Letter to the Editor: CMU GSA Statement on Housing

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While many of my fellow Pittsburghers point to the recent uptick in apartment building development as a sign of housing construction gone wild, the truth is that Pittsburgh builds fewer apartments than almost any other major city in the US. Part of the reason for that is the current zoning code, which requires almost any apartment development to seek zoning variances, enters them into a subjective review process in which a small and unrepresentative handful of individuals can stop a project from happening. Because of this, the city has failed to develop adequate housing for its growing student population. Last month, Mayor Ed Gainey announced plans to update the city’s comprehensive plan — a long overdue undertaking. As the Mayor and his team update the City’s comprehensive plan, they should include zoning changes that make it easier for developers to build apartments — changes such as allowing multi-family developments by right, increasing allowable building heights and floor area ratios, and removing minimum parking requirements, among others. Doing so will enable our city to embrace its growing student population without pushing out the families that have built their lives in its neighborhoods - a critical goal of any comprehensive planning effort.

The City of Pittsburgh is home to over 60,000 college students—a number that is likely to continue growing in the foreseeable future as the universities expand their offerings to serve more students. While these universities should certainly develop more housing for their students, the reality is that most college students desire to live off-campus in privately owned apartments and homes. Because of their inherently transient nature, large multi-family developments are often the ideal option for many of these students, as they provide a level of quality assurance and responsive management that other privately owned rental units do not. This is especially true for Pittsburgh’s large population of international students, who also face additional barriers in seeking fair treatment from landlords due to cultural and language barriers.

Regardless of whether such housing is developed, however, these students will continue to live in our city and require housing. Today, many students live in converted single family homes, which has reduced the availability of such homes for permanent residents. The decline in available single family homes is most acutely seen in neighborhoods like Oakland, Shadyside, South Side, and Squirrel Hill, which as a result have some of the highest housing prices in the city. However, as the student population continues to grow, this trend will spread further into other neighborhoods if multi-family development continues to be stymied. More students will live in dwellings that could otherwise house families, making it more difficult for those families to establish their lives in the city – a critical issue in a city with an already insufficient supply of suitable family housing.

In the words of Mayor Gainey’s administration, the update to the comprehensive plan will “set a long term, implementable framework for shaping the future of Pittsburgh.” Given the continued growth in student population that the city is experiencing, it is absolutely critical that the new comprehensive plan makes it easier for developers to build multi-family housing in close proximity to the city’s many college campuses. If that is not done, the Mayor’s office will find it exceedingly difficult to make Pittsburgh a city where anyone can thrive.

Author: Bobby Lincoln currently serves as the Chair of State and Local Affairs for Carnegie Mellon University’s Graduate Student Assembly and is a lifelong Pittsburgh resident.