The Tartan: Pittsburgh mayor Ed Gainey hosts CMU town hall

Mayor Ed Gainey met with students on Feb. 23 in an open town hall hosted by CMU Senate and Graduate Student Assembly. Organizers took questions for Mayor Gainey from the students gathered, expressing their comments and concerns for the city.

Gainey assumed the mayoralty in January 2022, beating out the Democratic incumbent in the primaries and defeating the Republican candidate with 71 percent of the popular vote. He is the first Black person to be voted into the position. His administration has centered its efforts on promoting economic and social justice, and building a city with equity and inclusivity for all.

Below are edited selections from last week’s hour-long conversation: students’ questions, and Mayor Gainey’s remarks.

What are your top priorities as Mayor, especially as it relates to students here at Carnegie Mellon?

I want this to be the safest, most welcoming, and thriving city in America. Now, I didn’t say it because I thought it was going to be easy. We’re coming out of a pandemic, which has changed the course of our lives and had an impact on everybody. More struggling with mental health, more unhoused, more drug usage, more violence. But I tell people I want to make this the safest city because I believe we can. I’ve had to deal with a lot in trying to make that a reality.

In my first 48 hours after I got elected, we had our first snowstorm, and found out we had no money in the Department of Public Works, our trucks were 10 to 15 years old, and we had 21 percent personnel not at work. But I wanted to let the workers know that I was with them. So, I jumped in the snow truck, and I went out with them. Because I wanted them to know that I don’t lead from the back, I lead from the front. I believe that a boss will tell you what to do but won’t go with you. A leader will go first and ask permission for you to follow. And I think that’s the difference when we talk about leadership styles.

I grew up in a city that was siloed and segregated. I don’t want that society. We have to celebrate culture, that’s the American way. Because I have the most diverse staff that was ever in the mayor’s office – the most diverse administration ever, and it means we can thrive. At the end of the day, if you’re not diverse, you’re not prepared.

Do you know if the massive chemical spill in East Palestine will at all affect the residents of Pittsburgh, whether the water or the air?

We’re not sure yet. We’re trying to gather mayors from all around southwest Pennsylvania to talk about it. I think this is an opportunity for us to really deal with Norfolk Southern, which has been a thorn in all of our sides for a long time. They barely take responsibility for anything if you want to be honest. I’m not sure what five to six months looks like. What I can tell you now, is that state officials say that it doesn’t. That’s all I know.

You mentioned that you want to create Pittsburgh as a city for all. How would you fit education into that?

I think education is very important. And so that’s why I made it a focal point of mine to create a relationship with Pittsburgh Public Schools, because the last administration and the last superintendent did not have a relationship. To improve the quality of education from a city perspective, for one we created a youth Civic Leadership Academy, alongside PPS, Partner4Work, and the Community College of Allegheny County, so high school kids can get paid a stipend while learning and earning college credits.

Growing up I never knew who the mayor was. They never came to my neighborhood. What I want kids to know and understand is the function of not only the mayor but civic government. We’re also creating a Youth Ambassador Program to connect kids with higher learning and give them a voice to talk about what the world looks like to them.

You mentioned Carnegie Mellon as a potential partner in your last answer. I’m wondering more generally what your administration is looking for Carnegie Mellon or Pitt to do, if they can do more for the city of Pittsburgh?

We want to make sure that our infrastructure is good. Our nonprofits own a lot of infrastructure in this city. And we can’t grow if we’re not together. We can’t grow if we’re not working to make the city the best place it can be. If our roads, public safety, parks, ecosystem are not good, it’s not good for your university. What we’re asking for is cooperation. It’s only together can we make this the best city that we want it to be.

If people don’t see their culture reflected in our city, they’re not staying. We have a lot of college kids that come in and go to college, but they don’t stay. We have a lot of businesspeople who come in and get educated. And they leave because they don’t see their culture reflected from our city. We have to change that. Well, that doesn’t just come from the city government. We all must play our part.

There’s a saying that first impressions last. Pittsburgh International Airport is the first image many students see when arriving in the city. What is the current plan for expansion of the airport and the timeline for the new terminal?

I’ll share something with you. The city doesn’t control the airport. That’s a county function. I don’t even have a seat on the Airport Authority Board. The city has no jurisdiction over the airport authority at all. I don’t know all the plans because we’re not at the table. The city doesn’t control what used to be called Port Authority, or Health and Human Services. It’s all controlled by the county.

Now, let me tell you what I’d like to see. I think that in order for a city to be successful, you have to have a world-class airport. But if we build a world-class airport without transportation, getting people from the airport to Oakland, without sitting in traffic for an hour and a half … then what good is a world-class airport, if it doesn’t transport people? If we don’t find a way to transport people better, then we’ll just have a world-class airport with status-quo transportation.

That’s a good question because a lot of people think the city controls all that. But we don’t.

As a student, I walk around a lot and sidewalks are important to me. Some sidewalks will be unsalted for long periods of time and get incredibly icy. In some areas, sidewalks are broken or completely absent. Is there a plan to improve them?

Here’s the tricky part, right? The city doesn’t own all the sidewalks, some of it is privately owned because they’re attached to a house. We can’t go on private property and salt or fix that sidewalk. The ones that we own, we’re doing, starting in Arlington and Homewood with a program connecting Safe Routes to School, the two areas with the most kids walking to school.

The program that we will expand on offers to pay private homeowners a certain percentage of the cost to fix the sidewalk, who may not have the money themselves. We haven’t done this yet; we’re tinkering with it to make sure it’s correct. If private owners are willing to do that, then that will give us permission to go on their sidewalk and fix it. But because we have not invested in our sandbox in a long time, we’re lightyears behind, to be honest. It’ll take some years to catch up.

A lot of Carnegie Mellon students who don’t live on campus live in South Oakland and many of the landlords there are notoriously terrible. Do you have any plans to crack down on “slumlords” operating across Pittsburgh?

So let me be honest, that was not on our list, with everything going on in the city. That’s a great question that I have to take back. We did the rental registry, which was supposed to address that right there, that if you don’t have quality housing, it’s problematic, and the city will act. We’re in court with that right now. But that was our answer to, not only in South Oakland, but throughout the city, make landlords responsible. I agree, in many areas, it’s been a problem. We will continue to fight it. But they will fight back, that’s what makes it challenging. When we get the rental registry complete, it won’t be immediately -there’s no microwave meals in change. But you will definitely see a difference.

Bridges are very important to Pittsburgh. You have a seat on the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission , which helps with getting state and federal funds to projects like renovating our bridges in Pittsburgh, essential for revitalizing our infrastructure. From my understanding, in the past several months, you have not been at some of those meetings. There hasn’t been a representative from your office at those meetings.

We send a representative every month. The article was about me not being there. I can’t be at every meeting, but I have a Director of Economic Development who is at every meeting. We took the SPC to Harrisburg last year, lobbying for our fair share, because Philadelphia was getting more than theirs. And we’ll be back again. The article that you’re referencing was about, to be frank, the fact that I support the workers striking against the Post-Gazette. And I won’t waver on it. If you want to put it out there that I don’t attend the SPC meetings, I can’t say you’re incorrect. But it’s not the truth. My office is there every month.

I believe in people’s right to unionize. And I believe that in today’s times, with corporations and everybody else making billions of dollars, that there’s a right to be able to pay your workers. You can’t keep asking for more and say that your pay is status quo. Status-quo doesn’t grow. We’ve always been a union town. And I think that you see more people starting to stand up and fight for their rights, and I’m for that.

In life, you have to learn how to fall in love with adversity, stay away from controversy. Because adversity will build you. I have nothing but respect for the Post-Gazette. They can say what they want. The reality is my team was there and we will continue to be there. What they didn’t say is we must have done something right. They built the bridge quicker than it’s ever been built before.

For the long-term residents of Pittsburgh, do you think there’s an issue with increased rents? And if so, how would you address that? Also, do you think it’s important to improve the homeownership rates in the city?

Yes, and yes. Inclusionary zoning allows us to embed inside a project a certain amount of affordability so we can keep the development stable. I believe that to break the chains of poverty, you have to have affordable housing units, to show children something new than what they’re used to seeing every single day. I believe that we have to increase the rate of homeownership. We’re looking for immediate funding to help us begin our expansion of affordable units.

We’ve already sent a message to the development community that if you don’t have affordability in your housing, we don’t do business. Thanks to negotiations with developers, namely Oakland Crossings [a new development plan] close to here, we were able to ensure deep affordability with Section Eight vouchers to get more of a diverse audience in that housing complex.

Those are the things we’re doing to move this housing market forward. It’s not that I’m against market rate, but market rate doesn’t grow cities. We’ve lost population as the market rate has grown. We’re a second-class city, we’re only 301,000. If we lose too much population, we’ll drop to a third-class city [classification], which would hurt us from a funding standpoint of federal and state money. And we can’t afford that.

Pittsburgh is known for being quite gentrified. What are your thoughts on how gentrification is impacting the city, and what is being done about it?

I’ve seen it firsthand. We lost 7,000 people to gentrification, out of the city. It’s unhealthy, it hurts the school district and the whole ecosystem. I came in laser-focused, and I’ve told developers that if you don’t have affordability in your housing project, don’t come see me. We have to stabilize our communities, our neighborhoods. A lot of the people that were gentrified went out to areas where they have poor transportation, creating islands of poverty, instead of empowerment centers, what housing can be.

You know, out of 15 major metropolitan cities, Pittsburgh’s the only city that doesn’t have a Black, Latino, or Asian middle-class neighborhood. That’s amazing in 2023. But it gives us the ability to advocate for affordability. Because to grow, you have to have affordability. And we will continue to do that until we stabilize the city.

From what you’ve said today, it seems “diversity” is the key word. You want people coming here to stay, not just for school. As mayor, how do you see your administration making Pittsburgh more attractive, competing with bigger cities in the area?

It’s our history. We’ve always been a connector between the Midwest and the East Coast. Most cities can’t say that. Technology has grown here, for a reason. We’re close to big cities, New York, Chicago, but don’t have the high real estate those areas have. Our parks are beautiful, and our top-tier universities make us attractive. We’re beginning to see diversity in our business climate. We’re seeing more enthusiastic youth who just want to see their culture embraced here. For me, as mayor, I see more of an upside to that challenge than a downside.

But what I tell young people is, what this city will look like in 20 years, you know better than me. Your eyes will dictate what this city is really going to be. My generation has to execute the plan to build for a better tomorrow for the youth to advance the way they see fit.

In here, all of you are future leaders, whether you believe it or not, because when I was in your seat, I didn’t believe it. But I get it now. Your eyes are deeper than mine. You see what you want the world to be. I got to execute the plan that I saw twenty years ago when I was in your seat. When I’m ready to pass that baton, 15 years from now, you should be ready to lead.

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