By Elizabeth Perry
Andre Jones, 63, has lived in Hays Manor for the past seven years and knows that his building is supposed to be demolished.
Jones knows he’ll have to move, but doesn’t know when, or where.
“I don’t know the plan,” Jones said.
The plan for Hays Manor is still very much in flux. In December 2021, a federal Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant totaling $450,000 was awarded to the Allegheny County Housing Authority to create a plan for Hays Manor and the surrounding area. The first draft of that grant application will be submitted at the end of May according to ACHA Director Frank Aggazio, with the final draft being due in November.
Taris Vrcek, executive director of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation, said the goal is to win a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Grant which would be used to build individual housing units. Vrcek said 240 units are being considered.
“The idea of the program is to revitalize distressed housing,” Aggazio said.
Some local critics, including McKees Rocks resident Maribeth Taylor and Gazette 2.0 columnist Rev. James Hogan, did not want to see more subsidized housing being built in McKees Rocks and expressed skepticism that the CDC can attract additional grant funding to build mixed-income housing.
“I think there is a lot of reason to be concerned. We’ve seen what promises not kept can mean,” Vrcek said.
The community of Meyers Ridge was an example Vrcek pointed to and said people had “different expectations.”
“When the developers came in and the plan was supposed to be a mix of rental low income and half owner occupied, it ended up only 14% or 16% owner occupied, the whole rest is all Section 8-low income,” Taylor said.
Though she thought Hays Manor needed to come down because it was a health hazard, Taylor said she thought McKees Rocks didn’t need more low-income housing.
Still, Vrcek said the Choice Neighborhoods program was different than Hope IV, which was the program used to build Meyers Ridge.
Ironically, nationally Hope IV projects were criticized for building fewer units to house low-income people, effectively displacing the poor from different regions. Choice Neighborhoods has a one-to-one model which means for every low-income housing unit demolished, another must be built.
Homelessness is up in Allegheny County, and two homeless encampments in Pittsburgh have been shut down. Last week, there was a fire in a homeless encampment located under the West End Bridge. The number of homeless people rose in the winter of 2022 by 188 individuals. In January of the previous year, 692 individuals were experiencing homelessness, compared to 880 in 2022, according to Allegheny County Analytics.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Pennsylvania only has between 31-40 affordable and available rental homes per 100 extremely low-income renters. Not all of the 240 units being planned for McKees Rocks would be paid for by the Choice Neighborhoods grant, because not all would be earmarked for subsidized housing. Vrcek said more grants would need to be filed for and come through to execute the rest of the revitalization plan.
Aggazio said there was room in the plan for retail along McKees Rocks main street with apartment housing above. Vrcek had a much more ambitious vision, saying the redevelopment “goes a lot further than just one building.”
Vrcek envisions redevelopment from the former P&LE brownfield to the riverfront, blending into lower Chartiers Avenue. Waterfront development would activate new amenities for recreation and a new park space would create opportunities for “youth development,” Vrcek said.
Vrcek said the Choice Neighborhoods grant could act as “seed money” to attract other investors to McKees Rocks.
With the buy-in from a variety of investors and the community, Vrcek said the plan could rebuild the tax base and create quality employment by rebuilding commercial areas and making residential spaces more attractive. A pool has been a long-standing goal of community members, Vrcek said. The McKees Rocks CDC is working with the Boys and Girls Club. Though they recently pulled out of the former Sto-Ken-Rox location in McKees Rocks, Vrcek said they were interested in a newer facility in a less “challenging” space.
Aggazio said the new plan in McKees Rocks would have a bigger footprint than the existing Hays Manor, with more spread-out units since the original structure, built in the 1950s has cramped, single-bathroom apartments. The ACHA is working to acquire adjacent land owned by Genesee Wyoming Railroad Company, Aggazio said.
Currently, the 138 units in Hays Manor have hot water heat, each unit has one bathroom, the roof is over 30 years old, there is no central air and Aggazio said the boilers “have been hanging on.”
His organization is responsible for relocation; existing residents can go to any of the 45 communities that exist in the area, or they can take vouchers and move anywhere in the country. Residents may not choose to return after the project is completed. Aggazio said it could range from 15% to 60%, but said estimating the number would be “total speculation.”
Jones doesn’t know if he wants to come back to the new complex after it is rebuilt. He lives alone in his third-floor apartment and said it was OK, because he keeps it that way, but he doesn’t like walking up to the third floor. “Too many steps.”
The idea of moving didn’t seem too bad to him.
“I’m kind of excited. It might be a change for the good,” Jones said.
It’s early in the process at this point, Aggazio said. The benefits will kick in after the demolition for Hays Manor is approved.
Aggazio said conservatively, demolition would begin in 2024 and he hoped the project would be something everyone in the community would be proud of.
“We have an obligation to help the people there,” Aggazio said. “We look forward to improving their lives.”