Friday, September 20, 2013

Weekender: Affordable Housing in District 6 and Roughhousing in District 7


In a pair of articles in the P-G about the Penguins' intentions for the Lower Hill, some jargon regarding "affordable housing" was thrown around. It's worth explaining.

"AMI" stands for Area Median Income, in this case for the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area.  An affordable monthly rent, including utilities, at 100% of AMI is considered to be 30% of the monthly median income of the average Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area resident.

The hitch is, the average City of Pittsburgh household makes less than that; the average Black Pittsburgh household makes still less than that; and the average Hill District household makes even less than that.

The Penguins are proposing to use "reasonable good-faith efforts" to designate 20% of new Lower Hill housing as affordable, whereas the Hill District Master Plan would have 30% set in stone to be affordable. But the wider gulf is this: according to data compiled by RHLS, even the Penguins' idea of an "affordable" rent at just 80% AMI would come to $977 monthly for a 1-BR, $1,172 for a 2-BR and on up. Which is consistent with what the Penguins are admitting in describing a development geared only towards affluent young professionals.

And so, vanishingly few African-Americans in the region would come close to being able to live in that new Lower Hill.  However, using the 50% and 30% AMI thresholds in the Hill District Master Plan, the 20% or 30% portion of "affordable" rental units would drop to $611 and $367 respectively for a 1-BR; or $732 and $440 for a 2-BR.

We can accomplish this without compromising financial viability. The Penguins' selected developers are actually very good at it. The Housing Authority can utilize its pool of vouchers or its CDBG allocations to make up a portion of the rent gap, the URA can do roughly the same thing, and the City can utilize other Inclusionary Zoning incentives. That is, if anyone has an interest in being inclusionary.


Internet Bird Collection
Speaking of the Housing Authority:

Decrying "steep price tags and an increasing number of contracts" at the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley this week asked federal overseers to provide him with documentation of the agency's salaries, consulting arrangements and travel expenses. (P-G, Rich Lord)

The Senator now references prior P-G investigations on seemingly exorbitant legal and consulting contracts at the Authority.

It's funny. Way back when it appeared as though billboard permits were providing the combustable material for scandalous meltdowns, it turned out that HUD's arm-twisting of the Housing Authority might have quietly sparked more of the drama. It is not inconceivable that Chuck Grassley is trying to jump out in front of something.

Cities which receive federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) must provide an analysis of impediments to fair housing choice, and employ strategies for surmounting those impediments. In 2012, Pittsburgh cited a lack of affordable housing in certain areas of the City, and the concentration of subsidized housing in other areas, as the two main impediments. The City's 2013 Annual Action Plan to solve this is to develop affordable housing outside of low-income areas. City Planning Commission approval of Specially Planned Districts such as the Penguins' proposal is discretionary, and by code, the Commission's compliance with plans and policies adopted by the City is mandatory.

The Justice Dept., HUD, and now Congress are obviously watching Pittsburgh these days. If I didn't know better, I'd think they were picturing us dressed as a glazed ham.


And finally...

Tony Ceoffe's campaign has made allegations of Democratic Party Committee wrongdoing a campaign issue since Bill Peduto first endorsed candidate Deb Gross in mid-July (a week prior to the party nomination vote) and continued to do so during its unsuccessful legal objection to her nomination. Yesterday and today, a little more of the same came out:

The tweet by @TonyCeoffe, deleted at least several hours later, read "Barb Kelley the 9th Ward vice-chair stepped down from LU after telling me she was forced to vote for Deb Gross by Ron Deutsch."

The Comet contacted the Ceoffe campaign primarily to ascertain whether the deleted tweet absolutely needed to stay buried forever to protect the innocent. Ceoffe's spokesperson added that Kelly allegedly told Ceoffe after the vote, "Sorry. Ronnie's the boss. I had to do what I had to do," that secret ballots are no proof against the Committee grape vine, that the alleged cause of Kelly stepping down from Lawrenceville United's leadership was merely speculative, and that "the threats and promises of jobs were real, and they definitely had an impact on the outcome of the vote."

The Ceoffe campaign also added another Committee members' name to the "threatened or promised something" list: that of Donnie Sand.

Sand categorically denied to the Comet having been threatened by anyone or promised anything. He said he voted to nominate Gross because she seems "more educated and more professional," and added by way of contrast that "Ceoffe is immature yet, maybe one day he'll blossom into a better candidate."

Barbara Kelly politely declined to comment for this story.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wednesday: I Am The Target

KDKA: Marty Griffin

Swiftly on the heels of Mayor Yarone Zober's appearance before the grand jury, Frontman Luke Ravenstahl is taking aim at federal prosecutors, saying he is preparing an aggressive defense of what may turn out to be theft-by-perks charges.

If that is what is up, Ravenstahl claims he was duly "ordered" to take bodyguards with him wherever he goes. The prosecution might argue that he himself appoints whichever Public Safety officials issue those orders, and may have selected them according to their willingness to let him utilize what he wanted, when he wanted, no questions asked -- or else pressured them to do so afterwords.

However, that whole idea fails to explain a few things about the course of InvestigatePGH:

I don't know the answers, but none of the above would be explained by one simple flag for "Excessive Use of the Bodyguards."


The City's historic preservation planner issued an affirmative defense of the Produce Terminal's nomination as an historic structure. Such a nomination would put a crimp in Buncher Co.'s plans to demolish part of it, as its seeks in its Riverfront Landing project in the lower Strip District. But it would not necessarily prevent them from doing so. It would require a lot more work though.

Future Mayor Bill Peduto called attention to Philadelphia's plan to develop the shoreline of the Delaware River, which calls for "high quality recreational, cultural and commercial activities" and "high quality investment in public parks and trails as well as maritime, residential, retail, hotel and other improvements". In that order.

Yesterday's workshop on Inclusionary Zoning featured Frank Hammond of BNY Mellon describing how other areas have adopted legislation to encourage developers to provide more affordable housing: through bonuses for greater density, fast-tracking of certain permits and waivers of certain fees, alternative design standards, subsidies (the kind with strings actually attached) or tax abatements, and partnerships with public housing authorities. He also outlined several reasons that serious shares of honestly affordable housing is advantageous to developers, who are sometimes in a rush to maximize rents yet not necessarily thinking through of long-term implications. Bob Damewood of Regional Housing Legal Services got into an analysis of what the Penguins refer to as "affordable housing" in their proposal that is geared toward affluent young professionals -- anticipating likely monthly rents between $1,000 and $1,500 even in that subcategory, and how this would price out almost all Pittsburgh-area African-Americans and the great majority of other Americans.

Meanwhile the Penguins are circulating as part of their very own development plan a sketch of a richly verdant deck over the Crosstown Expressway that they are not planning on building, nor cognizant of when benefactors might build such a thing for them (sometime after the Garden Walkway, most likely).

Tim McNulty, covering yesterday's election-oriented event in District 7, seconds the Comet's take on Tony the Tiger's cautious fence-sitting predilection. Ceoffe himself prefers the part where Deb Gross for an instant takes a measured view of her opponent's community group's awesomeness. The Comet endorses Warren G. Harding.

Governor Tom Corbett, in a desperate last-ditch effort to avert a failed reelection bid, has proposed doing something that would benefit some Pennsylvanians. Keystone Politics analyzes Corbett's proposed "alternative" to Medicaid expansion aka Obamacare and finds it will save consumers less money, is less smart dealing with risk, and parts of it outright irrational. And it necessitates the President altering the terms of the nation's Affordable Care Act even to be implemented. Aside from that however, it's a bullseye.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ceoffe seizes Initiative in Election about Nothing

No Maas

... not that there's anything wrong with that!

In the Special Election for City Council District 7, Tony Ceoffe Jr., who waged a provocative but unsuccessful legal challenge of opponent Deb Gross's election as the Democratic Party nominee, has gone on to organize the first candidates forum.

A release in mid-August announcing its date and location stated that his forum "tentatively" would be moderated by Charlie Deitch of the Pittsburgh City Paper. A gruesome-sounding leg injury soon sidelined the reporter, but also got the alternative newsweekly out of a sticky situation.

"We were very clear with them from the beginning that if the candidates couldn't get together, we wouldn't be interested," said Chris Potter, editor of the City Paper. "We didn't want to be put in a position where we could be used as a cudgel by one candidate against another."

As it happens Gross was not interested in attending a debate organized by one of her opponents, alleging these should be hosted by community groups and follow certain mutually agreed-upon guidelines. Yet the Ceoffe camp soldiered on, stating the forum would be held "Town Hall style," by which they meant no moderators but rather microphones set up for the audience to ask questions. The other three candidates agreed to attend, glad for the exposure on Ceoffe's dime.

Last week a replacement as moderator was secured: Nancy Hart, of the excellent independent online Urban Media Today. So this first debate will proceed, and probably without its front runner to the delight of the rest of the field.


Tony Ceoffe Jr. until this race was the Democratic chairperson of the City's 6th Ward, and vice-president of the community group Lawrenceville United. His father, District Magistrate Tony Ceoffe, was the prior chairperson of that ward and was L.U.'s Director from '05 to '09.

A message from Ceoffe's campaign chair confronts the resulting impression on head-on:

The day I met Tony, I was volunteering at the polls for Bill Peduto in the mayoral primary. Before meeting him that day, I had only known Tony as the son of a district magistrate of the same name who lived across the street from my good friend in Lawrenceville. To me, at that time, Tony was just your standard local politician, part of the nepotistic democratic machine in Pittsburgh. What I soon realized was that I couldn’t have been more wrong. (Neighbors for TC)

Ceoffe was working the polls that day for Peduto rival Jack Wagner. He explains that Wagner reached out to him after Michel Lamb dropped out of the race and remained more accessible to him throughout, and that most other committee members in his ward supported Wagner in that contest. In prior contests, all indications are that the Ceoffe clan actively backed Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Yet indeed there is much to suggest Ceoffe is not a garden-variety "old school" Pittsburgh pol, or maybe that he represents the first of a promising "Old School 2.0".

He calls himself a "progressive" and has made opposition to fracking, support of making UPMC pay its fair share, and an "Open Data Policy" centerpieces of his agenda. He worries about gentrification putting out seniors and low-income residents in his rapidly changing district. He says that Peduto has proposed some "great initiatives" and that "we can't elect somebody that's just going to stick it to Bill". He has made extensive and effective use of social media. He pro-actively engages with bloggers such as yours truly, despite what are our plain political leanings and in one notable past instance a familial dust-up.

And he is impossible not to like.

Truly, we tried. We chased down people after events for follow-ups and even held our own focus groups. People appreciate his enthusiasm, are impressed with his intelligence, think he's a "good guy" and would like to see him do well. Most importantly, people feel as though if elected it would be easy for them to productively interact with him in office.

On the flip side, when pressed for details they call him "a politician" in that he did not offer many decisive answers, that he either talked circles around topics or replied that he would "have to study that at the Council table," and that it was hard afterwords to remember what it was he said exactly. Yet they were willing to cut him that slack. They like that he is good at "that game" and seems to relish it.

Weber 1300
His is a fascinating personality contrast with Deb Gross (the results of our interview are contained here). Gross is more likely to pause to think before beginning an answer, speak deliberately, and even use silence to convey more than Ceoffe might in a more rambling response. In answer to a question about Lawrenceville United's contributions to public safety in the neighborhood, for example, she raised an eyebrow and asked in return, "Have they?"

After a few beats she went on, "One thing L.U. has done well is provide a valuable community table. That is certainly one thing they do of enormous value." Her slight sighs also seemed to suggest an opinion that there was something less-than-praiseworthy in some of the staunchest opposition to a prior Baum-Liberty development proposal, as well as to expansion of the Thunderbird Cafe -- that nonetheless were tough to capture in an interview write-up.

It can be challenging to elicit even these sorts of vague hints about hot-button issues from Ceoffe. His responses to the Butler St. club expansion and his posture towards the Buncher Company's sprawling development plans seem to carefully straddle each fence.

An answer to a question about the City's staying in or departing Act 47 Financial Distressed Status, for example -- a question calculated to assess his willingness to upset the City workers which comprise some of his support -- was that he would have to study the matter further at the Council table.

However, in answer to another such question about using GPS units in City snowplows and other public works vehicles, Ceoffe remarked he would support that "wonderful idea", as it fits into his Open Data Policy.

His boldest stances seem to fall along politically convenient lines.

"I'm completely opposed to fracking in the City," he says, and is therefore wary of Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's proposal "to have the County taking over our public parks. Is that going to impact the City parks?"

I pointed out that this proposal was merely for shared management of the parks, not an ownership transfer, and that besides which the City parks would still be located decidedly in the City which has a drilling ban that all Council members supported.

Ceoffe replied that the City's drilling ban is legally problematic -- "just like campaign finance," another Peduto initiative. "It all gets back to the same thing." Yet Ceoffe offered no remedies to strengthen either the drilling ban or campaign finance reform.


When I referred to this as an "election about nothing," that is not meant to imply there are not serious issues facing District 7 neighborhoods, nor that the identity and talents of its next Council member will not be important.

But so far the issues in this election have been all about process, or optics, or the relative traction of each major candidate's negative caricatures of the others' personality -- neither of which bears much resemblance to reality by the way. In an election held in a weird interlude during which a new in-crowd buoyed by optimism has yet to be able notch any successes or commit any mistakes, it is particularly hard to drill down to substance.

When I look at the choices available in this election, I seek out the choices these candidates made in the past. Being on one "side" or the other has not been a matter of joining Team Red or Team Blue to me -- it means, did you stand up to a politically skilled but myopic, obtuse, politically hackneyed and incompetent regime when there was little to gain? Were you willing to take stands that involved relinquishing certain job opportunities or other opportunities for political advancement? For example when I learned that Gross was involved with Ground Zero, a now-storied affiliation of individuals plotting the seeds of institutional change in Pittsburgh way before this blogger arrived, that signaled much to me. Despite the fact that the tables have very recently turned, I haven't seen anything from other candidates which demonstrates an insistence on speaking truth to power when it is inconvenient or unhealthy.

That's just me. And I am as entitled to my own opinion as you are to reject it.

In truth, Gross's campaign seems from this vantage to be just as light on substantive specifics as her opponent, and a little flat besides. Not to mention a bit overly-reliant on her vast cornucopia of political endorsements -- so it is natural for Ceoffe to try to "judo" that strength into a liability.

He is doing his best. You have to admire the chutzpah. But the choices he has made in the past probably merit a little more time spent in the political wilderness, and he probably will get it. The next election in District 7 is only nineteen months away, wherein both can run as Democrats.

Tony's Ceoffe's campaign slogan, "Policy and Passion over Politics" is fundamentally divisive. One can strike Policy out of the equation outright since his enumerated policy statements are general or non-controversial, and one can just as easily cut out the allusion to Politics since failure to wind up on the winning side is not the same thing as having eschewed political games on principle.

Elections are rarely won on the basis of mathematical precision, but if he wants to give it a shot he might reduce the whole formula to one word: PASSION.