Affordable Housing, Zoning, and ADUs in Pittsburgh Neighborhoods

27 Jun

As many of you know, Pittsburgh has an acute shortage of affordable housing.  The reasons for the shortage are complex, and include factors as varied as:

  1. the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage lending requirements in mid-20th century America, which preferred single-family homes in homogeneous neighborhoods over mixed housing forms in heterogeneous neighborhoods;
  2. the decline in Pittsburgh’s population starting in the 1950s, which has continued to the present day ;
  3. the inability of municipal taxing bodies in Pennsylvania to easily discharge back-due taxes, which combined with low home values in certain neighborhoods can incentivize property owners to abandon their property when taxes due exceed the value of their home;
  4. the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh’s and HUD’s decisions to demolish many public housing developments in the City and replace them with mixed-income housing or Section-8 vouchers;
  5. and demographic changes including Pittsburgh’s aging population combined with an increase in younger residents.

To make the situation even more complex, Pittsburgh has what is known as a mixed market – some neighborhoods have seen increases in prices, while others have continued to see widespread demolitions and continued population loss. Each of those points could be an article itself, but the fact remains – Pittsburgh was estimated to be short 14,894 homes affordable to households earning 30% or below of Area Median Income in 2016.  In addition, since 2015, nearly 500 additional properties have been demolished, and property values within the City of Pittsburgh have increased dramatically. The combination of fewer properties in the City, the expiration and demolition of income-restricted affordable housing, and dramatic increases in prices in certain neighborhoods has had a strongly negative impact on the availability of housing for lower income residents of Pittsburgh.

Many analyses of this topic focus on the need for additional government funding to solve the housing crisis. This is absolutely a vital part of the solution, and PCRG will continue to advocate for it. However, as in many American cities, Pittsburgh’s own local government has made policy decisions that prevent homeowners and small businesses from making incremental changes that could decrease our affordable housing shortage. These can be corrected on the local level. One of the policy solutions that other cities have found useful is to empower homeowners and small businesses to make incremental changes to increase housing supply in their neighborhoods. Overly restrictive zoning codes have been identified as a barrier to this small-scale development.

Zoning codes regulate what types of building can be constructed, at what density, and for what use on every piece of land in a city, town, or suburb. The intention of Pittsburgh’s zoning code is to “[preserve] and [improve] the public health, safety and general welfare of the citizens of Pittsburgh.” However, in practice, zoning codes often restrict the development of multi-family units in the majority of neighborhoods, imposing additional costs  to any developer (for-profit or nonprofit) who seeks to create denser developments. While some multi-family affordable housing developments are constructed in Pittsburgh each year, the majority are market-rate apartment buildings that are unaffordable to most Pittsburghers

In Pittsburgh, large portions of the city are zoned to exclusively permit single family homes. In the map below, the tan areas are reserved for single family units, while in yellow areas properties with two units are allowed. Large amounts of the remaining areas of Pittsburgh’s area are parks, hillsides, or other non-buildable land. Relatively small portions of the city are dedicated to Local Neighborhood Commercial (red) or Urban Neighborhood Commercial (purple), which allow for construction of more than three-unit properties by right, or without special appeal to the zoning board. Click on the map to visit the City of Pittsburgh’s interactive zoning map.

Map of Pittsburgh Zoning

Because the area where multi-family developments can be easily approved is so small, the land where they can be sited is increasingly expensive both to affordable housing developers and for-profit developers. Unsurprisingly, for-profit developers often win that competition for land. In addition, the application and review process can seem daunting to individuals who would like to add just one additional unit to their home.

A partial correction to this problem is in the process of being implemented in Garfield. PCRG founding member organization Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation is working with the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning to bring Accessory Dwelling Units (often known as in-law apartments or granny flats) to Garfield. The project has recently been featured in NextPittsburgh and 90.5 WESA. During the 24 month pilot period, homeowners will be able to construct one additional unit on their property without the extensive permissions they are currently required to secure. Key features of the proposed legislation include:

  1. Leases of the ADUs must be longer than 30 days
  2. Apartments must be smaller than 800 square feet
  3. Homeowners must live on the property as well.

Read the proposed ordinance here, and view the presentation submitted to the planning commission here.

Although allowing ADUs in one neighborhood is a small change, not likely to affect many households, this kind of creative response to Pittsburgh’s affordable housing shortage is extremely important. Without making drastic changes to the neighborhood, homeowners will be able to make changes to their properties that at this point are require an arduous approval process. The situation we see today stems from a number of policy decisions along with broader economic factors and developed over a period of sixty years. So, in addition to emergency measures needed to provide people with housing immediately, a true solution will need to address the complex factors that brought us here.