Firesite Update! at the upcoming Community Meeting…

There may be some progress at the long-vacant properties, known collectively as the Firesite. The PHCA is currently looking into a proposal that would both offer permanent affordability and bring new life into the heart of the neighborhood.

The history of the Firesite now spans over a decade. The neighborhood, and the PHCA with it, have worked through a long series of steps to bring us to this opportunity.

As you may remember, the story of the Firesite began in November 2007, when a fire destroyed 3111 Brereton Street and the surrounding properties. The neighborhood was always concerned about what might be done to revitalize the site, but we didn’t get deeply involved until December 2010 when, at the PHCA’s request, a subsidiary of the URA purchased the 3 lots (each spanning from Brereton to Dobson) that make up the Firesite. Since then, the PHCA has worked with the city and other strategic partners to:

  • Put together a community plan for the site
  • Conduct a development bidding process, and
  • In 2014, select an architect/contractor team to develop on the site.

Unfortunately, due to the financing limitations of the project and the acquisition cost of the land, the developers were unable to move forward with the project. The neighborhood was grateful for all their efforts to try to make the project happen, and they stepped away from the project on good terms.

Around the same time that the insurmountable challenges to for-profit development of the Firesite were becoming clear, the PHCA began to look into some alternatives non-profit models that might be possible. One specific approach, which was set up right next-door by Lawrenceville Corporation (LC), was called a Community Land Trust (CLT).

A CLT is a nonprofit corporation that develops and stewards affordable housing. But how does it do this? By changing the way someone buys a house. To explain further…when you buy a house, the usual purchase actually includes two assets: the house itself and the land underneath it. But when you buy a house from a CLT, you just buy the house, not the land. The CLT maintains ownership of the land, but leases the land to you at a very affordable cost.

It’s set up this way because the lease agreement enables the CLT to put certain rules into place—rules written in consultation with the community. Three of the most important rules that are included in a CLT land lease are:

  • Only people under a certain income range are eligible to buy the property
  • A limit on how much the house can be resold for
  • Owner-occupancy is required.

For example, in Lawrenceville, LC sold one of their CLT houses for $125,000 to people who make 80 percent or less of the area median income. That house’s resale price will rise with the median income—not at the incredible double-digit rate of appreciation that the rest of Lawrenceville homes were experiencing.

You may be wondering how CLT homeownership is different from market rate homeownership. Well, CLT home ownership is practically the same as market rate home ownership. CLT home owners build equity, make their mortgage payments, and are responsible for property taxes. They can use their yards as they wish, and can make aesthetic modifications to the homes.

All these aspects about a CLT have been attractive to the PHCA board because it aligns both with the PHCA’s mission and, more specifically, the neighborhood’s priorities for the Firesite. So, when Lawrenceville Corporation invited us to participate in discussions to create a new stand-alone CLT organization that could benefit multiple surrounding communities, we were excited to get involved — particularly because we think the CLT model would be a great way to not only get the site developed, but also ensure that the neighborhood’s desire for permanently affordable housing could be realized.

The idea of the Firesite becoming a part of this new CLT organization, that could build multiple owner-occupied houses that will remain permanently affordable, is now very real possibility. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and insights during the upcoming Community Meetings, held on the first Tuesday of each month.

Abandoned properties

There were two really interesting programs on NPR last week, both about dealing with abandoned properties. Thank you, Alexis, for sending the links on to PHCA.

The first, Providence Offers Help to Buy Foreclosed Homes, talks about providing low interest loans to home buyers and the second, Group Wants Abandoned Homes Torn Down, discusses a different strategy for dealing withblight.

PHCA has an active Housing Committee. We have just joined the Vacant Properties Working Group that is part of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. If you are interested in this issue, we could always use a hand. Please contact PHCA  to discuss participating on the committee.