$1 million development grant to jumpstart vacant housing project
By Jamie Wiggan
A coalition of residents, borough officials and community development specialists are stepping out on an ambitious plan to overturn decades of decline in McKees Rocks.
Setting the project in motion is a $1 million Redevelopment and Capital Assistance Program grant awarded to McKees Rocks in December. The grant will help launch a pilot community development project which is on course to begin in 12-18 months subject to additional funding.
Initially, 10 vacant properties will be rehabilitated into live-in ready homes. In a separate branch of the operation, the partnership will also coordinate programming to outfit interested residents with the tools and resources to become homeowners.
Resident task force
Community members are helping steer the project through a resident task force first assembled about a year ago that now has about 15 members.
One task force member, David Flick, said buying his great-aunt’s former home on Vine Street was “one of best decisions I ever made.” In the 10 years since then, Flick, along with his wife MarySue, has bought two more properties on Vine Street – one they lease out and another they use as a home studio for art projects.
Never owning a home until in his early 40s, Flick said he appreciates some of the obstacles involved in homeownership.
“I had no idea what my sewage bill was until it got sent to collection,” he said.
Another task force member, Charlene Taylor, relocated to McKees Rocks from Connecticut during the height of the financial crash in 2009. Looking for somewhere where her dollars would stretch further, Taylor said a friend pointed her to the Pittsburgh-area market and she was taken in by McKees Rocks’ location and aesthetic.
“I like part of the attitude,” she said. “It’s kinda got a gritty mill-town attitude. It’s very similar to what I
Resident MarySue Flick works on
a stage design project in her studio
on Vine Street in McKees Rocks.
grew up with in Connecticut.”
Since arriving here, Taylor has been eager to apply her professional background in land use toward improving the fortunes of the town.
In particular, she wants to use her voice on the task force to draw attention to the community’s main street portions, which she said are in many cases worse kept than the residential neighborhoods, feeding into negative stereotypes of the community.
Neither being native to the area, Taylor and the Flicks all say they’ve run into mixed sentiment from neighbors about the prospects for moving things forward.
When Flick knocked on neighbors’ doors while running for council in 2019, he said he encountered many people who told him he was wasting his time.
“Lots of them said, ‘I’ll vote for you but it won’t make any difference.’”
Taylor said she’s come up against similar attitudes but has also seen first-hand the change that can follow even minimal efforts.
After deciding to start mowing an elderly neighbor’s lawn one summer, Taylor emailed her block watch mailing list encouraging others to do the same, and shortly after saw many of her neighbors following suit.
“It does happen — all it takes is one person,” she said. “I know the potential this town has.”
The Flicks are similarly undeterred, having built up strong community bonds sharing produce each year from their garden — a tradition they adopted from a now-deceased neighbor who gifted a bag of homegrown tomatoes as a move-in present.
“There are people moving into this neighborhood who are part of this who see this community as full of opportunity,” MarySue Flick said.
Jason Tigano, a consultant on the project and CEO of Responsive Community Partners, said he hopes the group can eventually raise enough money to restore 20-25 buildings per year.
Raising that level of support depends on demonstrating the model’s fusion of development work with human services can successfully lift up the fortunes of the residents alongside the town.
“It’s about showing why this project is different and what makes it so special,” Tigano said.
“I don’t think it’s crazy that we might be raising $10 million a year.”
According to the latest census data, about 40% of McKees Rocks residents own their own homes, compared with a statewide average of nearly 70%.
Much of the borough’s high rental population represents cycles of intergenerational poverty that can be hard to break, said Taris Vrcek, executive director of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation (MRCDC).
Drawing on services and resources available through McKees Rocks nonprofits Focus on Renewal (FOR) and Zellous Hope Project, a range of programming to help renters take steps toward homeownership will be made available.
In addition to financial gaps, barriers to homeownership also include social, psychological, educational forms.
“The goal is to turn renters into homeowners,” said McKees Rocks Councilmember Sarah Harvey, who along with council’s Liz Delgado, serve as the borough’s real estate committee.
By building up the community’s homeowner base, the partners anticipate broader benefits to follow.
“You see the effects of transiency, and it’s most magnified in our school district,” Vrcek said.
“You talk to teachers and they’re so frustrated because they make progress with a child and then they leave and go to another district.”
Already allied with MRCDC, FOR and Zellous Hope through a partnership called Grow Sto-Rox, representatives of the Sto-Rox School District have been active in discussions about the pilot.
“I am really excited about the school district’s interest in this,” Tigano said.
“We need to give stability to these families.”
Pulling it off
The concept has brought together the borough, residents on the task force and the MRCDC as formal partners, with the school district, a slate of service-based nonprofits and development specialists pitching in with additional support.
The $1 million so far in the bank will, however, only fund a portion of the first 10 houses targeted in the pilot.
Then partners will have to raise millions more on an annual basis to see the project through.
But just securing the competitive development grant alone signifies to the partners those controlling the purse strings see promise in their vision.
“That’s a huge shot in the arm,” said Tom Hardy, a managing member with Palo Alto Partners who is also involved in directing the pilot.
“It gives a lot of momentum to what we’re doing.”
Tigano said he’s confident the success of the pilot could draw in more funding from state and county grants, donations from foundations and could help them qualify for low-interest borrowing options.
Continued support from borough officials and state lawmakers Sen. Wayne Fontana and Rep. Dan Deasy will be instrumental for future fundraising efforts.
“Without Wayne and Dan pushing, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Vrcek. “You need everyone rowing in the same direction… these funds are so competitive.”