Last week, some ELDI staff and partners had the honor of presenting at the annual International Conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management with Numeritics, an analytics consultancy that has studied many facets of East Liberty’s revitalization. The conference was held in Mexico City at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México.

Their presentation touched on issues relating to property prices, displacement, and gentrification in East Liberty as they discussed their most recent paper from earlier this year which examines the question of what happened to 940 low-income black families that moved out of East Liberty between 2007 and 2015.

To shed some light on the topics they presented and to get a better look at what’s currently happening in East Liberty, we talked with Victoria Hill and Tayo Fabusuyi, co-authors of the paper and associates at Numeritics.

In four questions, we delve into what drove the two waves of African American population loss in East Liberty and look at ELDI’s role in revitalizing and protecting affordability in the neighborhood.


1. In the paper, redlining in the neighborhood (starting at least as far back as 1937) and its impact on what’s happening today is traced. In which ways would you say ELDI’s crime strategy in East Liberty has worked to reverse or tried to reverse the legacy of redlining in the neighborhood?

The premise of the paper is fairly simple. Homes require routine maintenance, and occasionally, updates. If you can’t get a home equity loan to repair a roof or replace old windows, the house becomes exposed to the elements. Wood rots and mold spreads, forcing people from the home. The chief barrier to getting access to that loan from 1937-1977 was redlining. After redlining was made illegal in 1977, East Liberty’s housing stock faced more headwinds in the form of the collapsing steel industry, falling population, and continued white flight.

Vacant lots and abandoned homes are clearly visible on google maps street views from 2007. Whole blocks of abandoned homes on the 5800 block of Hays Street and the 700 Block of Euclid Avenue. A wrecked mansion at 744 N Negley Avenue. A trash-filled lot at 509 Mellon.

That 700 low-income Black residents were displaced by uninhabitable homes should not be surprising given this situation. Four thousand people moved out of East Liberty between 1990 and 2010. And even as the neighborhood now approaches 0% vacancy (i.e., every habitable house and apartment is occupied), we haven’t recovered the population loss of the last two decades.

ELDI’s crime strategy sought to reduce the frequency of crime incidents in the neighborhood. As crime fell, home values rose rapidly and bank loans for renovation or construction became available. Today, long-term homeowners in East Liberty have more equity in their homes, and many have tapped that equity to repair their properties. While redlining and urban renewal made lasting impacts on the community, ELDI’s strategy has largely been a success in rolling back many of its effects.

2. The paper notes that “The loss in African American population was most noticeable between 2009 and 2010 and then again between 2013 and 2014.”. Now that we are in the second wave of population loss, what are some ways that this loss can be stemmed? Were any insights gained in the process of writing this paper?

Since the second wave is essentially market-driven, it is important to be proactive before the market takes over. For this to happen, there must be an organization devoted to the public good that has the financial muscle to intervene with the objective of maintaining affordability. This does not happen by accident and without significant resources. Had ELDI the resources to purchase more properties before the market turned, they could have stemmed the loss of more affordable housing from East Liberty.

East Liberty Revitalization_African American Population Loss in East Liberty
From left to right: Eric Jester of New Burgh Real Estate, Julian Castro, HUD Secretary under the Obama administration, and Kendall Pelling, ELDI director of land recycling. Pictured at the conference.

Displacement can be prevented through large-scale acquisition and preservation of existing affordable housing. In addition, properties in poor condition should be identified, purchased from slumlords, renovated, and maintained for affordability ideally before they’re abandoned due to inhabitability. ELDI has been utilizing this strategy in East Liberty, but its effectiveness in stemming the population loss was constrained by its limited financial resources and the sheer volume and depth of the deterioration of the neighborhood’s housing stock before 2010. As a result, a number of these properties, unfortunately, fell through the cracks.

ELDI continues to work with partners to ensure that future developments include an adequate percentage of affordable rentals and homeownership. One example of this is Mellon’s Orchard Apartments. These properties on Negley Avenue witnessed decades of poor maintenance and neglect. ELDI ensured that the future development would include more than 50 units of permanent affordable housing. In addition, ELDI constructed 20 units for the Housing Authority and has partnered with Open Hand Ministries to construct several homes for low-income buyers. Opportunities like these exist, and ELDI is doing its best to meet them.

3. The paper also states that;

“Mapping the processes that explain the loss in African American population in East Liberty provides a cautionary tale in two ways – how the narrative is presented to the public and how to plan for safety nets that ensure that low-income families can still be a part of the neighborhood.”

What are some of the current pitfalls you see in how the narrative is presented to the public? What do you wish more people understood?

People associate population loss with big events like Penn Plaza. Displacement, however, happens every day in neighborhoods throughout Pittsburgh due to neglect and abandonment. Depending on the timeframe considered, it is unquestionably true that more units were lost to abandonment in East Liberty than were lost with the demolition of Penn Plaza. There is a false narrative that it was the revitalization that led to the population loss, but in fact, 70% of the population loss in East Liberty happened even before the revitalization occurred, driven by the deterioration of the housing stock, a development shaped in large part by the enduring legacies of redlining.

We cannot and should not separate the fact that many of the neighborhood’s problems had their genesis in an overtly racist government policy that literally wrote racism into the banking laws of our country. Urban renewal was, in turn, a ham-fisted attempt to fix years of disinvestment directly attributable to redlining, and the 2008 foreclosure crisis, during which many financially and physically distressed apartment buildings and homes were abandoned, simply accelerated what had been occurring for decades.

4. Other “distressed neighborhoods” with a large percentage of homes near the “rot point” were highlighted in the paper in the Figure 4 scatterplot. What are some parallels we can draw today between those neighborhoods and what’s happening in East Liberty?

Parallels to other distressed neighborhoods are important. Many of the neighborhoods identified in Figure 4, like East Liberty of a decade or two ago, have average market rents below the rot-point – the rot-point being the minimum rental rates that can sustain the investments needed to upkeep the properties. Neighborhoods whose average rent can’t clear this bar typically experience situations where required maintenance on properties are neglected or deferred, triggering a vicious cycle that typically ends in a neighborhood riddled with crime, falling property prices, instability, and turmoil. The fact that these other distressed Pittsburgh neighborhoods are currently experiencing steady and continued population loss, is a strong testament to the first wave population loss mentioned in our study. Having said that, there is a need to preserve affordability by taking proactive measures identified in the response to Question 2 to insulate vulnerable residents from the negative effect of housing market forces when revitalization efforts take hold.

> Read the paper on the population impact of East Liberty revitalization here.


Learn more about East Liberty’s revitalization in an updated version of Numeritics’ original analysis of our crime reduction strategy. The crime study is available as an article in a special issue of the European Journal of Operational Research. A preprint that is not behind a paywall is available here.

> All of our plans and studies can be found here.