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Group backs aid for young home buyers in city

| Thursday, Nov. 20, 2008, 12:00 p.m.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's handpicked panel of 20- and 30-somethings urged him Wednesday to offer tax breaks to first-time home buyers and to market Pittsburgh as an affordable place for immigrants to live.

After more than a year of work, the 30-member Propel Pittsburgh Commission made its first recommendations to Ravenstahl, who personally tapped many of the young professionals to brainstorm ways to reverse Pittsburgh's population decline.

"We want to open the door to new homeowners," said Craig Laurenson, 30, of Observatory Hill.

The commission's Policy, Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee chair, Laurenson proposed reducing Pittsburgh's 3 percent real estate-transfer tax for first-time home buyers to compete with the 1- to 1.5-percent rates common in suburbs, such as Ross, Shaler and Mt. Lebanon. Pennsylvania imposes a 1 percent transfer tax in municipalities statewide.

A $100,000 house in Pittsburgh carries a $4,000 transfer tax, twice as much as a comparable home in neighboring West View, the group told Ravenstahl.

"That's a lot of money to a first-time home buyer," said George Hackett, president of Coldwell Banker Real Estate in Pittsburgh and West Penn Multi-List, a home-listing service.

Ravenstahl said he plans to consider the commission's recommendations, and some eventually could become legislation. He chose 21 of the commission's members; the remainder were chosen by City Council members.

Rich Gasperini Jr., 28, of the South Side and chair of Propel's Diversity, Outreach and Civic Engagement subcommittee, stressed the need to promote Pittsburgh as an immigrant-friendly place. He pointed to Boston, where the Mayor's Office of New Bostonians helps immigrants settle in the city.

"A lot of the growth is driven by immigration," said Gasperini, an industrial real estate broker with CB Richard Ellis. Boston's population has increased by 25,000 since 1990, while Pittsburgh's has fallen by more than 58,000.

Pittsburgh's tiny Hispanic population -- about 1.8 percent compared to 15 percent nationwide -- illustrates the need to attract immigrants, said Victor Diaz, chief executive officer of the Hispanic Metropolitan Area Chamber of Commerce.

He said Hispanics want to live in cities with quality mass-transit systems and low-cost housing. Diaz said the Propel Commission's ideas are on target, but they needlessly duplicate the efforts of the Allegheny County's Global Competitiveness Initiative.

"We are the largest minority in this country. We are the only growing demographic in the region, but we are under 2 percent in Allegheny County," Diaz said. "We don't do enough to lure the (easiest) immigrants ... legal Hispanics."

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