is directly related to goals in The Pittsburgh Foundation’s 2023 strategic plan. That is, Koch says, “to become more civically engaged.”

Lisa Frank, Gainey’s chief operating and administrative officer, says when the Thomas team completed the City Government Guidebook, department heads reviewed it carefully. And that, she says, “helped us understand the challenges, helped us set priorities and helped us start off in a governing frame of mind.”

The sidewalk plan is but one example of the work being done to enhance interdepartmental communication and support at weekly department meetings.

“This fits the mayor’s goal to be a safe, welcoming and thriving city,” says Chintalapalli. “As we think broadly about mobility, sidewalks give us access to our properties, to schools, to shopping, to public transit. We’re thinking about these kinds of issues and how we can work together to solve them.”

The next step: Allegheny County. The Pittsburgh Foundation had enthusiastic support from former County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, as well as from current County Executive, Sara Innamorato, for Allegheny County to undergo a similar process. The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments have hired Thomas Consulting to guide the newly elected county executive’s transition after the November election. Two other local foundations may participate as well.

“This is another demonstration of the new ways we’re making an impact in our community – by being proactive and civically engaged,” says Koch. “We at The Pittsburgh Foundation must think creatively about how to meet the region’s needs.”

Ellen Mazo is a Pittsburgh-based writer.

Javin Muldrow, 8, plays with his brother, Jalil, 3, on a newly refurbished sidewalk along Zephyr Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Sheraden neighborhood. The sidewalk was rebuilt as part of a safety repair plan developed in an innovative process. That process was recommended to the city by a consultant hired with funding from The Pittsburgh Foundation and other southwestern Pennsylvania philanthropies.

Image by Nate Smallwood