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Officials looking beyond new housing to rejuvenate Mon Valley communities

Pittsburgh Post GazetteThursday, June 14, 2007
By Karamagi Rujumba,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For Mon Valley residents and officials, almost every time Dan Onorato visits their old steel-mill towns these days is a happy occasion.

In May and June alone, Mr. Onorato, a consortium of community groups and certain Pennsylvania departments launched new housing and refurbishment projects in Rankin, Braddock, and North Braddock.

All told, the projects will cost well over $17 million and give more than 150 families in the region a chance to live in new or refurbished houses or apartments.

But while such projects have been received with open arms in these communities, which have been yearning for a face-lift for the last couple of decades, they haven’t yet significantly changed the quality of life, says Bob Grom, president of the Heritage Health Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization in Braddock.

Mr. Grom would know, because his nonprofit was one of the first groups to build new homes it considered “affordable housing” for low-income residents in Braddock two years ago.

The four homes built by Heritage, all located near UPMC Braddock, were priced between $60,000 and $63,000, and were unoccupied until recently because no one could afford to buy them.

“We were a little naive going into this project,” Mr. Grom said, noting that his organization is now in the process of finalizing the sale of two of the houses.

“We didn’t understand the breadth of what we needed to understand at the time,” he said. “We can build all kinds of houses, but if the people in the community don’t have jobs or health care, how can they afford the houses?”

That, Mr. Grom said, is an elemental question that state, county and community officials ought to have some answer to if they really want to wholly transform communities like Braddock, North Braddock and Rankin.

On his part, Mr. Onorato recognizes this. He is often quick to note that community reinvestment can never be a one-pronged approach.

He regularly talks about how his office wants to see the redevelopment of the Carrie Furnace site complement neighborhood revitalization in Mon Valley communities.

And that, said Mr. Grom is “music to my ears.”

“We now live in an era of huge development opportunities — especially the potential of Carrie Furnace,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves, given all this possible investment, what kind of jobs, education systems, training programs will allow the residents of these communities to participate in this development?”

(Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at or 412-263-1719. )

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