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.

Another demolition UPDATED

A cute little red house at 332 Hancock — one that unfortunately turned out to have irreparable structural issues — is the latest Polish Hill demolition.  Safety is important, but it’s sad to see another bit of the fabric of the old neighborhood lost.

Current building codes make putting new buildings in narrow spaces like these problematic, and sometimes impossible.  The commonly used term is “missing teeth”, and Polish Hill has a lot of them.  In many places, they’ve become green spaces, either wild or cultivated, and provide relief from tightly packed buildings.

UPDATE:  We just got some more information about what’s going to happen on this site.  The owners of 332 Hancock have been working with Forecast D/B to design (and subsequently build) a new house on this property,  one with a high level of LEED certification.  When the new house is done, the owners will become Polish Hill residents.  As mentioned, infill projects such as this one can be difficult under current codes.  This will be an ambitious project that will add something special to Hancock Street.

Landlord Assistance Program free class on Saturday, December 8

Do you own rental property?  Are you thinking of investing in property and becoming a landlord?  Do you have questions about the responsibilities of landlords?  As a landlord do you have questions or recommendations for local policy-makers and agencies?

If you answered “yes”, please join Lawrenceville United for a free Landlord Assistance Program on Saturday, December 8  from 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.   The class will be held at Goodwill of Southwestern PA, 118 52nd Street in Lawrenceville.

Topics covered will include:

Screening of rental applicants

Rental agreements

Legal steps to resolve problems

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED)

Nuisance violations and code enforcement issues

Federal Housing Choice Voucher Program

The role of the police, inspections, and community service departments

Local resources for home and property improvement

Panel discussion with local law-makers and community leaders

The class is completely free and will include a complimentary comprehensive guidebook to property management.  Resources for property improvements will also be provided.  To RSVP, call Lawrenceville United at (412) 802-7220 or email

Foreclosure assistance

I was perusing the Post gazette this morning and found this article about debtors assistance. Butler County has a new program to assist individuals in financial crisis in finding assistance and in negotiating with their creditors. It sounds like a solution to the problem of rising foreclosures, assisting homeowners in staying in their home and stabilizing their situations.

Does Allegheny County have a similar program? Glad you asked.

The Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department has two programs to assist those facing auction of their property; The Mortgage Foreclosure Hotline and the Mortgage Assistance Program. Both programs require that you meet certain qualification for assistance. More information is available here.

ACTION Housing also offers the Homeowners Emergency Assistance Program, which assists individuals in navigating state programs and will put a freeze on foreclosure proceedings.

Another program for assistance is the Get Help Now Pennsylvania program. This is a volunteer initiative to connect Pennsylvanians facing financial difficulties with advice and assistance from professionals in their communities. Help desks staffed by volunteer lawyers and financial professionals are open Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., July 7 through Sept. 11. The Allegheny County branch of the Pennsylvania Bar Institute is located at Heinz 57 Center, 339 6th Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.

Programs to assist in times of crisis are in place at every level, including federal. The Making Home Affordable program assists homeowners with refinancing or modifying your mortgage agreement. The program even offers credit counseling  with HUD approved counselors.

If you are in need of assistance, check into these programs. Maybe there is some help out there for you.

Herron property reconstruction in the works

Alina Keebler of TAI+LEE Architects is working on a new project of her own. She is renovating 1020 – 1022 Herron Avenue (pictured above).

Alina would like to restore the facade of the property to its original 1880s look. She has already begun removing the aluminum that was probably added in the 60’s; the door on the right has been replaced and the transom has been reopened. Next on the list is restoring the mansard slate, gable, dormers, box gutter and brackets.

Alina is looking for any images or information that you might have of this property, the older the better! You can send them to Alina directly at or photocopy and mail them to —

Alina Keebler
1022 Herron Ave.
Pittsburgh PA 15219

Free home energy efficiency workshop March 20

On Saturday March 20th from 1:00-3:30 pm there will be a home energy efficiency workshop at the Mifflin Avenue United Methodist Church (900 Mifflin Ave, Regent Square).  The workshop is free and open to all Pittsburgh area residents.

The workshop includes presentation on DIY energy improvements, alternative sources of energy, tax credits, rebates and incentives; and project planning.  There will be breakout sessions on the PA home energy program and providers in areas such as windows and doors, insulation and HVAC and energy audits.  Special activities include design consultations by the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh (bring photos of your home), and tours of Mifflin Ave. Church and its historic windows.  There will be a number of information tables from local utilities, suppliers, advisers, and contractors.

This event is sponsored by the Greater Park Place Neighborhood Association, Regent Square Civic Association, and Neighbors Unite Wilkinsburg.  For more information, check the RSCA website, the Park Place blog, or call 412.391.4333.

Fixing up the neighborhood: the fine art of dumpster packing


Renovation is a messy job that produces lots of debris.  And dumpsters are large and ugly; they take up space, and they seem to sit there too long.

But dumpsters are also a sign that people are investing in the neighborhood.  Vacant properties are being bought and fixed up all over Polish Hill.  It takes a special person to tackle some of these projects:  what Polish Hill has the most of are houses that need patience, money, and months of hard work to bring them back to life.  This process, which can be dirty, unsightly, and occasionally noisy, can try the patience of neighbors.  But a restored house on your block will help raise your property value.  And some of those dusty people are going to be your new neighbors–probably for years to come.

The above photo is a fine example of the art of dumpster packing, as seen on Brereton Street.  It might seem obsessive to spend time carefully organizing debris in a dumpster, stacking wood, rolling carpet, but if you do, the dumpster will hold a great deal more than if you just threw everything in.  And at a several hundred dollars for a dumpster, it’s worth it to take the time–one of those little lessons for those of us who haven’t yet bought our fixer-upper.

Making old buildings energy-efficient


There was an op-ed piece in the New York Times today with particular relevance to our neighborhood.  Written by Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the article makes the case that older buildings can be preserved and made almost as energy-efficient as newer ones, in the process helping create jobs, revitalize neighborhoods, and reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Polish Hill, of course, is mostly old houses.  The large number of older houses (and relative lack of modern structures) help give the neighborhood its unique character, and they’re one reason why so many people are attracted to Polish Hill and want to move here.  Many new residents have invested in the future of Polish Hill by buying houses and fixing them up.  But renovating an old house is expensive, and many homeowners could use some information or assistance.

The first step to making an older home energy-efficient is an energy audit by a local utility. These audits can be obtained in many communities at little or no cost. They help identify the sources of heat loss, allowing homeowners to make informed decisions about how to reduce energy use in the most cost-effective way.

Help is on the way from another source:  the Obama administration is taking steps to help homes save energy with a program that will invest almost $8 billion in state and local weatherization and energy-efficiency efforts. The Weatherization Assistance Program, aimed at low-income families, will allow an average investment of up to $6,500 per home in energy efficiency upgrades.

Richard Moe says:  “Before demolishing an old building to make way for a new one, consider the amount of energy required to manufacture, transport and assemble the pieces of that building. With the destruction of the building, all that energy is utterly wasted. Then think about the additional energy required for the demolition itself, not to mention for new construction. Preserving a building is the ultimate act of recycling.”

Tiny Homes

How much home is enough? With the downturn in the housing market, and the concern over preserving green spaces, well, you get the picture. There are innumerable reasons for going smaller. Building Home & Garden has interesting review of Micro Homes on their site —

Micro homes are tiny houses, and an exciting new trend in housing options. I define them as ones with less than 500 square feet. Why have more house than you need? A little place is cheap and easy to own and maintain.

Now, 500 square feet sounds really small to me. But, if you figure that a standard row house living room is about 170 square feet, that would leave you with two generous rooms and a bath. Suddenly, it doesn’t sound micro so much as small. You would certainly save a lot on your utilities in a space that small.

While there is a case to be made for conservation in choosing a smaller house, the AARP is finding that many Boomers and seniors are opting for smaller houses in their retirement —

AARP reported Wednesday that nearly eight in 10 adults have either started to cut back on spending or have started to save more money in the past year, with almost three in four doing so in order to save for retirement. Read the Post Gazette article

Some of the concepts for Micro Houses can be quite fun. Check out the review for the Top Five Tiniest Pre Fab Homes on Inhabitat. (The below image is from the post.)