Kendall Pelling, Executive Director of Rising Tide Partners at the ELDI Impact Report Release Party

One of our key lessons learned in the development of East Liberty is that land acquisition is a crucial part of realizing a community’s vision. While real estate acquisition and financing is inherently risky—blighted and vacant real estate even more so—visioning, planning, and mapping out the rebuilding of a neighborhood is useless without site control.

Throughout ELDI’s history, the person who has probably helped us most with acquiring the land needed to fulfill the community’s vision is our former director of land recycling Kendall Pelling. For more than 15 years, Pelling was responsible for the challenging work of gaining site control of abandoned, vacant, or underutilized properties, helping ELDI bring hundreds of properties back online for the community in the process.

In 2020, ELDI supported Pelling to launch Rising Tide Partners, a regional land recycling nonprofit. Using a unique model of community development, Rising Tide Partners goes into communities where they are invited by local community groups and helps those groups acquire the land needed to enact their community plans and visions. Since its launch, Rising Tide has grown to a staff of nine and helped seven neighborhoods across Pittsburgh—from the East Hills to the North Side—acquire more than 343 properties, raising more than $22.5 million in funding to revitalize those properties in the process. So far, more than 180 units have been preserved and more than 120 families protected from displacement.

Having already accomplished so much in such a short period, we thought it was a good time to check in with Pelling to see how Rising Tide has evolved since 2020. In our conversation, he shares what the organization is working on now, some of their biggest successes and challenges, how they work to preserve the long-term affordability of neighborhoods, and much more. Dive in below.

Where is Rising Tide active now?

We are active in multiple Pittsburgh neighborhoods. That includes Hazelwood, the East Hills, Homewood, Garfield, Perry Hilltop, the North Side, and then we’re also starting a partnership with multiple community groups in Wilkinsburg.

Has your mission or approach evolved in any way since you started?

The approach is still the same. It’s been fun to see the reality of the projects take shape and gratifying to see residents who live in unsafe housing be able to buy those properties and repair the issues that they were troubled with. It’s been great to see us assemble properties that are now moving into affordable housing applications. We have a 37-unit building that we have been serving as a developer for—the Brymard Apartments project—that would’ve been foreclosed on if there hadn’t been support for that organization and board to stabilize the building and its residents. It’s been really fun to work together with that organization’s leadership to save this building, which is a key homeless housing resource in Pittsburgh.

What are some of your other successes?

We implemented a strategy in the Park Hill Drive section of the East Hills. This was a townhouse community with a homeowner’s association, but 20% of the homes were vacant and abandoned with collapsing roofs—homeowners were getting water in their houses from vacant properties next door. So, we hatched a strategy to try to save this community by bringing these abandoned properties to stability and then making them lease-to-purchase homeownership units. We also bought out absentee landlords and gave tenants the opportunity to eventually buy those units. We now control all of the abandoned properties in Park Hill Drive, have replaced about 30 roofs in the neighborhood, and now have 50 units that are occupied by residents and are laying the groundwork for those families to be able to buy their homes in the next few years. I’m thankful to see that these visions of restoration could not just be ideas and plans but could actually happen.

“I’m thankful to see that these visions of restoration could not just be ideas and plans but could actually happen.”

What are the biggest challenges in making those visions a reality?

Well, it’s always a challenge to raise capital, but we’ve been able to raise about $22.5 million of capital funding through lots of different sources, and it’s been really encouraging to have the support of multiple neighborhood groups, foundations, folks from the government sector, and from different entities, including the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA), and others. When you’re a startup, it’s easy to be seen as a risky organization with no track record, so it’s been amazing to see the lenders, banks, and foundations align with us and our community partners on the truth that these neighborhoods are valuable and then being willing to take the leap with us.

Rising Tide has replaced about 30 roofs in the East Hills and are laying the groundwork for 50 families to buy their homes.

How do you ensure that Rising Tide is staying true to the community’s vision for the neighborhood?

In each community, we feel that the community should be in the driver’s seat, that local communities should have control over their land use. So, in every neighborhood and community we work in, we have a local governing board that oversees the work of an LLC that is acquiring the properties. The local governing board makes the decisions of what we buy and sell, how it gets developed, whether it’s homeownership or rental, whether it’s affordable or market rate, etc. We make those decisions with our community partners, and sometimes we have to wrestle with what’s the best use for a property, but because we have to make decisions together, we figure out a solution that’s best for everyone.

So Rising Tide acts as a facilitator and provides strategic guidance at the same time?

That’s right. But we’re not just a facilitator who’s helping to make something happen. We’re actually taking the risk. Our community partners bring the vision, the organized people, and the direction, and then we are taking the real estate risk to help make their vision possible. One thing I love about doing this work is that we can hear about a problem that our community’s been facing for ages that nobody can seem to solve and take direct legal action to become appointed conservator and fix the problem, or we can take direct real estate action to buy the property. We don’t have to just join with the community to beg for some sector of government to save us. Together with the community, we can step in to take action to solve these problems and bring the right team together for a long-term intervention.

What are some lessons that you’ve learned so far?

We’ve learned that our community partners really do have a unique understanding of what their neighborhoods and neighbors need. It’s always exciting to see that wisdom bubble up from a meeting or conversation with one of our neighborhood board members or from a homeowner’s association meeting and then be used to make something happen—a bad landlord unit turns into a unit we can buy, or we can help a resident get on the path to homeownership, or we can come up with strategies for intervening on a unit dealing drugs.

“We’ve learned that our community partners really do have a unique understanding of what their neighborhoods and neighbors need.”

How much of the work you’re doing is rental vs homeownership?

Since we’re trying to prevent displacement, a key first step has been protecting residents by buying out absentee landlords. We now control about 150 rental units that are occupied or in process to be rented. Many of those houses are single family houses or townhouses, and the long-term goal for those units is for tenants to be able to buy their home. Lots of what we’re doing now looks like rental, but it is actually inventory for homeownership. Our project manager for health and housing is working to connect tenants to homebuyer preparation through Catapult Greater Pittsburgh and then helps us align the real estate and properties so that tenants can buy their homes. We think there are lots of tenants who could be paying less on a mortgage than they do in rent. Then we’re also undertaking renovations of some multi-family properties that’ll be permanent or long-term affordable housing. Additionally, there are the big vacant houses that are going to take a while to move to homeownership, and we’ve moved some of them along the process by selling them to City of Bridges or Open Hand Ministries, capable nonprofit developers who can do affordable homeownership and who do it routinely. But we’re working on moving more vacant properties into the pipeline for homeownership.

Rising Tide’s work in Hazelwood

How does Rising Tide protect the long-term affordability of neighborhoods?

The affordability of a neighborhood is protected in a couple of ways. One is by creating long-term or permanent rental housing and making sure that the developers who create that housing will support that community goal. So, as we’re working with Trek Development to do a large lease purchase, Low-Income Housing Tax Credit in the East Hills, there are all kinds of requirements that our community and us will require of the developer, which they’re happy to do because they’re committed to that mission of long-term affordability and the mission to help tenants move into homeownership. That’s why it’s lease-to-purchase. After 15 years, a tenant will be able to buy their home with a sweetheart deal.

But for other places, it’s making sure they stay permanently affordable. One of our projects is a nine-unit rental project in Hazelwood where we prevented the displacement of seven residents in that building, helped made their housing safe, and the land will be in the City of Bridges Community Land Trust so that it will stay affordable rental housing, functionally, forever—for 100 to 200 years. The residents who lived there when we bought the building had these old furnaces, and when we got the furnaces inspected, lo and behold, they had cracked heat exchangers that were pouring carbon monoxide into their homes. We had to go in on an emergency basis to replace those furnaces. It’s a good example of residents who didn’t want to leave the neighborhood, didn’t want to leave their building, and yet the building needed a major renovation. But the landlord who had been running it had been ignoring it for ages.

We talked a lot about the housing piece of it, but is Rising Tide also involved with commercial developments or bringing Main Streets back to life?

Every community needs both housing and commercial opportunities. Neighborhoods want neighborhood serving businesses and opportunities. We’ve had the pleasure of working with Wilson’s Barbecue on the North Side where the Wilson’s family was really passionate about reopening the family barbecue restaurant that had burned down many years before, and they were looking for a new space for it. They found a building at Perrysville Avenue and North Charles Street in Perry Hilltop, and right next door to that building was this blighted, abandoned property. Working with the community, we had targeted that property for acquisition, and ultimately demolition, so that that business district could be cleaned up. The joy of working there now is that because of this local entrepreneurial family being ready to restart the business, we’re now in the process of tearing down that building, but not just to leave a vacant lot, to enable that to become the expansion space, the outdoor seating, and to enable the restart of a Northside institution.

What is Rising Tide’s vision of a healthy, thriving community?

In each neighborhood and place we work in, the community has created their vision of what they believe health and wholeness is. And that’s unique for each neighborhood. But some of the things that are consistent is that communities want to see long-term, high quality affordable housing. They want to see homeownership opportunities. They want to see a community that’s safe, that has quality green spaces, that isn’t blighted by abandoned properties that individuals and investors have ignored and that our city and its government have been unable to address. A healthy community is one where we’re not segregated by race or by income. One where everybody has healthy, safe housing, where the neediest families, and other families, have opportunities to build wealth in a home where their children can grow up, and which they can pass down to them and their children’s children one day. A neighborhood should be a home base where we can have a positive community with our neighbors. And that home base leads to all kinds of creativity in the arts, music, and business—people stepping into their passion, their passion for life, and hopefully, in a place where that passion for life won’t get snuffed out by violence or the trauma of poverty. A place that will still be desirable and we haven’t let rot away, where families can thrive, and we only thrive when we thrive together, because thriving as a sole individual is a myth.

“A neighborhood should be a home base where we can have a positive community with our neighbors. A place where families can thrive, and we only thrive when we thrive together.”

What’s next for Rising Tide?

We’re looking forward to being able to work more fully as a partner to the City of Pittsburgh, working with the mayor’s administration, with our council members, and the Pittsburgh Land Bank and URA. These first three years have enabled us to get our feet wet, to get our structures and staff together, and to establish good relationships with our community partners. Now I think we’re ready to more fully partner with our local leaders and organizations to scale up the interventions that our city wants to see to address the scale of blight and really fix it, as well as to lay the groundwork for the larger volume of affordable housing—both homeownership and rental—that our city leadership wants to see happen. I’m excited about being a good partner to the public sector as the public sector is stepping out on faith to float a large bond to support affordable housing and looking forward to the potential to enable that big investment to result in real change and improvements for our neighborhoods and the residents who need the housing most.

Learn more about Rising Tide Partners.