Local Developer Says It’s Possible To Make A Profit And Be Socially Responsible

Feb 27, 2017

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and community activists have recently called attention to what many say is an “affordable housing crisis” in Pittsburgh. As new development comes to neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and East Liberty, many low- and moderate-income homeowners and renters are being priced out of the neighborhoods.

The city and community groups, like Operation Better Block, have made efforts to ensure development in neighborhoods like Homewood are done with a focus on protecting existing residents, and preserving and expanding affordable housing options.

Derrick Tillman, President and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Bridging the Gap Development, is trying to find the right mix between making money through developing properties and being socially responsible.

90.5 WESA's Mark Nootbaar talked to Tillman. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Nootbaar: Explain how the name of the company gets to the heart of its mission.

Derrick Tillman
Credit Submitted

Tillman: We look to bridge gaps of opportunity and also bridge gaps in real estate. So, really recognizing that different communities have different needs. Some need affordable housing, market rate, mixed income, for sale products, commercial products. So, we look to bridge those gaps and bring these much needed development projects to communities, while at the same time creating opportunities for minorities, for women, as well as some of the local residents in communities that we’re serving.

Nootbaar:  Before we get too deep into what you’re doing now, let’s look back. Tell me a little bit about coming up in Pittsburgh.

Tillman: I grew up mainly in Homewood, graduated from Westinghouse High School. We grew up low-income, you know, Section 8 housing. It gave me an affinity for the work that I do. I also had an opportunity to live in some middle- and some upper-income communities, so I got to see things from a lot of different perspective and that helps me in the work we’re currently doing.

Nootbaar: What was your first investment?

Tillman: My first investment was a single-family house in Blackridge. The plan was to buy it, fix it up and resell it for a profit and then reinvest those profits into the next project, eventually build up to larger multi-family projects. It didn’t actually go in that direction.

Nootbaar: So what is different?

Tillman: We now look to start with an anchor project for a community that can spur development. That may be a school conversion or a commercial real estate project, and then beyond that saying, “How can we then begin to develop the entire block and beyond that look at opportunities to help to co-develop the entire community?”

An initial project we’re working on—we were awarded low-income housing tax credits to develop a 36-unit new construction project in the Hill District. We’re really excited about it because what we wanted to start with is really raising the bar on development in our city as it relates to affordable housing so we are designing theses units to look like market rate and we are using all high quality materials so it will really last and we are including sustainable design including solar panels. 

Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 fm WESA

Beyond building a great building, we wanted to also try to build the people. So we partnered with the local energy innovation people to do a robust training program for our 36 residents and then add different components to take that to the next level.  The components that we’re adding are things that made a difference in my life. So I was able to get CORO to come in and do a leadership development component.  There’s a financial literacy component—teaching our residents how to save, budget and get out of debt.  And then lastly we brought in Focus Pittsburgh to do a trauma development component to deal with some of the trauma that some of our residents may have faced.

Nootbaar: Why do you have this focus beyond the bottom line?

Tillman: A lot of it steams from my personal experience growing up and now coming back and trying to make a difference in my community. There were a lot of people that helped me along the way and I never forgot that.  So this is our opportunity to pay it forward. I’m also a Christian so I’m also guided by my Christian values and principals that call this out of me.