Restoration arrives, one home at a time, in Wilkinsburg
Scattered throughout Wilkinsburg are houses where peeling paint, boarded windows and unkempt lawns cannot disguise the architectural glory of the homes’ origins.
Through the efforts of Allegheny County, historic preservationists, community groups and local residents, the borough has begun the process of restoring many of these homes block by block.
On Friday, Wilkinsburg hosted ribbon-cutting ceremonies for 10 renovated homes in the Hamnett Place and Peebles Square developments.
The Hamnett Place project was funded through grants from the Sarah Scaife Foundation and will allow some homeowners deferred second mortgages through Allegheny County.
The Peebles Square homes were funded by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, and the county.
In Hamnett Place, three properties on Jeanette Street and one on Holland Avenue are part of what the Greater Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation calls a “mixed use revitalization effort.”
In Peebles Square, six homes on Peebles Street are preliminary efforts, as developers Action Housing Inc. and Hosanna House Inc. plan to build at least 10 more homes on an adjacent site.
“It’s just the beginning,” said Michael Sriprasert, manager of real estate finance for the history and landmarks foundation. “Its not just about restoring one house — you have to encourage other private investment in the community outside your work.”
“We hope that our current residential redevelopment efforts will be a catalyst for future development in the area, and that this will create a stable tax base for the borough of Wilkinsburg,” said Ron Ciotti, senior housing developer for Action Housing Inc.
“This may allow us to build a revenue base and increase our tax base,” said Wilkinsburg Mayor John Thompson. “I think when people see money is being invested in Wilkinsburg, the business community [also] will see.”
Businesses and aspiring homeowners may find greater incentive to come to Wilkinsburg when they see how much land their money can buy there. The four renovated Hamnett Place properties were redeveloped for about $1 million and range in price from $70,000 to $150,000. The homes are sold to residents at or below 100 percent of the area’s median income, and their low prices can give some homeowners enough financial leeway to expand their properties.
“Our mortgage is so low it gave us extra money to do some other things,” said Jack Schmitt, who, with his wife, Erin, purchased the first Hamnett Place property for $70,000. After buying the home, the couple bought the 4,500-square-foot abandoned property next door for $10,000 and a 6,100-square-foot lot nearby for $2,500. Subtracting the $8,000 cost to demolish the structure next door, the Schmitts expanded their property to a total of 15,100 square feet for $12,500.
“That’s a pretty big chunk of land,” said Mr. Schmitt proudly, noting he and his wife have plans to create an urban farm on the space to feed the community.
Plans such as the Schmitt’s are the ultimate goal of what developers say was a community-driven initiative from the start. Mr. Sriprasert credits the neighborhood group Wilkinsburg Neighborhood Transformation Initiative with the initial idea for the Hamnett Place project and said it could not have been carried off without the continued efforts of that group and other residents.
For them, more than anything, Mr. Sriprasert said, he hopes the next phases of construction in both projects are as successful as the first.
“I think this part of the neighborhood in particular was of grave concern to many residents because of how it had become, with vacancies and occupants you really wouldn’t want,” he said.
“The fact that they have moved so far, and so much work has been done, is a signal to residents and homeowners that Wilkinsburg is turning a page and has a vision for itself that many people will really want to be a part of.”