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Community coalition seeks to buy 333 Section 8 homes on Pittsburgh's North Side

Thursday, October 18, 2001

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One recent morning, a Triangle Messenger showed up at Ronell Guy's North Side home to pick up an envelope. Before he could leave, Guy's mother, Billie Terry, grabbed her camera. She clicked as her daughter handed the envelope to the messenger.

These are some of the members of the original coalition formed to fight mass evictions from Section 8 properties on the North Side. (Annie O'Neill/Post-Gazette)

This was indeed a dramatic moment. Just three years before, Guy and a clutch of North Side women had rallied on behalf of 333 households that faced eviction, including their own, on the Central North Side, in California-Kirkbride, the Charles Street Valley and Perry South.

In 1998, North Side Associates decided not to renew contracts with its Section 8 residents in the face of diminishing federal subsidies. All the residents would have to find new housing as their contracts came up for renewal.

The women met. They called a lawyer. They named their effort -- the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing.

Fast forward. Exactly three years after the first woman was to have been evicted, the Triangle Messenger left Guy's home with a proposal to buy the 333 homes from North Side Associates.

Tom Mistick, an owner and manager of the properties, says he has sent the proposal to the representative of the 30 owner investors. He has not reported any decisions nor returned phone calls.

Home ownership was the far-off goal when Guy and Leslie Howell began mobilizing women in the neighborhood. They had built a partnership of sorts, exchanging child care while training for work from welfare. With their friend Emma Coleman's contract set to expire first, attorney Bob Damewood of Regional Housing Legal Services found an exemption in the law that prohibited HUD from reducing any of the subsidies.

It was breathing room, emergency over.

But not end of story.

In the three years since the coalition formed, it has built what Kweli Kitwana, a national consultant from Washington, D.C., calls "a beautiful organization." With a core of a half dozen women, only one of whom is paid -- for eight hours a week -- the coalition has the backing of city and county funds worth about $27,000, a $200,000 federal line item and hand money from the Urban Redevelopment Authority to take control of the homes. The group offered $1.6 million for the units, $500,000 for the taxes and an estimated $7 million for the debt.

"I believe it is a reasonable offer," says Skip Schwab, Pittsburgh program director of the Local Initiative Support Corp. LISC raises money to help community organizations develop housing. "With HUD subsidies, there may not be the incentive to sell, but that ride is going to end."

Schwab is a local teammate of the coalition, while Kitwana came on board through her past affiliation with the McAuley Institute, a corporation of the Sisters of Mercy based in Silver Spring, Md. It supports women-led projects with revolving loans, technical support and education in housing policy and community development.

Guy approached Kitwana at a housing conference in Texas in1998. The evictions were imminent and Guy was in tears.

"She said, 'I don't know how to get started, but we're going to be put out of our homes and I need you to come work with us,' " Kitwana recalls.

"I think I actually cried, " Guy says.

Kitwana describes the group as "a kitchen-table organization. These are grassroots women, a bunch of folks saying, 'We can't just give up our homes and community.' Those families are part of their neighborhood's history."

Guy, 44, was born and raised on the North Side as one of six siblings. Her mother is a pastor at Greater Faith Tabernacle Church of God and Christ in Homewood and her late father was a union organizer for Local 29 Service Employees International.

Guy held the coalition's nascent meetings in her home on Monterey Street. She and Howell sat at her kitchen table and hashed out the issues while their children watched TV in the living room.

"We have a community here and a network of friends here," Guy said at the time. "We'll lose all that if we have to leave the neighborhood. This is just not right."

The group was upset, angry and worried. Its members knew that few would find a landlord on the North Side to honor their Section 8 vouchers.

Guy was working at Allegheny General Hospital as a coordinator in the Family Support Center then. She also has worked for Head Start. She is currently unemployed from her job as a public-housing organizer for the Consensus Organizing Institute.

"I never wanted to do this," she said recently of her role as spokeswoman and motivator. "But I was so angry. I said, 'I'm tired of this.'

"When they come to fix things, they do such shoddy work. Everything cheap, nothing of any quality. The houses are stifling. But it's livable, you know? It's one step up from the projects."

In the late '80s, her Section 8 unit in California-Kirkbride burned down, taking everything including a newly bought bed for her 1-year-old. Her next Section 8 home was on Monterey Street, where she faced eviction in 1998.

When a development company called residents to a meeting to encourage support for a recreation center that same year, Guy's resolve was set.

"I said, 'Hello? Did anyone tell you that we've gotten eviction notices? We don't need a rec center, we need a shelter!' They were clueless about what was going on in the community."

At that meeting, a paper made the rounds. It would become the call list for the newly formed coalition. It attracted the support of Janet Holtz of the North Side Common Ministries and Art McDonald of the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church. Holtz and McDonald helped make calls to announce the coalition's first official meeting in March 1998. The Common Ministries, on Brighton Road, has since provided meeting and office space.

The coalition began building a roster of advisers and stakeholders, including the North Side Leadership Conference and the Young Men and Women's African Heritage Association. The Local Initiative Support Corp. joined the effort to help find funding. The coalition became nonprofit, with support from Fannie Mae and the Washington, D.C.-based Telesis Corp. as development partner.

Laura Lazarus, vice president of Telesis, says the coalition is "an incredible organization. It has great leadership, and they have identified the talent and resources within the city that they need to make things happen for them."

Guy characterizes the group as "an organization of low-income, African-American people." A study of the residents conducted in part by the nonprofit Los Angeles-based Beyond Shelter found that almost 90 percent lived at or below the poverty level and are either single mothers or elderly.

When Damewood found the exception that halted the evictions, he warned the residents that the crisis was merely postponed. They would have to plan their future, something more stable than Section 8.

Guy says those early days were heady.

"Everybody was pitching in, and lots of people got training," in asset management, tax credits, financial management and planning. "People started realizing they had some abilities."

"It showed me that we can fight for what we want," says Martha Adams of the Central North Side, an original coalition board member who has lived in the same home for 29 years. "Not everyone can jump up and talk to senators. But these women have showed me we are more than housewives."

One resident returned to school for a nursing degree. One started her own decorating business. Another got an associate degree in child development. Some people are working two jobs, others are in job training programs or taking college courses. More than half the residents are working, although many people will continue to have to rent, says Guy.

"There will always be young mothers, and not everyone wants to own or is functioning at a level where they can own. We want to make sure that renting is still an option. At the same time, for people whose lives are improving, we want to make sure we have affordable homes they can purchase."

One effect of the coalition has been that members made opportunities for themselves and have led busier lives, with less time for coalition activities. About six people have kept running the ball, but a stronger community has resulted. The coalition built a social component, with field trips to amusement parks and family picnics, and it began a mutual aid society -- sharing job leads and child care, bartering services and lending food, furniture and household help. These exchanges had been lost as gentrification and new residents shifted the focus of the neighborhoods, says Guy.

The coalition gives merchants free advertising in its bi-annual newsletters -- a circulation of about 350 -- in exchange for store discounts of 10 to 20 percent. It also has collaborated with Point Park College to establish a scholarship program for residents.

"It's about more than just the real estate," says Schwab. "They are rebuilding the fabric of a community. It's slow and incremental, one person at a time, but it's profound."

One earlier grassroots effort, North Side Tenants Reorganization, formed in the '80s to buy the same 300-plus properties. It began as a cooperative but could not raise enough money to satisfy North Side Associates. Although just one current coalition member was part of the former group, "It's the same universe of women," says Schwab. "But they [the current coalition] have made the distinction that the real value, long term, is community. You don't have to be a home owner to do that."

Guy, who had a newborn during the Reorganization efforts led by the late Harriet Henson, says her group may not have been able to accomplish what it has so far without her precedent: "I am grateful for the road she paved."

At the coalition's most recent monthly meeting, Guy appealed for participation beyond the faithful.

"This has been a life-changing experience for me," she said. "I have learned so much working on this project. Get involved because it's for you. You learn skills you can apply to other areas of your life. I mean, I went to Philadelphia today to speak in front of all these attorneys, y'know? I wasn't doing this awhile ago. I was lucky to get to the Hill."

To chuckles that followed, Guy told the group that since she has recently left her Section 8 home -- she and her husband bought a house in Perry Hilltop -- a resident should replace her as leader at some point. But Martha Adams says Guy "could live in China and she'd still be head of this table. She's the one who got me off my stoop and over to here."

Of the possibility that North Side Associates will not accept the coalition's proposal, Guy says, "Well," with her signature sigh, "maybe not this time. But we are going to keep picking away at them, like grit in a shoe. Eventually, we are going to be owners of those properties."

Thursday, October 18, 2001

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