By Tom Smith
South Pittsburgh Reporter Editor 

Consultants outline how to bring back housing on Hilltop


Allentown and Beltzhoover residents gathered recently to hear the preliminary results of a study looking at housing: what was available and what is needed, in their neighborhoods.

The study was a project of the Hilltop Alliance utilizing a grant from the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Renaissance Fund. A steering committee of members from the communities worked with consultants Maynes Associates and Fourth Economy to develop the study and resulting strategy to improve neighborhood housing.

“The purpose of this study was to identify various market movements that are currently happening and figure out how we can, with public assistance, with foundation assistance, how we can use other monies to sort of speed up the market so individuals can build equity in their own homes,” opened Hilltop Alliance Executive Director Aaron Sukenik.

During the first public housing study meeting in July, area residents of the two neighborhoods identified home ownership as a priority. Going with that goal, much of the market research indicated it is more important to stabilize housing already in the neighborhoods rather than build new houses in the next five to 10 years.

Paula Maynes from Maynes and Associates addressed the group stating over the past several weeks and months they’ve met with area residents to learn what they felt were the challenges and opportunities in their neighborhoods.

She said one main theme that kept reoccurring was people wanted their communities to stay strong, vital and healthy like it was several years ago. She noted in both neighborhoods some signs of aging could be seen in the buildings.

“Like the human body,” she said. “You have to take care of your house for it to stay strong and healthy, too.”

We’re here to recommend specific strategies for how to stabilize all the assets you have in your community. By stabilizing the homes you stabilize the value,” Ms. Maynes continued.

Jerry Paytas from Fourth Economy said from the last meeting it was very clear from those attending there has been some new housing in the community, but it didn’t fit in with the neighborhood. Any future new housing should fit in with existing homes.

He said current residents would like to see more homeowners, not renters, in their community. Those same residents expressed a strong commitment to stay in the neighborhoods.

Concerns about the number and condition of vacant lots in the area were voiced by residents and they talked to the consultant about safety in the neighborhoods and the outside misperception the communities are unsafe.

According to Mr. Paytas, one of the goals expressed by residents was to have an affordable place for working families to live.

He said his task was to look at the housing market: what was driving the price of housing and the value of housing. Along with what was going to influence those variables in the coming years.

Mr. Paytas noted Pittsburgh is starting to grow in population again. However, he said because of the surplus of housing even if the city continues to grow, it won’t be enough to fill the vacancies available in the city or in the neighborhoods of Allentown and Beltzhoover.

“A lot of our focus is on how can we control these vacant lots and properties and how can we upgrade the existing housing stock and address the abandonment and disrepair that are bringing down the housing values in the rest of the neighborhood,” he continued.

The strategy he put forth for improving the neighborhoods is to renovate and repair the existing housing first.

Projecting ahead to 2020, Mr. Paytas said the city will have 35,000 more residents or approximately 15,000 newer households than it has currently. People in the 30 to 39 and 40 to 49 age brackets are coming back, along with their kids. There will also be some increases in the newly retired ages of 60 to 69, but decreases in the 80 and over group.

He said the figures could be wrong, but there will still be some positive growth in the coming years.

Looking at where people will be coming in from to live in Allentown and Beltzhoover, he said most will be coming from somewhere within Allegheny County. Seven percent in Beltzhoover and 16 percent in Allentown will be coming from other counties within the state. Out of state residents moving into Allentown will make up 38 percent of the total and 22 percent for Beltzhoover.

The total number of people moving into the neighborhoods represents 15 new housing units a year in Allentown and 27 a year in Beltzhoover.

“Each one of those new residents is an opportunity to see renovation and repair happening in those housing units,” Mr. Paytas said. “As new people are coming in, that’s a potential pool of new people making an investment in the community.”

After taking a look at the existing housing in the two communities, he said the housing stock is a lot older than in most of the city. Sixty-seven percent of the housing in Beltzhoover and 79 percent in Allentown was built prior to 1945.

“They’re not the cheap drywall construction that is going on today,” he added. The housing stock can be renovated and can be saved.

As far as the size of houses, Allentown and Beltzhoover have a higher percentage of “mid-size” homes, two to three bedrooms, than the rest of the city. As a whole, 62 percent of the city falls in the mid-size range while Allentown is 74 percent and Beltzhoover, 84 percent.

“Which is a good range for smaller families,” he said.

In order to compare the price of houses in the neighborhood, they looked at the price per square foot. The median price for a house in Pittsburgh is $125,000 or $92 per square foot while the median price for a two to three bedroom house in the city is $107,500 or $88 per square foot.

The median price for a similar size house in the two Hilltop neighborhoods was $58,250 or $43 per square foot.

He also said they examined what people could afford. In studying it, they found the median income for the two neighborhoods is $34,000. Most of the residents were below $75,000 in yearly household income.

However, there was a significant number of households in the below $15,000 range, but also a number over $75,000.

“In the terms of the housing market, houses are priced considerably below what residents can afford,” he said. The study found there are far too many homes priced below $100,000 and too few priced over.

With too many properties on the low end, it’s dragging down the property values of residents willing to put money into maintaining their homes.

As an example, he said there are only 34 residential properties worth more than $100,000 in Allentown, but there are 415 households who could afford to purchase one of the homes.

A family with an income of $31,000 spending 25 percent of its income on housing could afford a home in the $65,000 price range, he explained.

“We don’t want to do things that will push the prices of houses above what people can afford,” he said. What they want to focus on is renovating and replacing the lowest value housing. Bring it up to the mid-level, to the $65,000 range.

To improve the neighborhoods they recommend moving the houses up from the lower end to the higher end; to renovate houses up to the market average of $45 per square foot or slightly better.

Each property will have to be looked at individually. It’s important for homeowners to only put the money into the house they would recoup if they were to sell the property.

Mr. Paytas also emphasized it was important to connect individual efforts to group action taken in a neighborhood, adding many home owners are already doing a lot to maintain their properties. A goal would be to have enough owners fixing their properties up to hit “critical mass” and change the market.

To help homeowners bring their properties up, they are developing a Housing Repair Toolkit. The toolkit will help the property owner to evaluate what repairs need to be done and what they can expect to pay for the repair.

When completed, the toolkit will be available through the Hilltop Alliance.


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