Multi-million-dollar Hill District fund to release first round of funding to hopes and skepticism

Homes along Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Middle Hill neighborhood on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. $465,000 is being made available to homeowners in the Greater Hill District with repair needs through a tax diversion program created in an effort to address the mid-century destruction of the Lower Hill District. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

A developer-financed pool of money will release its first trickle of funding for homeowner repairs with some wondering: Who benefits, and who decides?

 

by Eric Jankiewicz, PublicSource

Benjamin Franklin said that “in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes,” but modern American development challenged the founding grandfather’s wisdom through a common practice of tax breaks. Recently, though, the death and rebirth of the Lower Hill District added a new wrinkle: a tax diversion that’s finally poised to start flowing back into the area.

Tax diversions are often used to stimulate development and construction across the country but the Greater Hill Neighborhood Development Fund reinterprets the usual model by netting half of all tax breaks for the use and benefit of residents in that area.  The tax diversion agreement established in 2015 applies to the 28-acre Lower Hill District, where the Penguins have exclusive development rights dating back to Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s administration.

The fund holds more than $7 million. Out of that, $465,000 is being made available to homeowners in the Greater Hill District with repair needs. Any private homeowner in the neighborhood was free to apply, as 285 households have done.

“This is a restorative justice approach. This is doing the right thing,” said Tanika Harris, the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] director of communications and community relations. “There’s such a great need for home repair assistance.”

Repairing homes

While the home repair funding is available to anyone in the neighborhood, priority will be given to applicants with incomes at or below 80% of the area median income, among other considerations including how badly the repairs are needed and the demographic makeup of households. With up to $20,000 available for each applicant chosen, the allotted $465,000 would be fully used after 23 homes if each requires the maximum amount. 

Priority consideration will be given to applications by households with children ages five and under and households with seniors 62 and over. Further priority consideration will go toward households with disabled individuals 

“There are many senior homeowners and they’re limited to a fixed income,” Harris said. “So there’s varying degrees of need.”

Harris said that the identities of the applicants are being hidden from the board members so that there is no chance for preferential treatment in who gets the money. 

 

Harris said that the URA is also working to recruit contractors from the Hill to work on the repairs. 

“We want to hire people from the community to do the work,” Harris said. Some are minority- and women-owned businesses, and the URA is working to get them certified as such. “It’s not required but it’s good to have so they could be considered for other URA-related work.

Who gets what?

Some people involved in the grant process have raised concerns about who gets to decide on how the money is spent going forward.

“It’s a tremendous historic opportunity here. It’s something that should be closely watched on who’s doing what with the money – how it’s being spent,” said Randall Taylor, the equitable development representative of the Hill District Consensus Group, which has a voting member on the fund’s advisory board. Taylor also said that while money for homeowners is welcome, the advisory board should also help renters who make up the majority of Hill residents.

 

 

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