U.S. Faith Communities Are Tackling the Housing Crisis
Churches, mosques, and synagogues across the country are trying to develop low-cost housing
Fast-growing metropolises such as Chicago, Denver, and Seattle are all feeling the affordable housing crunch. As large property holders, communities of faith are helping to fill the gap at a time when land for affordable housing development comes at a premium in cities across the country.
When Sarah Anderson moved out of her mother’s house and into her first apartment on Chicago’s West Side, she turned to her congregation, the People’s Church of the Harvest, for help. Anderson’s new apartment is one of 36 units that make up Harvest Homes, which was the first new housing development built in the neighborhood in the past 15 years.
Harvest Homes offers two-, three-, and four-bedroom apartments to families with annual household incomes between $22,000 and $60,000. It was developed in a partnership between not-for-profit real estate organization NHP Foundation and the People’s Community Development Association of Chicago, the independent community development arm of the People’s Church.
“I was pastor in a community that had not had new affordable housing, in a sizable quantity, in some time. So there was a great need for it. As a matter of responding to that need, we began to pursue an affordable housing mission,” says Pastor Michael Eaddy.
Eaddy’s congregation acquired 32 city lots through the 1990s and initially constructed its church building on eight of them in 2000. In 2011, the church began its first affordable housing development on the remaining land; the first residents moved into Harvest Homes in 2016. Through its community development association, the church also offers other tenants and community members services such as an after-school program, financial literacy classes, first-time homebuyer education, and food distribution programs.
While Harvest Homes’ apartments are available to any qualified community member, Anderson said she found out about the program through the church. Her apartment is within walking distance of both the church and her eight-year-old daughter Navayah’s school. After living with family members, she’s happy to have her own home. “I’m the first resident to be living here in this apartment that’s been built from the ground up,” Anderson says. “It’s a very good feeling to be in your own space after living with a lot [of other] people. I love where I’m living.”
Jamie Smarr, who oversees joint-venture partnerships between the NHP foundation and other nonprofit organizations, says that communities of faith have a long history in the affordable housing space. In the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development encouraged the development of senior housing through the 202 Program. Many churches, by organizing as a nonprofit, oversaw the development of affordable senior housing projects until the program was phased out in the late 1980s. Some existing senior housing stock came out of the 202 Program.
“Recently, a lot more faith-based organizations are beginning to rekindle this idea,” Smarr says.
He says many churches are facing declining attendance and are looking for new ways to engage with the local community. According to Smarr, some churches, mosques, and synagogues are repurposing unused land, and others are razing existing buildings and rebuilding new structures that include a church, with the rest dedicated to housing.
Nathan Hunt, director of economic justice at the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, adds that many churches want to be part of solutions that address the root causes of problems, such as a lack of affordable housing, in their neighborhoods. “Communities of faith have as part of their mission and identity a call to serve the community, and that’s often framed in terms of loving their neighbors,” he says.
Faith communities of all religious backgrounds often look at their land as an asset that they have been given to steward. According to Hunt, land costs are often around 20 percent of an affordable housing deal. “Congregations can play a big role in helping to take a good chunk of that cost out of the process or just make sure that land falls into the hands of responsible developers who are going to build equity and inclusion into their properties,” he says.
There are several different models that faith-based organizations can pursue, such as tiny home villages, permanent supportive housing, permanent affordable housing for low-income families, and owner-occupied homes, which often involve community land trusts. Some churches have converted existing buildings into housing, while others will sell their property to developers of affordable housing at below-market rates.
In Denver, Hunt has worked with dozens of churches that have expressed interest in providing their land for affordable housing. While there are no national statistics available, the Interfaith Alliance estimates that there are nearly 5,000 acres of unused church-owned land in the greater Denver metropolitan area.
In neighboring Aurora, the Second Chance Center, a nonprofit working with formerly incarcerated individuals, has partnered with Elevation Christian Church to build a 50-unit permanent supported housing project, which will also provide additional services such as mental health care. The project will provide housing to former prisoners, disabled individuals, and people who have experienced chronic homelessness. After a protracted battle with local authorities over zoning issues, the partners will break ground in January.
Seattle is another city experiencing growing pains where the faith community has been actively involved in addressing the city’s affordable housing shortage. The city’s first tiny home village is hosted on church land, and several other congregations have dedicated land to affordable housing options.
University Christian Church (UCC), for instance, sold a plot in Seattle’s University District to Bellwether Housing, a nonprofit developer, at below-market rates with the stipulation that it be dedicated to low-income housing. Bellwether purchased the land, which was appraised at $6.8 million in 2013, from UCC for $4.8 million. Arbora Court, a seven-story, 133-unit building, moved in its first tenants in April 2018. Forty units are dedicated to people coming out of homelessness, and the remaining units serve households earning less than $60,000 for a family of four.
Lisa Smith recently moved into Arbora Court on a Section 8 voucher, which subsidizes rent for low-income families. Because her spouse has a criminal record, they had previously been unable to rent from Bellwether. But in 2017, Seattle became the first city in the United States to ban the use of criminal history when considering rental applications. Access to affordable housing has helped Smith, who was formerly homeless, maintain sobriety and go back to school. “We’re on the seventh floor. We have a great view. And there’s a community here with people here interacting, and the kids are playing together,” she says.
While there is no panacea for the affordable housing crisis facing cities across the country, faith-based organizations as large landholders, as well as engaged neighbors, have proven to be reliable partners for developers and municipal governments. The People’s Church of the Harvest in Chicago is in the process of applying for low-income tax credits for its latest affordable housing project, which it hopes to launch next year.
Pastor Eaddy says the church’s track record with Harvest Homes has given them a chance to both meet a pressing need in their community and influence the City of Chicago’s five-year housing plan. “We’re constantly being asked to come to the table, because the city sees that they can’t do it alone. They know that they must work with partners to make it happen,” he says.