An impending $400 million investment in the Hill District aims not only to replace the city’s oldest public housing complex, but also to change the trajectories of families in the neighborhood, according to the official who has championed it for more than seven years.

“Sometimes ZIP code has an influence on the outcome of your life,” said Caster Binion, the executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, whose push to redo the Bedford Dwellings community got a huge boost last week with the announcement of $50 million in federal funding. “We want to interrupt that by providing a better environment and ecosystem for the next generation.”

Binion said the $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s [HUD] Choice Neighborhoods program will allow the construction of 823 new housing units as well as changes in services and amenities in the area.

In a decade, the neighborhood will have a different feel, he said, predicting that a pedestrian walking Bedford will see that “people have more jobs. Income went up. Kids did better at school. … You will see a nice place, but you will also see the difference in uplifting people’s lives.”

The authority has been publicly pursuing a Choice Neighborhoods grant since 2016, and the process has included conversations with the community. Binion said communication will continue on Aug. 3, when officials from the authority and HUD will attend Bedford’s Community Day celebration and present more details.

Timika Martin sits for a portrait in the courtyard of her apartment at Bedford Dwellings on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, in the Hill District. “I just I want the one brick, and I want everybody to sign it.” (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)
Timika Martin sits for a portrait in the courtyard of her apartment at Bedford Dwellings on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, in the Hill District. “I just I want the one brick, and I want everybody to sign it.” (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Residents of the existing 411 Bedford Dwellings apartments interviewed this week continued to have questions about how impending moves would affect everything from children’s schools to transit access.

“They don’t tell us nothing,” said resident Tamika Martin, 53. Martin grew up in the Hill District and has spent the past six years in Bedford Dwellings.

Although Martin fondly remembers the family cookouts and watching her grandchildren play in the complex’s courtyards, she said she is ready for the community’s next phase.

“It’s going to excite me when I see it,” she said of the community’s transformation. “Take it down, just let me have one brick. I just want one brick, and I want everyone to sign it.”

Bedford Dwellings resident Josh Moore, 32, talks about how to make the redevelopment of the apartment complex a success on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, in the Hill District. Moore, a bricklayer, hopes that the Choice Neighborhoods grant will allow for people from the community to get jobs as a part of the rebuilding. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)
Bedford Dwellings resident Josh Moore, 32, talks about how to make the redevelopment of the apartment complex a success on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, in the Hill District. Moore, a bricklayer, hopes that the Choice Neighborhoods grant will allow for people from the community to get jobs as a part of the rebuilding. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Martin’s son, Josh Moore, 32, feels similarly. He has lived in Bedford Dwellings his entire life.

Moore said he feels that the housing authority explained its plan well, but gave “no real update” in regards to their move-out timeline.

Moore’s three children all attend local schools. He worries about the impacts that a move may have on their transportation, and hopes that the move will happen before the school year starts.

“It can’t be that you’re paying rent one week in August, and then the next week you’re moved out,” he said.

Authority pledges to build first, demolish later

The construction of Bedford Dwellings began in 1938, and the 411 units around Somers Drive and Chauncey Drive date from that period.

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Martin said a motivation behind her desire to enter new housing is the condition of the apartments themselves. Oftentimes, she said, it takes weeks for her reports of leaks and broken pipes in the apartment to be addressed by Bedford’s maintenance crews.

“These apartments are falling apart,” Martin said. “They’re old. They’re done.”

In contrast to some of the authority’s past redevelopment efforts, which involved demolition and then reconstruction, the plan for Bedford involves:

  • Building 123 new apartments along Colwell Street, known as the Reed Roberts site
  • Building another 110 units at the nearby City’s Edge development site
  • Moving Bedford residents in late 2024 and 2025
  • Razing Bedford, then rebuilding on the Somers and Chauncey sites
  • Ending up with 411 low-income public housing units, 210 other affordable units and 202 market-rate units, or perhaps more.

The authority has said current residents will also have the option of taking Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8), moving into other public housing communities or, if eligible, entering into homeownership programs.

A rendering of the proposed Colwell Street development presented to the City Planning Commission on July 25, 2023.
A rendering of the proposed Colwell Street development presented to the City Planning Commission on July 25, 2023.

Binion said the authority’s goal is to compel Bedford residents to move just once, and to honor the rights of nearly all current community members to remain in the community.

“The language of Choice Neighborhoods is that you have the right to return,” he said. One caveat: “You come back with some criminal stuff, it might be a little different.”

Passion, partners and millions of dollars

Pittsburgh has used a Choice Neighborhoods grant to rebuild parts of East Liberty and Larimer, and is also exploring that program to redo the Allegheny Dwellings public housing community in Fineview.

In seeking a grant for Bedford Dwellings, the authority competed with around 40 of its peers from other cities, from which eight awardees were selected.

Binion said Pittsburgh prevailed based on a mix of partnerships, passion and funding.

For instance, the authority brought with it, as community service providers, the Macedonia Family and Community Enrichment Center and the Neighborhood Reliance Project. Also at the table is the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

Caster Binion, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. (Courtesy of HACP)
Caster Binion, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. (Courtesy of HACP)

It also came to the table with a commitment by Mayor Ed Gainey and Pittsburgh City Council to kick in $30 million in city funds over time. Other chunks of the overall $400 million investment will come from the authority; its nonprofit arm, Allies & Ross Management and Development Corp.; and from low-income housing tax credits pursued via private development partners. TREK Development is handling the Reed Roberts site and Midpoint Group is building City’s Edge. The Urban Redevelopment Authority has also been involved in securing financing.

The passion of the authority's board and staff to rebuild Bedford also “made a difference,” Binion said. HUD “could smell it and feel that this was not about $400 million. This was about building a community, changing people’s lives and achieving transformation.”

‘Under attack’ from gentrification?

Two neighborhood organizations, the Hill Community Development Corp. [CDC] and the Hill Consensus Group, have been at the table with the authority in planning the rebirth of Bedford, and both welcomed the grant this week while pledging to monitor its implementation.

“The people in Bedford Dwellings will be assured improved living conditions and quality housing and long-term affordability,” said Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill CDC. “That is extraordinarily important considering what’s going on in the market,” which is seeing studio apartments rent for $1,900 a month, she said.

“It will bring additional and new development, but it also prevents displacement,” she said.

Bedford residents aren’t uniformly convinced that their place in the Hill is secure. On Tuesday, many of the community’s doors were adorned with anonymous notices advertising a “tenant-only meeting” with no authority management allowed, warning of “a new era of dealing with gentrification.”

“We are under attack, and we need to band together for sake of our loved ones, children and the community,” the notice continued.

The Hill CDC and Hill Consensus Group have pledged to work to ensure that residents are well informed and involved in discussions as the community’s transformation spools out in a construction process that could last until 2030. Binion said the authority will follow the Community Day announcement with more formal meetings and one-on-one conversations.

The Hill CDC will be urging the authority to maximize the homeownership opportunities available as part of the development, notably including for current Bedford residents. “There needs to be more public support directed toward homeownership,” Milliones said.

“For once, they’re building more housing than they’re tearing down, so that’s progress,” said Randall Taylor, the equitable development representative for the Hill Consensus Group.

He was concerned, though, that some of the human services traditionally provided in public housing communities would erode in a redeveloped, mixed-income environment. “We really need to start leaning into programs that support families and support young people.”

Both Taylor and Milliones said they view Bedford’s impending transformation as part of a dramatic time for the Hill District, including redevelopment along Centre Avenue and in the Lower Hill District.

Bedford will be “an anchoring development with regard to ensuring that some of the most vulnerable residents are protected, as well as the development of mixed-income housing,” said Milliones.

Transportation questions ‘a strike against them’

Resident Carl Swindell, 67, said he feels like those planning the redevelopment didn’t consider the concerns that elderly residents voiced at the community meetings leading up to the grant announcement.

The location of the Reed Roberts apartments may negatively impact older residents, he said, noting that they won’t have the ability to easily access bus stops like they did in the past.

“If I was 40 years younger, I could walk up and down to town, but now I can’t,” said Swindell. “That’s a strike against them, if you ask me.”

Carl Swindell talks about the meetings he has attended regarding the demolition and redevelopment of Bedford Dwellings where he lives, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, in the Hill District. Swindell says he feels the requests for input from the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh felt too little too late. “I went to three meetings over there but they weren’t saying nothing new, I gave up. Their mind was already made up,” he said. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)
Carl Swindell talks about the meetings he has attended regarding the demolition and redevelopment of Bedford Dwellings where he lives, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, in the Hill District. Swindell says he feels the requests for input from the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh felt too little too late. “I went to three meetings over there but they weren’t saying nothing new, I gave up. Their mind was already made up,” he said. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Although Swindell left Pittsburgh in 1980, he returned to Bedford Dwellings in 2002 because he “knew nothing else.” He said that his apartment’s location in the Hill — its proximity to Downtown via public transit — is something that he will miss.

“It’s close to town. Everything is connected,” he said.

Binion said Pittsburgh Regional Transit is part of the planning process, and that he would work to ensure that transit lines accommodate the new housing.

“All the partners will work together to revitalize the community, and try to keep the history of the community intact at the same time,” he said.

Lucas Dufalla is an editorial intern with Rtvsrece and can be reached at lucas@rtvsrece.com.

Stephanie Strasburg is a photojournalist with Rtvsrece who can be reached at stephanie@rtvsrece.com or on Twitter @stephstrasburg.

Rich Lord is Rtvsrece’s managing editor, and can be reached at rich@rtvsrece.com.

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Rich is the managing editor of Rtvsrece. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...

Stephanie Strasburg is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker at Rtvsrece. Her recent work includes an investigation on sexual abuse in the Amish and Mennonite communities for which she and her...