Community development starts with a vision. In East Liberty, that vision was defined by residents in the 1999 and 2010 East Liberty Community Plans. The plans serve as a framework for the kinds of developments that the neighborhood does and doesn’t want to see. But after the vision is outlined, the hard work begins of making dreams reality. One of the first steps? Acquiring land and properties to start implementing the changes that the community plans call for—be it affordable housing or a new park. It’s a process known as “land recycling”.
For more than 15 years, Kendall Pelling served as the director of land recycling at East Liberty Development, Inc (ELDI). In that role, he was responsible for the challenging work of wrangling abandoned, vacant, or underutilized properties and moving them through all of the public and non-profit means to gain site control, including working with the Pittsburgh Land Bank, applying for conservatorship, identifying sellers and buying the properties, making deals with families that walked away from houses, acquisition through foreclosure and lenders—you name it. He was in the weeds doing everything he could to make properties available for affordable developments and others that were consistent with East Liberty’s community plans
That hard work paid off. More than 20 years after East Liberty’s first community plan was published, with land recycling as a central tool and the help of countless partners, we have redeveloped and protected more than a third of all the rental housing in the neighborhood as long-term or permanent affordable housing, low-income homeowners have had their generational wealth restored, the housing market has stabilized, and the community vision of a vibrant regional commercial district has been achieved.
The many successes in East Liberty—along with failures and struggles—have taught us valuable lessons for how to restore communities. These are lessons that we realized could be useful to other Pittsburgh neighborhoods, which is why ELDI supported Kendall last year in launching Rising Tide Partners, a new regional land recycling nonprofit. Employing a unique model of community development, Rising Tide Partners is helping other neighborhoods across Pittsburgh take advantage of land recycling tools to realize their community plans while preventing displacement.
We sat down with Kendall to learn more about how Rising Tide Partners is empowering neighborhoods to achieve their visions of community justice.
Was land recycling always a division of ELDI?
It really started around the early 2000s. In 2002, ELDI only controlled four residential properties in East Liberty yet the community vision plan called for a diverse, mixed-income neighborhood that wasn’t covered in abandoned properties. It called for a stable neighborhood where both low to moderate income families as well as middle and upper income families would have opportunities to buy attractive homes—so that homeowners and families could build wealth and enjoy a safe and beautiful community. From that vision, came a residential redevelopment strategy of “Test Drives, Flips, Targets, and Mothballs”.
With support from local foundations and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, ELDI acquired nearly 200 vacant, blighted, and or abandoned properties in the neighborhood. A pipeline of prospective buyers were given the opportunity to “Test Drive” the neighborhood by renting houses in good condition owned by ELDI. Houses in fair condition were “Flipped” to new buyers after moderate improvements were made. Nuisances and poor condition properties were developed with significant renovations as “Targets” to supply move-in quality homes to new buyers. Recognizing that rehabilitating just a few dilapidated properties would drain available resources, ELDI acquired and simply “Mothballed” these properties for development in the next three to five years. When the neighborhood finally tipped toward revitalization, it became financially feasible to develop the mothballed properties. Some of these properties and vacant lots were held by ELDI for over 10 to 15 years.
For context, was this very different to what other neighborhoods were doing at the time in terms of community development?
Our approach to intervene with the scale of the whole neighborhood was really bold for a community development corporation, and it was inspiring to some, scary to others. Because you have to remember that at that point, homes in East Liberty were not worth what it cost to renovate—every single one of those houses was a recipe for financial disaster, and we were toying with financial disaster by taking them all on. The City didn’t want to take the risk with them, but once this nonprofit was willing to pledge to buy and maintain them, they helped us walk them through the tax foreclosure process.
This is the rub about a community plan—a community plan sets out a vision for what a community wants to see happen with properties that are owned by other people. People say that they would love housing to be affordable in their neighborhood, but if the community doesn’t own those properties, they don’t control their use. You can’t just wish a park into existence. You can’t just wish affordable housing into existence. You have to enable the non-profit, community, and partners to actually own the property. That’s the fundamental truth often missing in community development—because it’s a scary thing to take on a lot of distressed properties, even if you’re committed to the neighborhood. For every property you own, you have to pay taxes, maintain it, and figure out how to make that property work in the marketplace or for affordable development.
The scale of development that we took on in East Liberty was also possible because we were successful in getting a strategic impact grant from the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development (now Neighborhood Allies), the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA), and the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC). They combined forces to offer around $500,000 that helped us move our community plan forward.
“This is the rub about a community plan—a community plan sets out a vision for what a community wants to see happen with properties that are owned by other people. People say that they would love housing to be affordable in their neighborhood, but if the community doesn’t own those properties, they don’t control their use.”
What gave ELDI the confidence to take such a bold approach?
There was some good expertise on our team. Rob Stephany and Ernie Hogan were working with ELDI at the time and together they had lots of development experience. Maelene Myers, ELDI’s current executive director, also had great experience in community development even before coming to Pittsburgh. So, there was a team that was ready to take on that challenge, and we found key institutions that were willing to stand behind the effort, providing the loans needed to actually achieve such a large-scale elimination of blight.
How was Rising Tide Partners born out of this work in East Liberty?
For probably more than 10 years, myself, Skip Schwab (ELDI’s deputy director), Maelene Myers, and others at ELDI witnessed how these tools of community-based site control—particularly the acquisition of abandoned properties and buying out of absentee landlords—were critical to help a community achieve its plan and vision. At the same time, we looked across the city and saw so many neighborhoods rotting away without a partner willing to step in and help. So, we began thinking about how to bring the tools of community site control and revitalization elsewhere.
Community development, however, is also inherently territorial because no neighborhood wants another neighborhood to come in and make decisions for it. The people in East Liberty sure didn’t want some other neighborhood making its decisions for it. That’s why we saw that there needed to be a new regional nonprofit that’s loyalty would not be to one neighborhood and that’s structure enabled residents and community partners in each neighborhood where it worked to lead decision-making on real estate. That was a core value of mine and of the leadership at ELDI—that community plans and neighborhoods should be respected by everyone and that both nonprofit and for-profit developers working there should do everything they can to involve community leadership to implement projects in line with the community’s vision.
So, it’s about taking ELDI’s model and lessons learned to help other neighborhoods find success?
That’s right. And there were some really key lessons that we figured out in East Liberty. We started to understand the things that prevent displacement and the things that cause displacement, in ways that were not imagined before. In 2002, nobody imagined that it would be possible to see gentrification come to the City of Pittsburgh, let alone to East Liberty. People thought that the prospect of selling a house for over $200,000 in East Liberty was very iffy. But we learned a lot as we worked to turn the neighborhood around, from going through the traumatic displacement of the three high rises and the responses to that to the successful redevelopment efforts of East Liberty Gardens without displacement which led to the Choice Neighborhoods developments in Larimer to the successful efforts to buy out absentee landlords.
All of these experiences showed us that if we do the right intervention in the community, if community partners, government, and philanthropy work together, we can actually prevent displacement and enable a community to control its own destiny. That’s part of the great vision of Rising Tide Partners—to create a regional land recycling non-profit that doesn’t have a vested interest in owning everything and is designed to put the community in the driver’s seat for future development, while also directly helping to prevent displacement and preserve the naturally affordable housing that we have in our neighborhoods.
“That’s part of the great vision of Rising Tide Partners—to create a regional land recycling non-profit that doesn’t have a vested interest in owning everything and is designed to put the community in the driver’s seat for future development, while also directly helping to prevent displacement and preserve the naturally affordable housing that we have in our neighborhoods.”
Can you walk us through the process of how Rising Tide Partners will work with a community to realize their vision?
The first thing is that we only work in neighborhoods where we’re invited. We’re not trying to push our way into any place. If a community invites us to work with them, we first explore what roles and services they need to accomplish their visions. We’ll see where they’re at in their planning and vision process, who their partners are, and what community governance structures are already in place. Then we work with them to figure out the missing pieces and to understand if there’s a role for Rising Tide Partners to help them achieve their community vision plan. If there is, we create a memorandum of understanding with the lead community group or groups that have invited us to work with them, in which we define our roles. Next, we create a practical process so that the community can exert its will for real estate.
Can you give an example of what that process might look like?
Every neighborhood is unique, but a standard approach would be that we create a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) for the work in that neighborhood. [Editor’s note: An LLC is a business structure that protects the personal assets of the owners.] Rising Tide Partners would be responsible for that LLC so that the community group doesn’t have to take on too much real estate risk and is insulated from disaster if things don’t go well. The board of that LLC would be half representatives from the community and half representatives from Rising Tide Partners—so every decision we make, we’re making together. To guide that board, we establish a steering committee made up of local residents selected by our community development partners in that neighborhood. This ensures that every decision made about buying or selling properties has input from a grassroots committee that is thinking about how to interpret the community plan. Committee members would consider things like whether a vacant house should be part of the park that’s next to it or affordable housing or perhaps part of a stormwater project. Their role is to think about the best way to meet the community’s goals with each property.
In addition to the community level board and steering committee, Rising Tide Partners also has a regional board made up of a diverse group of leaders from across the city. They oversee things from a wider perspective, checking to make sure every community is making wise decisions and that Rising Tide Partners is operating in a way that ensures our longevity as an organization.
How long does Rising Tide Partners work with a community?
There’s nothing fast about real estate or community revitalization, especially if you’re trying to achieve a vision that includes equitable development and affordable housing. So, we’re here for the long haul—probably seven to 10 years—to slowly and patiently bring the partners, projects, and developers together in a way that enables the community to achieve its goals. With the right structure of community partnership, we work to understand the size of the problem a community is dealing with and step in as a partner to help them dream up and implement a strategy big enough to solve it.
How many communities will Rising Tide Partners work with?
There are so many neighborhoods and communities in need of this type of intervention. Right now, we’re at different stages of partnership with five different communities. That includes Perry Hilltop and Fineview on the Northside and Hazelwood, Garfield, Homewood, and East Hills.
What has the reaction been from these communities so far?
It’s a new model of community development non-profit, so it’s been a process of working with our partners and collaborators in each neighborhood to explain what our role is and what it is not. Our job is not to renovate every home for affordable homeownership. What we do is work to create the inventory of properties that make it possible for other non-profit developers to bring new or renovated affordable homes online year after year in the same place, along with other projects that achieve a community’s goal. It’s always a learning process on both sides. The community is learning how we can support them, and we’re learning about that community, hearing the wisdom of its residents and leaders, understanding its strengths, and also its unique market challenges. We’re also understanding the unique ways in which systemic injustice has harmed it. As we understand these things together, we can craft interventions to try and undo some of that harm and set the community on a path toward achieving its vision.
“It’s always a learning process on both sides. The community is learning how we can support them, and we’re learning about that community, hearing the wisdom of its residents and leaders, understanding its strengths, and also its unique market challenges.”
What are the biggest obstacles to the land recycling process?
Gaining control of blighted and abandoned properties is really complicated, from sorting out tangled up titles and uncertain ownership to addressing physical decay. It takes significant experience to even understand how to gain ownership of one property, but when we’re talking about acquiring a large number of properties, it’s just technically complicated to do the work. The other thing is that it’s financially risky. It takes a lot of money and it means borrowing a lot of money. Part of our goal is to bring expertise to finding capital as well.
Systemic injustice in real estate is another huge obstacle. It has meant that many neighborhoods have not received the scale of capital necessary to solve their problems. There’s often the assumption that it’s not possible to restore a community, that people don’t want to live there because it’s not safe, and that’s just the way the world is and is going to be. In the past, those assumptions were very explicitly based on race and class. Today, we don’t see actively racist policies driving blight, but the system was set up with those assumptions, so they are perpetuated. That means that we’re trying to fix the system in each neighborhood we work in through restorative real estate practices.
What are “restorative real estate practices”?
These are practices that help neighborhood renters own their own home, preserve affordable housing, remove absentee landlords, and instead of leaving the community with a wish and a hope of what it will become, put that community in the driver’s seat.
The blight of urban neighborhoods is complicated, and the restoration of communities is complicated, especially when we’re trying to achieve a community vision without displacement. It would be much simpler to build the market in each community and see its tax base grow, but if we improve a neighborhood without preserving the affordable housing that’s there, without protecting its current residents, then have we really done something good?
“It would be much simpler to build the market in each community and see its tax base grow, but if we improve a neighborhood without preserving the affordable housing that’s there, without protecting its current residents, then have we really done something good?”
How is Rising Tide Partners funded?
We were fortunate to receive a three-year startup grant from the Heinz Endowments to cover the initial operating costs of getting a non-profit started. Then, as we’re addressing properties in each neighborhood, we’re typically borrowing funds and looking for bank and philanthropic partners who are willing to provide the financing to enable these transformative strategies to happen.
What is Rising Tide Partners’ connection to ELDI now?
Rising Tide Partners is a completely independent nonprofit. The work I’m doing now is building on the lessons that we learned in East Liberty. It’s building on the expertise, talent, and ingenuity of the ELDI team, but this is a totally new thing—from a new board and new staff to new partners and neighborhoods. It’s really exciting, and also sometimes a bit overwhelming. We’re really thankful to ELDI for helping us get started and by making it easy for me to transition to launch this new effort. We’re also grateful for the back-office support, as we contract with them for accounting services.
Last but not least, where did the name Rising Tide Partners come from?
They say that a rising tide lifts all boats, which is somehow accurate about real estate. As values go up, people who own real estate see their wealth rise. The question then is who has a boat? The homeowner has a boat. Low-income renters who have protected, affordable housing also have a boat. But folks who have a Section 8 voucher or who rent from absentee landlords are vulnerable. They have a raft. If the neighborhood becomes a very desirable place, they’ll have a place to stay only as long as their landlord is willing to continue to rent.
At Rising Tide Partners, we want to see communities restored in a way that doesn’t cause displacement. We want to see a rising tide that restores the wealth sapped by systemic injustice, that restores the wealth of low-income, African American homeowners. We want to see that positive rising tide happen, and we believe that can happen if we do good groundwork on the front end, if we protect low-income residents first, and if we ensure that each community is able to lead its own revitalization.