How Community-Led Renovation is Helping a Rundown Pittsburgh Neighborhood Fight Crime

July 8, 2015
Slumlords are vanishing, crime is down and affordable housing on the rise: what can East Liberty teach us about the transformative power of regeneration?

Dorothea Burke is standing in the street, staring at her house. It’s a warm day in late May and after a hard Pittsburgh winter, Burke and many of her neighbours are in home improvement mode. Drills and power saws blare in the background. New windows are going in across the street and the house next to it is on the market. Facing her house, Burke, a 23-year resident of this block, is thinking about repointing her brickwork and maybe a paint job. “People are finally taking pride in their homes,” she says.

For this neighbourhood, East Liberty, once one of the city’s most dangerous and crime-ridden, the air of optimism and reinvestment is a stark contrast to darker days in the recent past.

“It wasn’t peaceful before,” Burke says. A few years ago, two teenagers tried to rob an older neighbour who protected himself by shooting them both dead. From her balcony, she would watch police lights flashing on a problem house at the corner – sometimes after gunshots, but mostly for drugs. “It was almost a weekly thing,” she recalls. Then, a couple years ago, the property got new management, she says, and the cops stopped coming.

To many here who lived through years or decades of instability, it seems the entire neighbourhood is under new management. Crime is down. Vacant lots and abandoned homes are being redeveloped. Property values are rising. The streets are feeling safe and calm.

Much of this transition is the work of East Liberty Development Inc, a community development corporation that has systematically bought abandoned homes and criminal hotspots, bought out slumlords throughout the 400-acre neighbourhood and redeveloped the properties into stable, well-managed, affordable and market-rate housing. “We took on a huge risk,” says Kendall Pelling, ELDI’s director of land recycling. “We owned the 250 worst properties in a blighted neighbourhood and we’d borrowed most of the money to get them.” But the risk paid off: violent crime dropped roughly in half, and, for the first time in decades, homebuyers are looking at East Liberty as a place to live.