‘Where are these folks supposed to go?’ Hazelwood renewal comes with fears of displacement

Ver Neta McCullough, 65, sits in her living room and talks about living in Hazelwood. Ms. McCullough is concerned she will be displaced if her rent goes up. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Foundations are working with the community, but the fate of low-income residents is the ‘thing that’s keeping everybody up at night’

When Jackie Stock, 33, of Hazelwood, subtracts her living expenses from her income, she normally has $50 or $60 extra at the end of the month. If her rent goes up, it could fling her life into a tailspin.

Ms. Stock, a housekeeper at UPMC Mercy, has lived in Hazelwood her entire life. Her balance sheet affords no room for error.

Just a few hundred yards from Ms. Stock’s door is Hazelwood Green, the 178-acre waterfront brownfield and the largest piece of undeveloped property in the city.

Hazelwood Green is a frontier for development in Pittsburgh. Almost all of the site is owned by a triumvirate of powerful foundations: The Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

The foundations, led by the Heinz Endowments, are beginning one of the largest projects in the city’s history. At an open meeting on Thursday, neighborhood leaders will unveil a plan crafted by foundations, community groups, city planners and consultants that establishes guidelines for development.

On Hazelwood Green, the foundations expect to host a mixed-income residential neighborhood with light manufacturing and tech-centric jobs, as well as jogging trails and other amenities. In the community, they are attempting an ambitious experiment in urban renewal that seeks to defy the tragic narratives left by many of Pittsburgh’s revitalization efforts over the past 70 years: to revive the neighborhood without displacing long-term, low-income renters.

Officials from the Heinz Endowments estimate there are 200 to 250 such households. Some say as many as a quarter of Hazelwood’s residents are at serious risk of being forced out of the neighborhood as development on Hazelwood Green generates investment in the area, driving up rents.

Renters interviewed by the Post-Gazette are fearful that they will be driven out of a neighborhood they’ve called home for years, or decades. Speculation that Amazon may choose Hazelwood Green for its second headquarters has heightened the anxiety.

Jackie Stock, 33, outside her home in Hazelwood. Ms. Stock, a housekeeper at UPMC Mercy, is concerned she will be displaced from Hazelwood if her rent increases. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

Jackie Stock, 33, outside her home in Hazelwood. Ms. Stock, a housekeeper at UPMC Mercy, is concerned she will be displaced from Hazelwood if her rent increases. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

Ms. Stock called her landlord, David Cunningham, six times to ask if he was planning to sell his rental units to one of the many investors looking to buy cheap property in Hazelwood. Mr. Cunningham said he has been approached by at least 10 people and organizations interested in his property, but did not disclose final plans to sell.

“I need to know: Should I start looking?” Ms. Stock said about finding a more affordable place to live. “Dave told me he wasn’t going to sell, but now I’m thinking he might.”

Nearly everyone interviewed for this article said the success or failure of the foundations’ approach hinges on the fate of the community’s most vulnerable residents.

“These 250 families really make us nervous,” said Rob Stephany, director of community and economic development at the Heinz Endowments. “How do we keep them in place permanently, or at least for enough time that the development agenda can catch up with their needs? That’s the big thing that’s keeping everybody up at night.”


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Learning from East Liberty

The view down Hazelwood's Blair Street toward Hazelwood Green. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

East Liberty is a commonly cited case study in the field of urban renewal, said Michael Glass, a professor at University of Pittsburgh who focuses on change in urban communities.

In the late 1950s, East Liberty was a bustling commercial and cultural center until more than 1 million square feet of real estate were bulldozed for wider roads, shopping malls and parking.

“It was the best of intentions,” the professor said. “But the unintended consequence was they killed East Liberty.”

In 1999, East Liberty Development Inc. released a plan for a new wave of revitalization that called for demolishing distressed public housing, reviving the street grid, and wooing commercial real estate. With support from private groups and city officials, East Liberty’s commercial district saw a miraculous revival for a neighborhood long plagued by poverty and crime. But rent hikes and new lease terms forced hundreds out from their homes.

“It was the best of intentions. But the unintended consequence was they killed East Liberty.”

Mr. Stephany witnessed those unintended consequences of redevelopment. Before joining the Heinz Endowments, and before heading the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, he was director of real estate development at East Liberty Development Inc. from 2002 to 2008.

“The press goes to the mass evictions, but the slow burn is the worst part,” Mr. Stephany said. “This idea that we can build affordable housing for the people who live there that we know are vulnerable to displacement, that was not on the agenda in East Liberty.”

Maxwell King, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, led the Heinz Endowments from 1999 to 2008, a period that included the purchase of Hazelwood Green.

He said the revitalization effort in East Liberty serves as an important example as the specter of development hovers over Hazelwood.

“Gentrification was beyond what the architects of the ELDI [East Liberty Development Inc.] had expected. The strategies weren’t a match for the market forces,” Mr. King said.

Heinz and Hazelwood

The Heinz Endowments’ special relationship with Hazelwood began with its purchase of land it now co-owns. That bond has since come to include millions of dollars of grants to neighborhood causes, reflecting a strategy in urban renewal in which a selected community receives a windfall of funds and resources.

“Heinz is definitely our lifeblood,” said JaQuay Edward Carter, founder and president of the Greater Hazelwood Historical Society of Pittsburgh and Cultural Center, which is in negotiations with the endowments to receive funding. “When you think ‘Hazelwood’, it’s like ‘Heinz’. They are synonymous.”

Based on data provided by the endowments, between January 2012 and May 2018 the foundation granted $23.43 million to organizations working in the community. By comparison, from 1998 to 2011, the endowments granted $571,000.


Grants boomSince 2012, Heinz Endowments giving to organizations working in Hazelwood has surged, even as the foundation has prepared for development of a former coke works site that it co-owns on the Pittsburgh neighborhood’s southern flank.

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The trail of grants speaks to the tenuous balance that development leaders are trying to strike in Hazelwood.

The neighborhood badly needs reinvestment, said Dave Brewton, director of real estate for the nonprofit community development corporation Hazelwood Initiative. Hundreds of homeowners have seen their houses depreciate, and a market boom in Hazelwood would make those investments worthwhile again. Grants for revitalization are important to improving the neighborhood for residents and making it more attractive to outsiders.

But those same efforts could alter the housing market so as to drive out as many as a quarter of Hazelwood residents, Mr. Brewton explained. Grants such as $1 million to the Hazelwood Initiative “to effectively counteract displacement threats from growing real estate speculation” serve to mitigate the negative effects of development on poor residents.

Mr. Brewton said he is confident long-term, low-income families in Hazelwood can be accommodated as long as more affordable units become available. Hazelwood Initiative plans to install 50 to 60 mixed-income rental units at the former Gladstone Middle School, as long as a lawsuit does not foil the sale of the building.

Mr. Brewton said the biggest asset to stabilize the market would be mixed-income housing on Hazelwood Green. By his estimation, 400 mixed-income units on site could relieve much of the pressure on the neighborhood housing market.


Reading, rebuilding and real estateThese 10 organizations have each received more than $400,000 in grants from The Heinz Endowments, almost all of it since 2012, partially or entirely for their work in Hazelwood. Five of the 10 are members of the Greater Hazelwood Community Collaborative, which is planning the future of the neighborhood.

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But Hazelwood Green does not have a residential developer, said project developer Rebecca Flora. She said it would be “irresponsible” to indicate how many residential units will be on site, and how many of those would be for mixed-income use. The first goal, she said, is to stabilize housing inside the existing neighborhood before looking to Hazelwood Green.

“Housing is not our number one priority,” Ms. Flora said, “because we think it is more important to create jobs on the site.”

“Seed of distrust”

Many of the neighborhood leaders sitting across the table from Heinz in discussions about Hazelwood’s future are also running organizations funded by the endowments.

The Greater Hazelwood Community Collaborative, which represents the community’s interests in meetings with the foundations, city planning, and consulting groups, is made of 31 public, private, and nonprofit groups. Thirteen of those groups receive funding from the Heinz Endowments.

The endowments is using all of its tools — its investment in Hazelwood Green, its grant making, and its staff time — in its effort to buoy Hazelwood, said attorney Carolyn Duronio, who does much of the foundation’s legal work.

“There’s no conflict” between those roles, she said, “because it’s all charitable.” If the foundation makes money on the development of Hazelwood Green, it is legally required to give away the windfall within a year, above and beyond its minimum grant-making threshold, she said.

“So shutting [neighborhood leaders] up has no benefit to the foundation,” she said.

So far, the relationship between the endowments and local leadership has been mostly harmonious.

Mr. Carter of the Greater Hazelwood Historical Society called the endowments “a model for community engagement.”

Rev. Tim Smith credited the foundations for including the community in important decisions, such as the naming of Hazelwood Green. Rev. Smith is the founder of Center of Life, a charity for local kids that has received $3.64 million in grants from the Heinz Endowments.

“It’s not Heinz leading [the redevelopment process],” Rev. Smith said. “It is the community.”

But there has been one sore spot: Uber.

In 2016, Uber Advanced Technologies Center moved to the southern part of Hazelwood Green, building a test track for self-driving cars on 42 acres.

In recent plans for Hazelwood Green, that acreage was reserved largely for housing, along streets connected to the existing neighborhood.

Hazelwood resident Gavin White, community projects manager at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and board member at the Hazelwood Initiative, called Uber a “major seed of distrust” between the community and the endowments.

“[Uber is] not what’s on your drawing,” Mr. White said, citing early renderings of the project site. “That’s not what you promised the community. So what’s going on?”

The current agreement with Uber for use of the site is through 2021, said Ms. Flora of Hazelwood Green. After that, renewals will be on a yearly basis based on “mutual agreement.”


An uncertain future

Ver Neta McCullough, 65, in front of her home in Hazelwood. Ms. McCullough is concerned she will be displaced if her rent goes up. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Ver Neta McCullough, 65, has been been on the night custodial staff at the Duquesne Club for 30 years. She first moved to Hazelwood from West Virginia when she was 6 years old.

The soon-to-be great grandmother is set to retire next year. For the first time, she fears she will not be able to afford to live in Hazelwood.

“It feels like they are slowly moving us out, like we are not supposed to notice and there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said.

Ms. McCullough, like Ms. Stock, rents from David Cunningham. Ms. McCullough told Mr. Cunningham that if he raised her rent, she would have to leave.

Mr. Cunningham is the largest landlord in Hazelwood. He has 80 rental units and estimates more than 300 people occupy them, many paying with Section 8 housing vouchers.

“The market is going to accelerate so fast that the poor people aren’t going to have a place at the table,” Mr. Cunningham said. “If I sell, where are these folks supposed to go?”

Dave Cunningham, 60, stands in one of his 80 rental units in Hazelwood. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Dave Cunningham, 60, stands in one of his 80 rental units in Hazelwood. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

In other cities and states, policies like rent control and stabilization mechanisms help low-income renters stay in their houses as the market changes around them, Mr. Stephany explained. “But there’s no such policies in the state of Pennsylvania and in Pittsburgh to do that.”

“We obviously would love to see long-term low-income residents participate in the neighborhood for a long time, and if there are strategies that make sense that we can participate in, we surely would,” he said.

According to Mr. King of the Pittsburgh Foundation, Hazelwood represents a shift in the way urban renewal is done. Different from East Liberty and other communities where city and business groups imposed brick-and-mortar change, Hazelwood is foundation-led redevelopment.

“A foundation has a responsibility to the community that is different from those of a business,” Mr. King said, calling the three owners of Hazelwood Green “very good and very committed.”

“But verify,” he added. “Watch carefully because there can be unintended consequences.”

Rich Lord contributed. Jake Leffew: jleffew@post-gazette.com


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