Around the time the pandemic was waning and the shock of the Capitol Riot was setting in, Jason Tigano had an epiphany: “We all deserve better than to get back to normal.
This has become its slogan and that is why Tigano, a consultant with experience in government, non-profit organizations and real estate, created LEVEL: Equity Buildings, which is testing its idea of developing landlords while expanding the housing stock. He wants Pittsburgh to remain a place where Pittsburgh residents can live.
“I’m tired of not seeing revitalization happening in our communities, and when it does, there’s displacement,” says Tigano. “People tell me their stories; they can’t get a mortgage. It does not mean anything. If you live in this neighborhood, you are kind of invested. If you pay rent, it’s close to a mortgage.
Tigano founded LEVEL after a community group in McKees Rocks asked for his help dealing with abandoned housing. Tigano and a friend, Marc Little of Emery Building Servicessorted through the borough’s list of 250 vacant and condemned homes and picked 50 that they could fix.
Using grants and donations, the nonprofit will buy and renovate run-down properties, then help tenants become buyers by teaching them how to get a mortgage, get utilities, and take care of their property. . LEVEL’s first remodeled home, at 310 Gardner St., will go to Dennis and Sammie Guy when they close their mortgage at the end of August.
“Everyone deserves the chance to own a home,” says Tigano. “When you can own a home, put down roots, and care about your neighbors and where you live, you have opportunity. We have to create those opportunities, and it’s not just about getting the mortgage; it’s housekeeping. If you understand how to manage the asset, it will create equity for you. »
LEVEL purchased nine more homes in McKees Rocks and raised funds through grants and donations, including $1.3 million from Allegheny County and $1 million from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. The Hillman Foundation provided $250,000 to the project last year through a grant Neighborhood allies. LEVEL also works with the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation and Focus on renewal.
McKees Rocks Mayor David Flick said in a Facebook post that he initially wondered if the LEVEL idea would come to fruition. Now, the nonprofit has sold its first home “at a reasonable market price,” says Flick. “If McKees Rocks is to prosper, it must repopulate with owner-occupied housing. We need to start creating generational wealth here, from the inside out. This project will help us do that.
Many residential properties in the borough are vacant, dilapidated and tax delinquent. The 2020 census shows 5,920 people living in McKees Rocks in 2,949 households. About 44% of residences in the borough are owner-occupied, according to the census, with a median value of $53,000. Tigano believes the percentage is actually much lower and the deeds have not been updated. But no matter the percentage, he says, “when you have that much rental property in a community, you have a problem.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald met with Tigano early on and supports his idea, saying there is a need to ensure affordable housing is available in county municipalities. LEVEL’s innovative model can deliver “a new era of housing,” he says.
Tigano worked for Rep. Mike Doyle, and later for the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority. He served on the boards of directors of Rebuilding Pittsburgh Together and NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania. This varied experience has taught her that community organizations, no matter how well intentioned, have limitations — most of the time, they can’t afford to buy large amounts of real estate. Many are understaffed and under-resourced.
“There’s not a lot of money for everyone; it’s not because nobody cares,” he says. “Even the most sophisticated community groups need help – they lack certain elements. There is a flaw in the process. …someone needs to retrieve this property and re-enable it. Struggling communities can only do so many a year, and that’s not a lot. They try to do five or six a year, and doing five units a year is not enough to prevent gentrification and keep residents there.
Most public housing funds go to developers who produce rentals, Tigano says. “No matter where you go in the country, when someone stands up and says, ‘We just built 100 units’, all the money publicly available for affordable housing is rent. The social housing tax credit for developers is a rental tax credit. And everything is subject to income restrictions.
Rather than bolster rental assistance programs, Tigano wants to help people create equity. LEVEL has signed an agreement with the Allegheny County Housing Authority allowing people living in Section 8 housing to use their vouchers for mortgage payments instead of rent. The management manages approximately 6,000 accommodation vouchers.
“Their work to reduce barriers to homeownership and provide sustainable life skills to residents is a model that other communities in the county can collaborate with,” says Frank Aggazio, executive director of the authority.
The nonprofit takes its name from Tigano’s goal of keeping people “on the path to home ownership.” This means teaching people how to pay off their debts and save money not only for a down payment, but also for a housing maintenance fund.
“We try to meet buyers where they are, but they have a certain level of responsibility,” he says.
LEVEL has also entered into an agreement with 5 generations of bakers at McKees Rocks to create an employer-supported housing program. Any employee who wishes to become an owner through LEVEL’s program will receive $2,000 for a deposit and closing costs; Tigano would match that with grant money.
How long it takes will vary from person to person, says Tigano. Some people might be ready in a few months, but most will need a year or more because many people face generational trauma and other barriers, he says.
“One of the stories I tell backers is that someone said to me, ‘I’m more likely to go to the moon than to buy a house,'” he says. “It struck me – what’s going on in our world? So we’re talking about what being an owner could be and why it matters.
LEVEL’s work is entirely voluntary; Tigano does not have any staff yet. The money raised was used to buy and renovate houses. Tigano has no doubts about success, but he is slow to raise more money. There is a certain urgency, as foreign investors and those from other countries often snap up real estate at low prices.
“It’s the fierce urgency of the moment,” says Tigano. “We are late for the game.”
Tigano’s goal is to renovate 15 to 25 homes a year in McKees Rocks, and eventually do the same elsewhere in and around Pittsburgh.
“I want to own hundreds of properties,” he says. “If you came back three years later, the addresses would be different, because I sold them, but I would still own hundreds of properties… You have to be invited by a community, the municipality or an association. We don’t want to be a stranger pushing our way.
Increasing the number of homeowners in a community can change other outcomes, Tigano says, including health, education and labor.
“So many things that have social value, those things all get better with home ownership,” he says. “These results are not negligible; they are measurable. I have been committed to McKees Rocks for at least five years. If we can do 100 houses, if we start moving diligently and intentionally into these priority areas, we think there are some really exciting things going on. We can create equity for the community, for the owners, for the neighbours. If we can do that, we think we can do something very powerful at McKees Rocks.