Expert Calls for Action Against the Blight and Affordable Housing in Erie

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Erie’s prospects for prosperity depend on fair housing. Neighborhoods with quality, affordable, mixed-use housing for all create value that promotes upward mobility, attracts investment, and grows population. Here is the problem and the solution.

I would like to present some recommendations for Erie’s housing progress from a Jefferson Educational Society report that I recently wrote.

The city’s housing problems are well known. There are far too many run-down houses in troubled neighborhoods. Prime blocks lack quality and affordability for both apartments and owner-occupied homes. These conditions, facilitated by decades of disinvestment, create a web of interrelated problems and lock the city in the grip of concentrated pockets of poverty, segregated neighborhoods and insurmountable socio-economic burdens.

In this file photo, a two-story addition was under construction at Richford Arms on the southeast corner of East Fifth and State streets in Erie on May 11, 2022.

Housing trends fueled by the pandemic, along with rising inflation, are making home ownership increasingly out of reach for many. All the while, renters are also feeling the pinch, as strong demand helps landlords raise rental rates while too often failing to repair units. Many Erieites rent. Many more will have to do so in line with the trend that Erie – the 5th largest city in the state – is on track to have more renters than owners. This is the case in the 4th largest city in Pennsylvania – Reading, the 3rd largest – Allentown and the 2nd – Pittsburgh. In the 1st largest, Philadelphia, rental housing represents 46% of total housing. The growing number of rentals increases the pressure on municipal and social systems working to make neighborhoods attractive for investment, as recognized in the Erie Landlord and Rental Ordinance. It highlights the fact that rental units require a greater incidence of problems than all other properties combined.

The mix of renting to owning in the city of Erie is about even now but varies significantly by neighborhood. According to data from the 2021 American Community Survey, of Erie’s 44,856 dwellings (total of all types), 48% (21,531 dwellings) are rentals (compared to 44% in 2000).

In this file photo, a demolition crew from Kingsview Enterprises in Lakewood, New York, used an excavator to demolish this vacant home on a destroyed property at 1708 Sassafras St. in Erie on May 21, 2018.

Erie’s real estate liabilities have undermined otherwise monumental investments to support the economy. To thrive, all people must have the opportunity to live together harmoniously in the city.

Advantages of mixed living quarters

Research proves that neighborhoods with mixed housing facilitate the racial and economic diversity that raises all boats. Young people under 12 who move to mixed-income neighborhoods are more likely to attend college or university and less likely to be single parents than those who stay in poor single-sex neighborhoods. They also earn more money throughout their lives. Moreover, neighborhoods with diversified dwellings do not have significantly lower incomes than those in exclusively single-family neighborhoods. And, allowing apartments, including subsidized housing, does not negatively affect property values ​​and sometimes even increases land values ​​by capitalizing on new development potential. Another benefit of mixed neighborhoods is the increased taxes and purchasing power needed to support services and amenities like parks, retail stores, and markets.

This July 2021 file photo shows the view of Perry Square and State Street looking south from new apartments being built on the second and third floors of the former Park Place/Sherlock building near North Park Row in Erie.

Recommendations for Strengthening Erie’s Systems for Healthy Neighborhoods

Despite the advantages of mixed housing communities, the neighborhood is not always acquired. Desirous neighborhoods defend shared values ​​of: safety, cleanliness, respect, calm and respect for codes and ordinances. These values ​​are essential for neighborhoods to be welcoming and welcoming. Without them, those who can will leave. Investments languish. Blocks decline. Segregation and poverty are increasing.

As noted in Erie Refocused, “Restoring an ethic of reinvestment — mutual reinvestment — is fundamental to well-functioning markets, but even more so to the social contracts that make markets work and strengthen cities. As a result, all cities have systems, policies and programs that aim to maintain neighborhood civility in an effort to attract investment – ​​both by residents and in the form of new development. These include: Code Enforcement, Tenancy Registry, Tenancy Inspections, Social/Human Services, Housing Coordination, Community Initiatives, Inclusive Zoning, Blight Control, Synchronization data and coordinated response, police, etc.

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The good news is that Erie already has a good foundation for these programs and Erie management is working hard on reforms to improve their effectiveness. The report summarized in this column presents many recommendations to alleviate Erie’s housing unrest, a sample of which is described below.

Code enforcement

  • Move from a reactive, complaint-driven code enforcement system to a proactive one. Do a case study of similar cities to determine the staffing capacity needed for a top-notch program.
  • Strengthen the Quality of Life Ticketing Program and the Disorderly / Nuisance Homes Ordinance.
  • As recommended by no less than seven studies dating back to 2008, Erie is slow to set up a housing tribunal dedicated to substandard housing cases.
In this file photo, a defaced property is shown Jan. 30, 2018, at 645 E. 9th St. in Erie.

Rental register

  • Dedicate enough resources to identify unregistered/unlicensed properties that circumvent the law.
  • Increase data collection. Following the example of nearby Lawrence Park, Erie’s rental housing registry should require: unit occupancy status; a list of all Erie Units owned, operated or controlled by the owner; and identification of a local manager, if the owner lives out of county.
  • Make the rental registry database publicly available online. List the properties with the most code violations, overdue taxes, vacant properties, etc., both rental and non-rental, as is the practice in Chicago.

Rental Inspections

  • Evaluate the pros and cons of moving away from the city’s current practice of outsourcing rental inspections to a third party. Consider possible efficiencies from managing rental inspections in-house with the property registry and in close coordination with city code enforcement.

Social/human services

  • Integrate social services to tenants in need, following the example of public housing providers in Erie. For example, Housing Authority of the City of Erie (HACE) social workers help families access social services, implement self-sufficiency plans, develop a budget, and set savings goals. As a result, HACE units are often better maintained and have better support programs for residents, compared to private rental units. The focus of Erie public housing leaders on residents is indicative of the need for better coordination of supports between all tenants (public and private) and many landlords as well.

Fight the burn

  • Increase the allocation of U.S. bailout funds to the Erie Land Bank to ensure rapid progress in transforming the city’s approximately 6,600 vacant and abandoned homes.

Data synchronization and coordinated response

  • Create a central database of property data (state, public intervention log across service provider line, property, etc.) that can be overlaid, integrated, and shared across departments. Configure the database to automatically track the severity and/or recurrence of incidents on a given property and alert responsible parties when a threshold is reached.

Police

  • Law enforcement is one of the systems that work to prevent community decline. Given the high stakes of public safety, the dramatically changing role and environment of the police, and the heated public debate over the staffing level of the Erie Police Bureau, the city should initiate a nationally credible police consultancy for independent analysis of its law enforcement system.

Erie Annual Housing Summit

  • Convene an annual housing summit to accelerate the changes needed to facilitate mixed housing opportunities in every neighborhood of the city.

This is Erie’s defining moment

Mixed housing in diverse neighborhoods depends on well-functioning civic systems that work together to ensure order and good neighborliness. These systems constitute the welcome mat and must be treated as engines of development dynamics. Fortunately, Erie has many knowledgeable parties working on housing issues. Every agency and organization, from professional landlord associations to police to social housing and social service providers, is needed at the table to implement the above recommendations and more.

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Erie’s biggest challenge is recognizing that unless everyone benefits, no one benefits. The potential resulting from today’s remarkable level of commercial investment around the city will not be realized until Erie’s neighborhoods become livable places of choice for all. Housing is the keystone of Erie needed to eliminate segregation and concentrated poverty and win in the competition to retain and attract residents. A growing population is necessary to sustain the local economy and provide a favorable tax base for best-in-class urban services, which in turn create livable neighborhoods that support Erie’s primary competitive advantage – its diverse population.

Court Gould, who lives in downtown Erie, is a sustainable solutions consultant. An expanded version of this article was first published by the Jefferson Educational Society on August 29 and remains available for free download at JESErie.org.

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