By Ryan Callihan & Clinton Engelberger, Bradenton Herald
After seeing success in their first year of collective action, local faith leaders are keeping pressure on Manatee County officials to implement key policy changes on affordable housing and criminal justice.
Faced with rising housing costs and a shortage of attainable units, the Stronger Together Reaching Equality Across Manatee (STREAM) group says affordable housing remains their top priority. On Monday evening, more than 500 people gathered for the second annual Nehemiah Action meeting to push for a solution.
STREAM is a faith-based group that was formed in 2019. The organization, made up of several local church congregations, hosted community meetings to determine which are the most pressing issues affecting Bradenton-area residents.
What they found were hundreds of people impacted by housing affordability and arrest records that have blocked them from life-changing opportunities, such as moving into a new apartment or getting a job.
“We do believe and we stand on the voices of our parishioners. There’s over 15 churches that make up STREAM. We just didn’t come here and say let’s do this. We actually listened to those voices in the community,” said Rev. Eric Reaves, a pastor at Gethsemane Baptist Church in Bradenton. “So we stand here today on those voices and the testimonials of people who really live this.”
A similar event in April 2022 attracted over 600 local residents. STREAM has continued to push for criminal justice reform and increased availability of affordable housing.
Manatee to seek more affordable housing
In a pre-written statement provided to attendees, STREAM suggested reaching out to the Manatee Board of County Commissioners asking each official to “support policies and practices to ensure that the county creates at least 1,000 new units of affordable housing” in the next fiscal year.
The crowd roared with applause as Commissioner George Kruse announced his support of a plan that would ensure 1,000 more housing units within the next year. STREAM estimates that the county is short 11,000 affordable housing units.
STREAM acknowledged the progress that has already been made, such as a number of approved affordable housing communities and key policy changes that lowers the income threshold for affordable housing units.
“This is a great start, but we need to see these results every year,” said Eirinn Camphire, a pastor at Peace Presbyterian Church in Lakewood Ranch.
Under the county’s previous policy, individuals making around $72,000 could qualify for affordable housing units, according to the latest data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In September, following STREAM’s first Nehemiah Action meeting, board members lowered that threshold to about $48,000 in an effort to reserve affordable housing units for people with lower incomes.
“I think 1,000 units is going to be easily achievable if the community can get behind it,” said Kruse, who encouraged STREAM to continue advocating for low-cost housing. “It takes all of you and your friends to really push that affordable housing is important for everybody in Manatee County.”
But there is still more work to be done. Manatee County’s recent success shows that prioritizing affordable housing is an achievable goal for the next year as well, local pastors say.
“We will not be satisfied until we get some of these issues resolved,” said Rev. Elizabeth Deibert, who is also a pastor at Peace Presbyterian.
Sheriff begins new criminal justice approach
Criminal justice reform is another concern for STREAM. Pastors recently met with Manatee Sheriff Rick Wells to discuss an adult pre-arrest diversion program that would allow first-time offenders of misdemeanors to go through a different process and avoid an arrest record.
After they requested the new criminal justice policy for months, STREAM leaders say Wells has decided to take part in the program starting this month. However, Wells said Manatee County will not include driving-related citations.
Drivers who receive certain citations in Manatee County are not arrested, but they do receive a notice to appear in court, which appears on an arrest record, STREAM organizers explained.
State Attorney Ed Brodsky, who also attended Monday’s meeting, has implemented a similar program in Sarasota County.
“We don’t understand why the sheriff refuses to use the state attorney’s program, but we are not giving up,” said Kim Uchimara, a pastor at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Bradenton.
Brodsky earned a standing ovation for his commitment to the pre-arrest diversion program, which he described as an example of being “smart on crime.”
“It does not escape me that the vast majority of the folks that come through the doors of the criminal justice system will return right back to our community in Manatee County,” Brodsky said. “They are our neighbors, they work in the restaurants that we eat in and they work in the shops that we shop in.”
According to Jorethea Capers, a pastor at Rogers Community United Methodist Church in Bradenton, STREAM plans to monitor the pre-arrest diversion program for the next six months and ask Wells to implement driving citations later this year.
“When we build our people power and we show up, justice rolls like a mighty stream,” Capers said.
Residents react to STREAM accomplishments
Following Monday’s hour-long program, local residents said they were fired up and proud of what the group has already done to improve life in Manatee County.
“It was a very positive event,” said David Thornton, of Ellenton. “I was glad to see that some inroads have been made and clearly there’s more to do, but I think the group we have here seems ready for the test.”
Thornton said he’s seen firsthand how criminal records bar job applicants from jobs and how rent hikes have forced residents to leave their homes in search of a cheaper place to live.
“For a lot of people who barely make ends meet or aren’t making ends meet, that’s precious. And to then have a criminal record on top of that, you’re hurting their employment opportunities for a group that is so vulnerable to those kinds of issues,” said Thornton. “It’s just sad.”
Jatzen Doronio, of Bradenton, was also impressed by STREAM’s efforts. As someone who lives in government-subsidized housing, she said a red light camera ticket almost cost her the roof over her head.
“You’re not allowed to have any driving infractions. I was lucky enough to have an attorney get it dismissed or else I would have lost my home,” Donorio said. “Finding affordable housing is an issue.”
Talha Siddique, who is the lead organizer of Speak Out Manatee, said he hopes to replicate the success STREAM has had in holding local officials accountable.
“It was interesting to see the way they tackle these issues,” said Siddique, who recently formed a coalition of activists throughout Manatee County.
What happens next?
STREAM’s next event has already been scheduled. The group plans to meet June 12 at Peace Presbyterian, 12705 State Road 64, Lakewood Ranch, to celebrate what has already been accomplished and plan the next steps of action.
Visit www.StreamManatee.org for more information about the organization and how to get involved.
View the original story here.