Many Pittsburghers are aware of the constant developments taking place in and around the city — new housing, businesses moving in and out of neighborhoods and city officials deciding which projects are worth prioritizing in which neighborhoods. It’s often hard to discern exactly how some of these changes are impacting residents and their homes, and what achieving equitable and sustainable development looks like.
In his role as an economic development reporter and assistant editor at PublicSource, Rich Lord spends much of his time speaking with renters and homeowners about the challenges they face living in Pittsburgh, and the struggle to advocate for their own needs in the face of polarizing city planning decisions.
In our conversation, Rich shared his view on the importance of trust in reporting, his curiosity for neighborhoods and life experiences that are different from his own upbringing, and his book.
Where are you from?
I grew up in the South Hills. My family has been here since I was in second grade, but I was born in Virginia.
Where did you go to school?
After graduating from South Park High School, I went to George Washington University in D.C. and studied politics and English.
What got you into writing and local reporting?
I think I started writing around seventh grade when I did what most geeky kids did at the time and read the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I thought, “Oh my god, I could write something, too.” Ever since then, I’ve been writing.
After leaving college, I worked for over four years in insurance. While I was doing that, I decided to pursue some freelance writing for the local news weeklies — I just loved the feeling of contributing to a community discussion.
What’s your favorite part of your job as an economic development reporter and assistant editor at PublicSource?
I think going out in the field, getting to know people and talking to them about their lives is the most exciting part. Any time you can find somebody who’s in a tough spot and prevail upon them, with nothing other than the hopes that it will aid society to talk about their situation, it just moves you on a level.
When you go out there and find someone who hasn’t had heat in their house for years, you know that no matter what you write, it’s not going to fix it, and they know that, and yet they’re willing to trust you with their story. That level of trust that people give you as a reporter, especially a local reporter — it still blows my mind that I’ve had those experiences.
In what ways have the stories you’ve written over the years about development, local politics and housing changed your understanding of the communities you’re a part of? And the communities you’ve previously been unaware of, or had a narrow understanding of?
It has been an evolution over 26 years of full-time reporting. I’m a kid from the suburbs, and I didn’t come into reporting really knowing the city well. I choose to go into neighborhoods that are very different from the suburbs I grew up in. For instance, Hazelwood is one of those neighborhoods. There’s the giant Hazelwood Green development site there, and the risk of gentrification as market forces change and take hold.
No matter how long I’ve been reporting, if I go into Hazelwood and talk to at least 10 people, I’m going to learn a lot of different perspectives. And if I go back to Hazelwood a year later, it’s going to be a totally different story. That’s the thing about development — it not only implies change, it is change.
Can you talk about your book, “American Nightmare: Predatory Lending and the Foreclosure of the American Dream,” and what that project taught you about predatory lending practices in Pittsburgh, specifically? How do those stories vary in different areas of Pittsburgh and for different demographics?
I started to see this issue emerging in 2000. I was working for City Paper at the time and there was a discussion in City Council about rising foreclosure rates and how that was playing out in neighborhoods. I found the court documents that I needed to show me who was foreclosing and where they were foreclosing, and I started sending letters to people who were the subjects of foreclosure and knocking on doors.
Some people were getting foreclosed because they didn’t want to pay their mortgages. Others were getting foreclosed because their mortgage terms changed dramatically, and they could no longer afford it. Others were being foreclosed because of paperwork snafus that made it look like they hadn’t paid when they really had.
I wrote a lot of stories for the City Paper about it and then I thought, heck, I could probably do a book. I’ve got to say, I figured there were smart people who discovered how this whole thing must work — how this mortgage market must be sustainable in the long term. Really smart people who make lots of money are selling these securities that are backed by mortgages that make no sense to me. So, I thought, “ it must work somehow,” but it didn’t — it fell apart. It was interesting to watch and say to myself “Wow, those smart people screwed up.”
In what ways has your reporting approach changed over the years since you first began reporting on housing and lending practices in Pittsburgh?
The whole game is different in so many fundamental ways than it was in the mid to late ’90s. I remember reading an interesting analogy that economic development should be like blowing up a balloon. As more people enter the market, the balloon should expand. Instead, in Pittsburgh in the late ’90s, people were leaving the market, but government was trying to pull the balloon outward to suck people back in.
In 1996, when we would write about Garfield, it would be about disinvestment. Now, it’s about development and concern with gentrification. It’s so different in subject, and the process of covering development has changed.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Riding my bike and gardening — that’s pretty much it. I enjoy being with my wife and sons, oftentimes doing those things.
– Maggie Medoff, WordWrite