The East Liberty Gardens complex.

In 2005, East Liberty Gardens, an affordable housing complex on Broad St., was in the early stages of foreclosure, facing poor management and overdue bills in the six figures. ELDI was approached by the local Department of Housing and Urban Development and the sole remaining board member of East Liberty Housing, Inc., the organization managing the property, to help stabilize the property and direct its future development. By 2007, the property was fully stabilized, financially sound and had an active board of directors, but this didn’t change the fact that the building was still beyond its useful life.

Enter the Choice Neighborhoods Grant. In partnership with the Larimer Consensus Group, ELDI helped the neighborhood secure the 14 million dollar grant with the redevelopment of the East Liberty Gardens’ 127 units of affordable housing as a cornerstone of the project.

The grant has since spurred multiple phases of mixed-income development in Larimer and East Liberty. In total, 465 units are slated for construction, with approximately one-third of those units being Section-8, one-third affordable, and one-third market rate. In the fall of 2019, we celebrated the ribbon cutting of the second phase of the development called Cornerstone Village Apartments. The second phase consists of 150 apartments and townhouses located in East Liberty across the street from Target.  Phase one consisted of 85-units in a variety of buildings in both Larimer and East Liberty.

The first completed phase of the Choice Neighborhoods development called Cornerstone Village Apartments.

The second phase of the Cornerstone Village Apartments on Larimer Avenue completed in Fall 2019. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

As for the residents of East Liberty Gardens, there was a concerted effort to ensure that everyone was taken care of. Residents were assigned active case managers to assist with relocation. With this assistance, over one-third of the residents secured units in the new development, much of it just a block away.

Desi-Rai pictured with her son, Javon.

Desi-Rai LaPrade was one of these residents, living in East Liberty Gardens from 2007 to 2015. She spoke with us about her relocation experience and about becoming a part of the Circles / Open Hand Ministries (OHM) program, which helps participants find and renovate homes while simultaneously preparing them for all that homeownership entails. With the help of allies and program directors, they develop skills that help them get all aspects of their life in balance—from finances to personal health and wellness.

Read on for Desi-Rai’s story, and read more about the story of East Liberty Gardens on page 12 of The Bulletin.

Why do you like being a part of the East Liberty neighborhood?

I love the location and the convenience of public transportation as well as being so close to all of the redevelopment happening in the area.

When did you start transitioning out of East Liberty Gardens?

I started to look for a new place because all of the talk about East Liberty Gardens being torn down. I wanted to start looking before it happened because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find a place in the area that I wanted to live in.

What was the transition like for you?

It was really easy. The property manager, Tracey Dyer, was really helpful with making sure my move out of East Liberty Gardens was easy.

Where do you live now?

I first moved from East Liberty Gardens to Skyline Terrace in the Hill District. I then moved from Skyline Terrace in March of 2017 to move in with family in Friendship to save for my future home purchase with OHM.

How did you first hear of and get involved with Open Hand Ministries and Circles?

Tracey referred me and gave me Tammy Thompson’s number [Tammy Thompson is the executive director of Circles Greater Pittsburgh]. I called her and she told me to come over. I immediately fell in love with the program and all of the great people I met.

What appealed to you about the process? 

How everyone shows how much they care about helping families succeed, not only in homeownership but also with improving our lives.

What are the steps you are currently undertaking to become a homeowner?

OHM showed me three homes, and I chose the one I wanted. I am currently saving for my down payment and working on improving my credit.

What has been the most challenging part of everything so far?

Budgeting my expenses because I never tracked my spending prior to working with OHM and Circles.

What are you most proud of when you look back at where you started until now?

Seeing the person I have become. When I started Circles, I had just started working again and within a year of being in the program, I was offered a new job making more money. I have learned so much from this program—from budgeting to taxes to health and wellness—things I would have never imagined learning if I hadn’t been a part of this program/family.

How have Circles / OHM leaders guided you through the experience?

My leader and the whole Circles family have given me so much support throughout this whole process. Showing me different ways to save and budget my expenses and methods to help me with my health and wellness goals as well.

What are your dreams for the future?

I see myself moving into my new home and continuing with budgeting. One day I hope to help someone else with the process I have gone through as well.

Do you have an idea of when you will be ready to move into your new OHM home?

As of right now, I am not sure when. We have started demo on the home, so I am hoping sometime next year.

Learn more about Circles and Open Hand Ministries, and read more about the story of East Liberty Gardens on page 12 of The Bulletin.