Mayor Bill Peduto wants to get the city growing again. After decades of population decline, the mayor wants the city to focus on adding 20,000 residents by 2025 to help rebuild the decimated tax base and to avoid pitfalls of previous administrations who felt they needed to subsidize big box retail chains to come to the city. Developers are lining up to help the Mayor Peduto accomplish his goals. From the expansion of SouthSide Works to the Almono Project in Hazelwood to huge apartment projects downtown, housing units are coming. Now, the challenge is getting and keeping new residents.
Reports suggest that Pittsburgh began turning the corner in the middle of the 2000’s where population losses flattened and slowly began to climb again. From 2010-2012, the city grew by roughly .1% annually. The city would need to begin adding over six times as many residents from 2015-2025 to hit the 20K mark. This is a lofty task but it gets a little easier to envision knowing the ball is at least heading in the right direction.
So how does the Steel City grow it’s population back over 325,000?
When I moved here fifteen years ago, downtown was open from 9-5, but when my family was looking for a place to eat after business hours, we couldn’t find one on our first trip. The rebirth of the cultural district managed to expand operations until eight o’clock and the new bar scene has Penn Ave jumping until after midnight on weekends. The city needs to pack residents into its core to take the next step and turn downtown into a vibrant 24 hours hub to make Pittsburgh start looking like other major downtowns. You achieve that through dense housing and building up.
The rationale is simple. Dense housing leads to more residents in a smaller radius. More residents in a short smaller radius leads to the greater potential for people with unique tastes being condensed into a small area, which leads to the potential for new and unique business opportunities. You kill two birds with density in that you add residents, but you also add opportunities for businesses that simple weren’t there before, which in turn creates jobs that attract other residents.
Pittsburgh Business Times notes that Lucas Piatt of Millcraft Investments thinks 8,000 of the 20,000 new residents could reside downtown, roughly increasing the total residents in the area by two-thirds. The challenge will be to make sure that 8,000 people can afford to live there.
Make Residential and Commercial Properties Accessible
Condo developers like high-end residential development because it’s a great way to maximize profits. The structural costs to build a seventeen story high rise are the same whether you want to house millionaires, seniors or the poor. However, revenue from the latter is limited, while the targeting of upper and upper middle residents can lead to the most profitable payday. While they require higher end fixtures inside the units, the costs are paltry compared to the reward. The city can help create a variety of opportunities by handing out full tax subsidies only to developments that cater to the middle and lower middle class, as well as the rich.
The question remains ‘how?’ as in how large is the market for high-end residential units in Pittsburgh. To add 20,000 residents the city will likely need to ensure that lower and middle income residents are added as well. Existing housing stock is accessible but new units will need to be added to keep it that way.
“We’ll have to work on both the demand and the supply side, using every tool at our disposal,” Thomas Cummings told the URA in an article on Pop City last year. “We’ll be aggressive in seeking low-income housing tax credits [and] trying to provide market-rate opportunities.”
It’s important to ensure that accessible housing comes with accessible commercial properties. Often times, public pressure is on to create opportunities for the lower middle class and poor to not be gentrified out of their neighborhoods, but hardly anyone stands up to reserve store fronts and office space allowing them to start new businesses at a reasonable start up cost. People often overlook the damage high commercial real estate costs can have on the economy. Much of Pittsburgh’s charms comes from its neighborhoods and their business districts, but what’s missing is the corner store or restaurant. Some neighborhoods have them, but by and large they’re few and far between. Reserving space in new residential developments for local businesses will give Pittsbughers opportunities and make neighborhoods more vibrant.
Invest in Attracting Immigrants
There is a pretty clear trend among regional cities. The ones that are growing have larger foreign born population than the ones that are flat and declining.
Immigration accounted for roughly a third of all US population growth from 2000-2008 according to a 2011 study by the Congressional Research Service. They also tend to be part of larger households and though they account for less than 12% of the total population, 21% of live births in that period were to families with a foreign parent. If your goal is to add population, this is a demographic to look at as they account for a huge percentage of total growth and would likely increase the size of the next generation of Pittsburghers.
Find A Way To Keep Residents
If Pittsburgh manages to add the number of residents it hopes to and continues to increase these numbers beyond the first wave, there is potential for a massive wealth increase in the housing market alone. Community leaders have a choice: this can be an inclusive wave or the rich can get richer. Programs to help poor residents go from renters to homeowners while housing costs are still inexpensive is imperative in that the rising tide could raise all boats, not just further marginalizing the marginalized, but it could also retain residents who would otherwise be forced to move elsewhere as rents steadily and inevitably increase. It’s a lot easier to add 20,000 in population if you’re not losing 30,000 to start.
Improve the Schools Districts Brand
Pittsburgh has a huge school system with an even bigger image problem. Fixing it could help to attract foreign nationals while keeping families. When asked in a recent interview with TPOP if the city schools had an issue with perception or with how they serve students, School Board Member Terry Kennedy didn’t hesitate in saying “I think [there are issues with] the brand. I think if you talk to the students they have good experiences.”
While many see problems with the school and flock to the suburbs, others see potential for the district as the Post-Gazette points out. Thinking the school can get better is one thing. Retaining families after their kids hit school age is entirely different or convincing them to come in the first place is another. Kennedy would like to see people visit the schools and get to know what they have to offer before making a decision where to live. The good news is that elected officials are aware of the problem and they’re doing what they need to do to fix it.