Q&A with Erin Edwards, Councilmember for the City of Riverside
September 27, 2023
As a Councilmember for the City of Riverside representing Ward 1, Erin Edwards has auspicious goals: to address homelessness, invest in neighborhoods and put Riverside on the map. With a background in nonprofit work, Councilmember Edwards brings considerable expertise in all facets of advocacy, as well as diverse experiences collected from living in France, Canada and Haiti.
Elected in November 2019, Councilmember Edwards chairs the Council’s Housing & Homelessness Committee, served on the Mayor’s Housing Task Force and Santa Ana River Working Group, and sits on the Council’s Economic Development and Land Use Committees. She previously sat on the board of the Riverside Downtown Partnership and was the former chair of Glocally Connected, a refugee-serving organization in Riverside County.
Recently we sat down with the councilmember to hear more about her impressive work and accomplishments in the affordable housing sector, along with her insight into the current state of the sector in Riverside and advances she’s helping bring about.
How did your career trajectory help position you for where you are today?
I have always been involved in the nonprofit sector, starting my career with AmeriCorps, where I completed the maximum years of service. That ignited my passion for helping others, and I have dedicated my career to service ever since then. I spent nearly 20 years in the nonprofit sector handling everything from direct service work to leading communications and fundraising teams, and then went to the philanthropy side where I had the privilege of working to actually get money into the hands of nonprofits doing the good work.
There’s nothing like knowing there’s a lot of work to be done in the world, and that every day you get to jump out of bed and do it.
Affordable housing is one of the causes that’s important to you. What is the status of housing in Riverside and what are some efforts that are being made to address it?
Creating more affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges and opportunities ahead of the city. We know that we don’t have enough affordable housing or just housing in general for the people who need it. According to the current Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), we need to build over 18,000 units of housing.
I’ve experienced this deficit firsthand. When I moved to Riverside with my partner in 2015, we were looking for a place to rent in the heart of downtown Riverside, but there were very few rental options, which we couldn’t afford. Since 2015, the housing stock has dramatically increased, which is great for the downtown neighborhood, but now the big challenge is to make sure that more of that housing is affordable so more people have access to it and don’t have to move out of the city they love and call home.
There are some exciting plans in the works…can you tells us about some of the breakthroughs you’re seeing?
It’s definitely a pivotal moment in the city of Riverside as we are seeing several prominent projects come to fruition with groundbreakings and even grand openings. For example, recently we opened 50 units of affordable housing in the St. Michael’s project, which is in a different ward, but we champion housing everywhere in the city. This particular project faced a lot of pushback in the beginning so it’s really phenomenal to see how beautiful it is, with many partners coming together to make it happen.
And we’re very excited about our partnership with Eden on the Mulberry Gardens Apartments in my district, where we will be creating 209 units of affordable housing for families and seniors right near an elementary school, which will really beautify that area of the neighborhood.
Then we have 30 units of housing going up just a couple blocks away from there designed for former foster youth in collaboration with our city college district. And just down the street from Mulberry Gardens, we’re in the process of opening 10 tiny homes as transitional supportive housing in a partnership with Habitat for Humanity.
These are just a few examples we’re seeing where not only is more housing being established, but it’s often through really creative partnerships, which gives me a lot of hope for our city.
It’s crucial to have trusted partners, like Eden, who are willing to engage with the community and have intentional talks with neighbors throughout the project lifecycle about what the project is and how it will help beautify a neighborhood. I think that’s why these particular projects are being embraced by communities since that level of support can be rare.
Along with the political will and engagement, the other facet is getting the capital to line up to see these projects open as quickly as possible. Does the city provide incentives for developing affordable housing?
We do, and we’re always looking for good ideas to develop our incentive packages for developers, not just for 100% affordable projects, but trying to think of ways we can incentivize market-rate projects to include affordable housing as well. We are very proud as the city of Riverside to have received our Pro Housing Designation from the state this year. It speaks to the desire we have to do everything we can to turn over every rock and find every way to make it possible.
Tell us about the work you’ve done as part of serving on the Council’s Housing and Homelessness Committee and the Housing Task Force.
One question I frequently hear from constituents is how do we know that what we’re doing as a city is working, and that we’re investing money in the right kinds of projects? We want to ensure we’re stewarding all the resources and wonderful partnerships in such a way that we can report out on what’s working and what’s not working.
That’s why I am really honored to be able to chair our City Council’s Housing and Homelessness Committee, where we’ve created the city’s first Homelessness Action Plan. It’s designed to help us articulate what we’re doing already, what we think we would like to try, and how we will measure these activities to report to the community. If we see that something isn’t getting the traction we thought it would, we can redirect those resources to another initiative.
It’s been an ongoing process that included community engagement sessions with a variety of stakeholders, ranging from the building sector to people experiencing homelessness and housing advocates. From there, we identified six pillars and developed benchmarks that would also make sure our plan aligned with county efforts so we can have an even bigger impact beyond just the boundaries of our city.
It passed last October and now our committee is just starting to hear early results of those benchmarks. I always say that if you can’t measure it, you can’t change it, and this will help us see what’s working as we aim to make big changes.
What are some of your favorite accomplishments in the housing sector?
There’s another project I’m really excited about in addition to those mentioned above—and that’s a campus that just opened in the heart of downtown in partnership with the nonprofit TruEvolution that supports LGBTQ folks in the community. The data shows that a large percentage of youth who are experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ so True Revolution created a plan to invest in historic homes and restore them, which has created a beautiful campus with a community center that has transformed this corner of our downtown.
It’s filling a big need beyond just providing a bed because it’s really creating a community for people. When my partner and I moved to Riverside, nothing like that existed in the city, and it means so much to our family to see those resources there as different groups coalesce to make this project possible.
I think Riverside’s really a hidden gem, and this is just one of the ways we’re creating models that other cities can emulate. If we can find a way to fund more of what works, then we will continue to have success.