In case you missed it: This week’s best reads from Pennsylvania cities

     People take advantage of unseasonably warm weather to fish on the Delaware River near Yardley, Pa. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

    People take advantage of unseasonably warm weather to fish on the Delaware River near Yardley, Pa. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

    A lot of Pittsburgh news — with lessons for the rest of the state, too.

     A city for all?

    Steel City to Meal City. Rust Belt Romance. The Number One Food City in America. Pittsburgh is getting a lot of press recently as a cool, trendy, delicious place to work, live and visit. 

    So why, at an NPR event hosted by Michel Martin, did local activist Bill Generett say he was “angry” about where Pittsburgh is going? 

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    He said, “When I lived here through the ’70s, I remember when the African-American communities — all of them were relatively healthy, not perfect, not strong, but all relatively healthy. And I saw in a matter of 10 years just this rapid decline, and you know, I’m angry…I’ve seen our city come back, but when I look at our communities…we haven’t come back.” 

    While parts of the city are booming, other parts are still plagued with violencehomelessness, and poverty. Those issues tend to fall along race lines. 

    This disparity was confirmed by a report by The Urban Institute a few months ago. Between 2007 and 2011, unemployment rates for black males was nearly double that of white males. The report, funded by the Heinz Endowment, had suggestions for improvement, like providing small-business capital and “banning the box” that former criminals must check on job applications. 

    Housing for more?

    One of the tensions in Pittsburgh, and many Pennsylvania cities, is housing. Keystone Crossroads has written about gentrification and the housing problems facing Pennsylvania cities. 

    But here’s a possible solution: inclusionary housing that requires a certain number of units to be marked as “affordable.” The idea seems pretty simple: if you build fancy new housing in a previously downtrodden neighborhood, some of that housing should remain accessible to those already living there. The idea is to keep middle-class neighborhood residents in the area even as it’s booming. 

    Philadelphia has an optional inclusionary housing policy, though there are those in the city who would like to see that become mandatory. Pittsburgh has created a task force to consider affordable housing policies, like inclusionary housing. And State College is grappling with the challenges of renting family-friendly, inclusionary units in apartment complexes dominated by students.  

    Want to know if your city has an inclusionary housing policy? Here are some examples. 

    Creative funding for some

    Many cities in Pennsylvania don’t have a lot of money laying around. So they have to get creative — grants, tax incentive programs and prize money — to pay for big projects. 

    Allentown uses a tax incentive program called the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, or NIZ. The development project has brought $1 billion in new and proposed restaurants, a sports arena and shopping to downtown Allentown. And the latest numbers show the program is working, generating triple the expected tax revenue. 

    But similar programs, like the Community Revitalization and Improvement Zone, or CRIZ, in Lancaster and Bethlehem have had lackluster performance so far. 

    Five cities in Pennsylvania are receiving federal grant funding to battle the heroin and opioid crisis. Nationally, $94 million is being disbursed through the Affordable Care Act, with $1.7 million coming to health centers in Philadelphia, Reading, Pottstown, York and Chambersburg. As NPR reported this week, heroin has a hold on many communities in Pennsylvania. 

    Philadelphia is trying a different approach: instead of getting more funding, how about spending less money? The city is implementing a ‘reverse auction’ process for buying all the products that make a city run — from uniforms to pencils to snow plows. The mayor’s office hopes this will drive down prices and ultimately save money. 

    And Pittsburgh has won one (and is competing in another) national city funding competition. The Citi Foundation and Living Cities has chosen Pittsburgh, along with D.C., San Francisco and St. Paul, to be part of their Accelerator program. The program helps Pittsburgh find funding for the renovation and improvement of the city’s 700 sets of public steps. As we’ve reported, the steps need help. 

    The city is also a finalist in the ‘Smart City’ competition for $50 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation. If awarded the money, Mayor Bill Peduto would like to create an ‘electric avenue’ that charges electric cars while they drive and install responsive traffic lights. These high-tech lights can ease traffic.

    Lead funding for others

    But federal funding, not to mention competitions and tax incentive programs, aren’t always a sure bet. Federal funding for lead testing and remediation has declined over the last few years, and Pennsylvania has had a hard time filling that gap. Other states like New Jersey and Ohio have tried alternate funding sources, but Pennsylvania hasn’t kept pace with the neighbors.  

    But with or without funding, lead poisoning continues to be an issue in Pennsylvania cities. One program that the state does fund is team of community health nurses that monitors children with elevated blood lead levels. Children remain in the program until their lead levels drop or the lead hazard is remediated.

    If you want to learn more about the lead issue in Pennsylvania, we’ve got all our coverage gathered in one place

    Amish forever

    And finally, some food for thought for the weekend: if the Amish only go to school through eighth grade and eschew technological advances, how are they so good at startups? LancasterOnline reports that the five-year failure rate of start-ups in general is 65 percent. Amish small businesses? Less than 10 percent. 

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