Bridging the Gap: In the News

Homewood partnership goes proactive in guiding future development

Derrick Tillman in a meeting at Homewood

How will future investment play out in Homewood? More than 125 residents are preparing now to have an influence in making sure it benefits them and their neighbors.

A joint project of the Homewood Children’s Village and the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work has been training residents how to be proactive in shaping development instead of having it imposed on them.

The effort is called Research for Equity and Power (REP), and since 2018 it has received $260,000 from the Corporation for National and Community Service, based in Washington.

“This is a project anchored in community capacity building,” said Shannah Tharp-Gilliam, officer of research and evaluation for the Homewood Children’s Village.

The REP team assembled a playbook to help people at the grassroots level strategize, communicate and share the data from other neighborhood plans to make sure that investment in their neighborhood is done with “an intentional focus on eliminating racial inequities and barriers,” it explains.

For decades, Homewood residents have watched their neighborhood sink into increasing tax delinquency, with more houses being demolished and vacant land full of weeds.

But there has been a shift lately, said Jerome Jackson, executive director of Operation Better Block, a nonprofit that has been renovating homes for people to buy.

“We are seeing more new homeowners in Homewood North, some in Homewood South,” he said. “We also know there are speculators buying up properties because there was one house we were looking at that was $19,000 and there were 18 other bidders for it.”

Several developments in recent years include an apartment building on Homewood Avenue whose first floor is home to the Everyday Cafe, the neighborhood’s first new-generation coffee shop.

There sometimes is opposition, no matter how beneficial a project may be, because people are taken by surprise, Mr. Jackson said. “But people like having a coffee shop.”

A new 50- to 60-unit development of townhomes, the Kelly Hamilton, advertises rentals for $1,300 per month. That development was constructed to mixed reviews, but Mr. Jackson said opposition mostly was based on residents not having a say.

Operation Better Block is preparing to renovate a building at North Homewood Avenue and Kelly Street to create two commercial spaces on the first floor and three apartments in each of two upper floors, he said.

One recent development, a business incubator on Susquehanna Street, is cited in the REP playbook as an example of equitable development. The incubator occupies an old factory that was renovated with 85% of the project’s construction contracts going to minority-owned businesses. One contractor, Ma’at Construction Group, hired and trained young apprentices who face barriers to employment, such as criminal records.

Connecting residents

Mary Ohmer, associate professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh, has been engaging her students in doing research with the guidance of Homewood residents for several years. She integrated that work into the Research for Equity and Power project.

“We were a match made in heaven,” said Ms. Tharp-Gilliam.

The group identified priorities, including community development, advocacy, civic engagement, political infrastructure, climate change, small-business incentives and support, management of vacant properties and renovation of existing homes for purchase by Homewood residents.

Last spring, the expectation was to establish another cohort, Ms. Ohmer said. But with a shift to online meetings, the organizers decided to focus on youth participation this summer.

Once a week on Tuesdays, eight or nine teens gathered online to talk about issues including revitalization and gentrification.

One guest speaker was Derrick Tillman, whose company, Bridging the Gap Development, is focused on equitable development. Among his projects was a new apartment building in the Hill District with 36 units. They are affordable but were built with the amenities of market rate units and energy efficiency.

“We brought supportive services to our tenants from the Neighborhood Resilience Project to help anyone suffering the trauma of structural racism, histories of poverty and violence, which can hold people back. “We also have a financial literacy component, with motivational speakers, and we brought in the Coro Center to do leadership training.”

Mr. Tillman, who grew up in part in Homewood, also has been building relationships there with help from the Homewood Community Sports program, a group with a wide reach to families throughout the neighborhood.

He said the suspicion that many people in the neighborhood have toward new development is understandable given the mistrust that is rooted in the historical abuse of Black communities. “It’s one reason I got into this work, to be part of the solution.”

Looking to homeownership

NeKeisha Carter sits on the resident advisory board working with Pitt students and found the meetings interesting.

“We talked about revitalization in the community, how we as residents could empower ourselves,” she said, “Many of the people here are the children of people who were homeowners.”

Homeownership is one of her reasons for activism because about 60% of Homewood’s residents are renters. 

“Low-income housing developments do not contribute to generational wealth,” she said. “Their [developers’] tax credits don’t feed our community.”

Ms. Carter moved back to Pittsburgh from Atlanta in 2013 and is now living in the house she grew up in.

“I returned home with a mission to find a way to empower people of color in Pittsburgh,” she said. “I looked for programs I could be a part of around development and revitalization. My father was active about empowerment as an educator.”

The late George Carter devoted 42 years to education, as a director of the Community College of Allegheny County in Homewood and a counselor at CCAC’s Boyce campus, she said. “I wanted to continue his ways to motivate my people.”

She has a degree in sociology and works part-time in UPMC’s Medicare department.

The playbook, she said, is a guide for residents to know the process, with contacts and information about resources that can help “get the machine started.”

Another resident, Zinna Scott, has lived at her current address since 1976. She raised three children in Homewood and retired eight years ago as a bakery specialist for O’Hara-based grocer Giant Eagle, the company where she worked for 38 years.

“I have attended 10 to 12 REP meetings, and it’s been educational. It’s about building capacity so that your voice can be heard. Just the feeling that you have some knowledge and can have some say is important.”

The planning meetings help residents know what the city is doing in Homewood, how zoning is assigned and who is buying what, she said. “Sometimes you don’t know what’s happening until it happens. They’re teaching us how to keep our eyes open.”