Some Black Pgh leaders disagree that Black people are only leaving city by choice

By: - April 12, 2021 11:22 am

Intersection of Centre and S Highland avenues in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood (Image via Pittsburgh City Paper).

By Ryan Deto

PITTSBURGH — Since 2014, the city of Pittsburgh has lost more than 7,000 of its Black residents. Most of those Black people are leaving for suburbs within the Pittsburgh metro area. From 2010-2019, for every one Black resident leaving the Pittsburgh metro area entirely, 4.6 Black people are only leaving the city, but staying in greater Pittsburgh.

This reality has sparked a debate among city leaders. For years, many housing advocates have cited gentrification as the main reason Black people are being forced out of the city, by rising rents and housing prices many can no longer afford.

But recently, some elected officials have claimed that Black Pittsburghers are leaving the city by choice.

During a public hearing on the subject that was requested by city residents and some housing advocates, Democratic Pittsburgh City Councilors Ricky Burgess, of Point Breeze, and Daniel Lavelle, who represents the city’s Hill District, both of whom are Black, disagreed with the premise that Black Pittsburghers were being forced out of the city by gentrification.

“They chose to leave because of crime and blight,” said Burgess, according to TribLive. Burgess represents majority Black neighborhoods of Homewood, Larimer, and Garfield.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto tweeted out the story on April 6, and said it was “An important discussion on the reasons behind the most recent black flight in Pittsburgh.”

Now, some community leaders in Pittsburgh’s Black community are responding to that characterization, and reiterating that gentrification is pushing Black people out of the city proper.

“Lawrenceville has been my home for years, but now I have no choice but to move outside Pittsburgh. My landlord recently hiked my rent to over $1300 per month,” Karen Lyons, a community leader and member of advocacy group, said in a statement. “Like most people I know, that’s beyond my budget, but obviously landlords and real estate developers know that they can replace working class Black tenants with high dollar renters. This week I just had to move out to Braddock Hills.”

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Lawrenceville has also seen its Black population decline over the years.

The reason behind Black people leaving the city limits of Pittsburgh isn’t perfectly clear. But, this trend is more stark from 2010-2019 than any previous decade, bringing up questions of why are Black people are only recently leaving the city, and not in the 1990s, when crime rates were higher.

Also, while Black people are leaving neighborhoods like East Liberty in large numbers over the last several years, white people are moving into East Liberty at a significant pace. The Black population of Garfield has also shrunk over the years, while at the same time the white population has increased.

Additionally, many first ring suburbs — such as Penn Hills and Bellevue — are attracting hundreds of Black Pittsburghers over the years, and those communities’ public transit rates are increasing, suggesting that Black Pittsburghers without access to cars are moving to those areas.

Carl Redwood is the chair of the Hill District Consensus Group’s board of directors and a lifelong community activist, who has called for more affordable housing in Pittsburgh. He has been a strong voice in pushing for policies and actions that help to keep Black residents in urban neighborhoods that are well served by public transit. He says there are forces pushing some residents of color to less accessible outskirts of the city.

“Public housing complexes have been demolished without building replacement housing first; project-based Section 8 units are at risk of termination; and unemployment continues to skyrocket in many parts of the city,” Redwood said in a statement. “Together this has resulted in the forced displacement of Black residents from Pittsburgh to surrounding municipalities.”

Both Lyons and Redwood blame development strategies of the Peduto administration, and previous leaders, for the displacement of Black Pittsburghers over the years.

“In Pittsburgh, over the last four decades politicians have promised a city that would be economically and racially diverse. But Peduto, like others before him, has accelerated existing class- and race-based inequities,” Redwood said.

Ryan Deto is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared

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