Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource
George Moses has been in the community organizing game for a long time. Thrust into this world by accident when he was a Section 8 resident in one of East Liberty’s high rises in the nineties, he quickly embraced his role as an advocate for Pittsburgh’s tenants. He currently serves as the chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Low Income Housing Coalition and is a member of the Hill District Consensus Group. Throughout his career, he has served as the vice president of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, a member of the Board of Directors of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, and an ELDI board member, among many other positions. In these roles, he has helped connect residents across the city with local and national services and voiced their concerns with city officials, community groups, and others in a position to enact change. It’s a role he has taken on with plenty of good humor, insight, and humility, and one we wanted to take a moment to spotlight.
In our conversation with George, he tells the story of how he came to be doing this work, shares his perspective on how to create inclusive communities here in Pittsburgh and beyond, and reveals East Liberty’s “best-kept secret”, which also happens to be part of his current mission to help Pittsburghers access high quality, affordable health care. Dive in below.
You have a long history in community and tenant organizing in Pittsburgh. Can you tell us the story of how you started doing this work?
It was the early nineties, and I had some health issues that required me to live in a building that had one floor and an elevator. I happened to find an apartment in Liberty Park, which was a high rise in East Liberty. At the time, the high rise was having a lot of issues. One day, I was at the mailbox waiting for the mailman, and some older ladies were there having a conversation with the manager. He hollered and screamed at them, and I intervened and told him that he should not be yelling at them like that. Later on that day, those same ladies came to my apartment and asked if they could talk to me. They said they had a little society in the building and wanted to know if I could make some phone calls and write some letters for them. From that, one thing led to another, and we started to galvanize some of the other residents in the building, forming what you would call an ad hoc tenant council. We began writing letters to congressmen about the conditions in our building and the other buildings that the same management company owned in the area, but we were getting no response. After that, we got involved with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, but a lot of their issues, though they were the same as ours, were covered under different United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations. That’s when I started to look around, and I found out that we were not known as public housing, but we were privately owned project-based Section 8 housing, which had its own set of rules and regulations that govern it.
Long story short: we were getting nowhere, and one day as I was reading a magazine at my doctor’s office, I saw an advertisement for the National Low Income Housing Coalition conference in Washington, D.C. I decided to go. When I walked into the hotel where this conference was held, lost as ever looking, I met a woman named Cushing Dolbeare [Ed note: one of the leading experts on federal housing policy and low-income housing in the United States]. At that time, I didn’t know who she was. I told her my name, where I was from, and this, that, and the other, and she welcomed me to the place. She told me that the conference hadn’t started yet, but she pointed to some folks up on a balcony and told me I needed to go talk to them. I made my way up to this little alcove where this group of people were huddled, and I come to find out that they were the National Alliance of HUD Tenants. I listened to what they were talking about and said, “Wow, that same thing’s happening to me.” Long story short: I got made the first vice president of the east of this national organization that I had no clue about. They welcomed me in, and the leader of the group, Michael Kane, took me under his wing and taught me a lot of stuff, including what the difference was between public housing and privately owned Section 8 housing. It was a very huge learning curve. That then became my start of getting involved with housing advocacy here in Pittsburgh.
What’s the difference between public housing and Section 8 housing?
What’s the difference between public housing and Section 8 housing?
How did you get connected with ELDI?
When I was living and organizing with the residents, we reached out to ELDI for some assistance and help. At that time, the executive director was a woman named Karen LaFrance and Mary Keller was their point person on housing. She began to work with us on some of the things we were doing. ELDI then approached me to either be on their board of directors or take a job with them as a community organizer. I could choose either one, and I chose to go onto the board. This was in the early 90s. It was very interesting because there were a lot of things going on in East Liberty then—good, bad, indifferent, whatever. Being on the board, I brought a resident perspective.
What were some of the issues you were helping guide them on?
Some of the issues were housing affordability and keeping the people who owned the buildings accountable for keeping the people and buildings safe. We were also focused on the business quarter of East Liberty, working on making it safe for people to shop as well as working to bring new businesses in, especially more minority businesses—many of the same things that ELDI is working on today.
Can you remember any wins or progress made during that period?
After all of our letter writing and everything we did during that period, we did get State Representative Bill Coyne to take an interest in what we were saying and the issues we were facing. He conducted many meetings with HUD locally about those issues and held the property management accountable for some of the things that were going on. It was a period when some of the gangs were running rampant in Larimer and that really took its toll on the area. We also helped revitalize the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and brought businesses to the Penn Avenue business district.
Do you think we need more public housing in our communities?
There were a lot of articles that came out that said that East Liberty has the highest concentration of public and privately owned Section 8 housing and vouchers in the area. That might be true, but in hindsight, we didn’t really focus on a lot of the displacement issues that were going on and how that was going to affect our neighborhoods and communities. Because when you look back, we tore down three major high rises in East Liberty that, in effect, displaced around maybe 2,000 people, people that had no place to go. In hindsight, if we looked at some of the models that were around the country of build first, tear down second, we could have preserved and built a lot of good housing stock around the East Liberty corridor so that the people who lived in those places could have remained in those places. Unfortunately, we tore down the buildings with the promise of people coming back, but that did not happen. At the same time, some other developments around the city and area were also being torn down, so you had a limited number of housing units available, while you had a whole bunch of people from everywhere trying to apply for that housing.
“Each community, each neighborhood, and each development are different. There is no cookie cutter approach to something. You need to go in and look at what’s going on—what is the fabric of the neighborhood or community—then work with the people there to make it fit.”
What are some effective ways you have found to get people involved in housing issues?
That’s a $20,000 question. Today, you still don’t get a lot of people engaged in what’s going on. Maybe they’ll come to a meeting or hear what’s going on, but they don’t completely understand or get it. Then, when you have the second meeting, there’s a group of people who didn’t come to the first meeting and there’s always a learning process to get them caught up. Before we even start talking about rebuilding a neighborhood or community, we should have people and organizations that people trust start talking to people six months in advance. Because number one: we don’t understand. A lot of us are smart but might not have a college degree, and we might not understand all of the rules of community development. When I first got involved in this, I had to learn the difference between public housing vs. privately owned Section 8 housing vs. vouchers—and that that’s no easy task. Now you bring in a third thing called tax credits, and you’re asking a group of people to learn and make decisions that they don’t really have a clear understanding of. And the people that are doing this sort of manipulate people based on how they want to do things.
What do you think is needed to create more inclusive communities?
When you talk about inclusive, you have to be willing to bring people from all economic statuses into a community and give them opportunities to succeed, while letting them live in the communities of their choice. Sometimes it’s very difficult because of the real estate markets that are placed on prime locations within the city, but when a community is beginning to turn itself around and revive itself, you have to have a mindset of not wanting to push people out who have been living there all their lives. While at the same time, you do want to attract some new folks that can come in and add more value to that community. That’s where the “build first” mentality of building communities comes in. There are a lot of places out here where people are trying to accomplish good things, but sometimes the way that policies are written or how it works with funding sources prohibit them from doing as much as they would like to.
Is there anything that you wish more people understood about community development or community organizing work?
Each community, each neighborhood, and each development are different. There is no cookie cutter approach to something. You need to go in and look at what’s going on—what is the fabric of the neighborhood or community—then work with the people there to make it fit. If you are sincere about coming in and doing community development, then don’t come with a preconceived notion of what something should be. In other words, when you hold your first community meeting, the piece of paper that you bring to the table should be totally blank. It shouldn’t have renderings of buildings and green spaces and other things on it and all you are doing is asking people to say “yes” or “no” to the paper. The piece of paper should be blank, and you should start by listening to what people are saying and sketch on that piece of paper while they’re talking.
You now do outreach work for the East Liberty Family Health Care Center. Can you tell me about that?
I’ve been working there for about nine years, but I have been a patient since the mid-nineties when I met the founders of the organization, Dr. Hall and Dr. Boyle, while living in East Liberty. They created the center to provide services to people who needed healthcare but couldn’t afford it. ELFHCC is what’s known as a federally qualified healthcare center. That means that they are able to serve people based on their family size and income. So, a person with limited income might be able to come in and pay $10 for quality healthcare, dental, or behavioral health services for them and their family. The same goes for our peadiatricians. Dr. Hall and Dr. Boyle started the practice in the basement of Eastminster Presbyterian Church. From there, ELFHCC has blossomed into other sites within the community, including in Lincoln-Lemington, which has just been refurbished. They also have a dental office in the Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg, and they’re getting ready to open a center in the Hill District in the coming year. Every center has sprung from this small entity within the East Liberty community which now serves over 17,000 patients a year. I think it’s the best kept secret in East Liberty. My role has been outreach, working with a team of incredible people to go out and spread the good word about ELFHCC, attending healthcare fairs, church events, social events—anywhere where we can tell people about the center and the services that we perform.
How do you feel when you look back at this long journey you’ve had in community organizing and outreach?
You know, I got into this at a late age, when I was 45 years old, so my learning curve—learning about housing policy and how to advocate and get my point across—has been really steep. Being able to sit across the table from prime developers and elected officials and voice the concerns and issues of many thousands of residents, not only here in Pittsburgh but across the country as well, has been a humbling and great experience for me to be a part of. I thank all my ancestors who went before me here in Pittsburgh and across this country for tutoring and mentoring me into who I have become. The joy on this ride has been excellent, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world.