The Erie Spiritual Coalition
A call to action for housing reform
How does one combine politics, human-flourishing, and spirituality in constructive ways? A year after we met through the Jefferson Civic Leadership Academy, we found ourselves reflecting on this over coffee. We knew many spiritually-grounded folks who wanted to work for effective political change, but not, up until now, through partisanship. Did we need a new organization in a city already so full of them? Who might be interested and should we convene them? What started as the spark of an idea between two new friends at Pressed Books & Coffee, has since birthed a new movement in Erie.
Founded last summer, the Erie Spiritual Coalition (ESC) utilizes models from across the country and throughout history, from current California-based NGO human service coalitions, to interfaith councils from the Civil Rights Era. Grounded in spiritual principles, ESC strives to bridge the gap between people, organizations, and government by advocating for policies that foster human flourishing and thriving communities. Before officially going live, we took that mission statement back to organizations and leaders in various constituencies, who gave us the green light. ESC is the area's newest group, and as a first action, aims to tackle the causes and symptoms of systemic housing injustice in our local neighborhoods.
Even from our initial conversations about local issues, it was clear that housing needed to be in focus. The crisis is palpable: 44 percent of our youth are growing up in poverty, in homes that are often dilapidated, and household environments in need of social services (U.S. Census, 2020). We believe, as a coalition, that housing is a human right and that we must change the trajectory of these harrowing statistics. For example, Erie has seen a 15 percent increase in homelessness since 2018 and only two percent of all homeowners in the county are Black individuals or families.
Rather than innovate new solutions, we aim to provide the will and determination to turn plans into action. Possible solutions to our most persistent problems are already available. Our community has no shortage of thoughtful plans, from Erie Refocused to a newly approved Comprehensive Housing Study. In the early days of the coalition, we studied Court Gould's blueprint to reform our housing crisis and looked at solutions that were working in other cities.
After speaking with leaders from service organizations, formerly homeless residents, staff and residents in public housing, elected officials, and many more, we decided to lean into working on issues related to housing, particularly those most vulnerable to losing their housing. Guided by their input, ESC would collectively draft a Tenants' Bill of Rights for the City of Erie and raise awareness about Erie's use of federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant funds. Both initiatives lay a foundation for our longer-term goals of advocating for a community-driven housing plan, improving code enforcement, and increasing conversations about a housing court for landlord-tenant disputes.
Melinda Hall (a 2023 40 Under 40 Honoree, along with Susannah Faulkner) presents on behalf of the Erie Spiritual Coalition at Mercyhurst University. The group's initial task at hand is tackling systemic housing injustices in our local neighborhoods. (Contributed photo)
The coalition waded through the waters of existing tenants' rights at the local and state level, and followed guidance from the published White House Blueprint for a Renters' Bill of Rights. With expert input from Dr. Verna Ehret, director of the Evelyn Lincoln Institute for Ethics and Society at Mercyhurst University, research by several graduate students, and comments from other community leaders, we finalized a draft focused on protecting the safety, health, stability, and overall well-being of both renters and landlords.
We took this proposed bill of rights to the public at ESC's first event, a presentation at Mercyhurst University on community housing solutions. This living document serves to provide renters and landlords with a one-stop shop for accessing and understanding critical legal protections. These include the Right to Transparent and Fair Utility Costs, which is granted in the statewide Utility Service Tenants' Rights Act. Another is the Right to Adequate Notice of Rate Increases or Eviction, in which tenants should receive at least two month's notice of any rental rate increases or the possibility of lease non-renewal, providing enough time for the tenant to find adequate housing solutions. This is a newer protection only extended to renters in the City of Erie, passed in the Erie Rental Housing Ordinance by Erie City Council last October.
An additional core component of the coalition's first public event was discussion on the usage of HUD grant funding. Received by both the city and county, these funds are administered by respective Departments of Community and Economic Development (DCED). Focusing specifically on the City of Erie, this annual allotment of more than $4 million from the federal government is spent on the Community Development Block Grant Program, the HOME Investment Partnership Program, and the Emergency Solutions Grant Program. Some examples of how we see these dollars in action are through home repair grants administered by the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Erie, general salary support to organizations like the Erie City Mission and St. Martin's Center, and youth programming at community centers and the Police Athletic League.
Our DCED office does a tremendous job at public awareness and outreach, and we are advocating for greater public input as a coalition. However, questionable decisions have historically been made by City Hall to repurpose unspent HUD grant dollars. As recently as last April, Erie City Council approved a transfer of $900,000 from unspent HUD grant funds to street reconstruction and paving. The coalition is raising awareness, hoping that community understanding will ensure more of this money directly benefits the organizations and homeowners who need it. We urge city residents to mark their calendars and attend the only public input session of the year on this issue at City Hall (626 State St.) on Monday, March 4 at both 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
ESC is interested in community solutions that work. Will you join us? We are re-presenting our first event and we welcome all to join in the conversation on Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. at the MLK Center (312 Chestnut St.) and Feb. 27 at 5:30 p.m. the Multicultural Community Resource Center (554 E. 10th St.).