At the foot of Mount Diablo in Walnut Creek, California, the campus of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church houses 44 units of supportive housing where unsheltered neighbors with disabilities and other challenges are provided with shelter.
Nearby, Grace Presbyterian follows Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 – “when I was homeless, you housed me” – with its plan to convert an unused, outdoor basketball court into a community of affordable tiny homes as transition housing for the houseless.
In Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., an ecumenical movement is underway to build affordable housing of various types, including Fairfax Presbyterian’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity to convert excess land into owner-occupied, below-market value townhomes.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, land adjacent to Mayfield Memorial Baptist, once occupied by gangs and drug houses, is now full of construction crews as the church erects a village of mixed-income, affordable apartments. A few miles away in the affluent Elizabeth neighborhood, Caldwell Presbyterian is in the process of converting its century-old education building into a 21-unit supportive housing community for those earning 30% to 50% of the city’s median income.
As America’s affordable housing crisis deepens, these and other congregations are responding with innovative new ministries. Issues stemming from affordable housing shortages and worsening houselessness today spread well beyond the gritty urban cores of the largest cities. In leafy suburbs, bedroom communities and mid-sized metros, a growing number of churches live out Scripture’s command to provide safe, secure shelter for all their neighbors.
Their reasons vary. As financial pressures squeeze budgets at more and more churches, these congregations blend missional calling and faithful property stewardship with pragmatic diversification of their church assets. These ventures offer new ways their members can serve and better understand people experiencing houselessness and poverty. At the same time, land sales and leases generate income that supplements tithes and offerings to preserve and extend other ministries.
As for the world beyond the church, various partners adapt to join hands in the mission. Municipalities place more focus on partnerships with congregations to put housing on church campuses. Private and nonprofit real estate developers are learning to “speak church” as they specialize in working with faith communities. In February 2022, the Wells Fargo Foundation announced $8.5 million in grants “to help houses of worship across the U.S. convert underutilized land into affordable homes and community facilities,” according to a press release published by Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit dedicated to providing homes to those who need them.
“There is now an intentionality to work with the faith community,” said David Bowers, an ordained minister and vice president for the Faith-Based Development Initiative at Enterprise Community Partners. “In the last five years, I would say that local governments are seeing what I call the radical common sense of working with churches and their land.”
“We’re at a tipping point,” Bowers added. “We are trying to make this a movement so it becomes part of the strategy that denominations and other institutions think of. There is so much potential.”
What’s not in doubt is the need. Almost half of all renting households in the U.S. are at least moderately cost burdened, Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies 2022 report notes. One in four households is severely cost burdened or paying more than 30% of their incomes on housing.
“The enduring shortage of rental homes affordable and available to the lowest-income renters is a national problem affecting nearly every community,” the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports. “On its own, the private market cannot and will not build and operate homes affordable to extremely low-income families. Only a sustained public commitment can ensure that the lowest-income renters, who are disproportionately people of color, have stable, accessible, and affordable homes.”
The mandates for God’s people to provide decent shelter echo through Scripture, including God’s stern words about hollow worship to the prophet Isaiah:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer
with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
These are the words that guide the members of First Presbyterian in San Mateo, California. They are in the process of building 66 units of affordable housing for low-income seniors and youth aging out of foster care.
Other congregations look to Nehemiah’s call to rebuild Jerusalem as a place that reflected God’s kin-dom. Using his access to power as cupbearer to the king of Persia in the fifth century BCE, Nehemiah built widespread coalitions of priests and perfumers, merchants and goldsmiths that gathered all available resources for the task of looking after the most vulnerable. Despite doubt and criticism, he persevered in prayerful, courageous commitment.
The Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Alexandria, Virginia, heard Jesus’ words as they partnered with a developer to build 113 affordable apartments and rebuild its aging church campus to better suit the needs of the current congregation.
“We felt that our project responded to the commandment to love our neighbor,” said member Kat Turner. “We also identified with the hymn, ‘All Are Welcome.’”
“Let us build a house
Where love can dwell
And all can safely live…”
A new approach
In providing shelter, these congregations follow the lead of earlier pioneers. For decades, urban Black churches created nonprofit community development corporations (CDCs) as umbrella subsidiaries for various types of neighborhood improvement. Often lacking available land on their smaller campuses, these congregations worked through CDCs to develop and stabilize nearby struggling neighborhoods.
This approach continues in places such as East Oakland, where ACTS Full Gospel Church labored for a decade to build a $30-million, 59-unit affordable community. Opened in 2017, it helped enhance an underserved neighborhood where others without homes set up tents on the street medians. Now ACTS and its public, private and nonprofit partners are in the process of building a twin 55-unit building directly across the street from the first.
Black congregations continue to use the CDC development model, including St. Paul Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, which donated $1.4 million in land to a $17-million senior housing initiative on former parking lot land.
Not without challenges
More recent models demonstrate other types of partnerships. As more suburban, mostly White congregations launch their own initiatives, their clergy and lay leaders say the work is not for the casually involved or the faint-hearted. From the initial vision to completion, each project demands years of work. Congregations need members with strong knowledge of real estate development, legal, social work, finance and other professional and technical areas. Even when those skills are available among church leaders, the right consultant proves essential to success, they say.
Leaders of completed housing efforts emphasize the need for transparency in sharing the financial implications for the church and an equally clear understanding of the financial goals of their development partners.
Each initiative is shaped, if not challenged, by local zoning and policy issues that present inevitable hurdles. Count on responses of “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) from at least some surrounding neighbors, veterans say. Nearby neighborhoods may complain of construction noise and hassle or increased density and potential traffic.
In many cases, neighbors express concern about those who will occupy the housing, often repeating more myths than facts about those who need affordable housing. Skills in strategic communications and neighbor engagement prove critical. Even then, some neighbors may find all angles in their opposition.
“Some folks in the neighborhood were conceptually in favor of the idea of affordable housing but admitted some concerns about their property values declining,” said Sarah Harrison-McQueen of Central United Methodist Church in Arlington, Virginia. Its vision, currently in the construction phase, would replace the existing church building with an eight-story structure housing 144 apartments, a new sanctuary and office space, a community kitchen for onsite food distribution, a meeting hall and an early childhood education space.
“One neighbor got a call from someone pushing historic preservation as a guise to preventing affordable housing from being built in the neighborhood,” she recalled.
Also likely is disagreement within the congregation. Some members hold sentimental attachment to buildings and spaces, even when they are under-used or don’t fit the congregation’s current mission. Other members may not share the long-term vision that housing involves.
At First Presbyterian, San Mateo, for example, members debated whether hosting an occasional neighborhood farmers market was a better use of a little-used parking lot than constructing affordable housing there.
With these and other complexities, leaders of these ministries said deep wells of patience and perseverance will be needed within the congregation and staff.
Engagement with new campus residents
Perhaps most important are questions of how the congregation plans to relate to its new neighbors. Veterans of working with people experiencing poverty and the unhoused, along with church leaders with housing experience, advise churches to consider a range of questions before diving into a housing ministry, including:
What are the goals and expectations of the congregation about how it will interact with those who live in such close proximity to the active life of the church?
Does the church count on its new neighbors to become involved in the life of the church? Or, is the congregation willing to be satisfied that its primary mission is to provide safe, secure and affordable shelter with limited neighbor interaction or church involvement otherwise?
Does the congregation understand the challenges often faced by those who live in affordable housing, including experience with poverty, disability, under-employment, challenges of aging, physical or mental illnesses?
Is the congregation committed to seeing each new neighbor as a child of God and a person of possibilities rather than a burden or inconvenience?
Is the congregation prepared to advocate for its new neighbors when nearby neighbors complain?
The congregation of First Presbyterian in Hayward, California, worked through these and other issues before committing 14 parking spaces for six tiny homes that provide transitional housing. Its members progressed to this decision as part of a multi-step journey with the unhoused.
Leaders at the 125-year-old congregation first asked the leadership of its suburban San Francisco city how the church could best help its community. The church started with a seasonal warming shelter in colder months. It grew into a year-round shelter and a day center where neighbors can charge their phones and access other resources. That journey – and deepening study of the gospel – led to the decision to make space for its tiny-home initiative, said member and project leader Taryn Sandulyak.
“People had fears, questions, concerns and gaps in awareness (about houselessness),” said Sandulyak. “But I see former high school classmates on the street … When you know someone’s story, it’s impossible to ignore them.”
“More than anything else, this is the church’s issue to address,” said Jake Medcalf, who guided the congregation along that journey. “The church is to take care of those who are suffering and to help people safely exist.”
Sensitivity, empathy, understanding and awareness
Veterans of church-based housing initiatives emphasize the critical importance of empathy, understanding and sensitivity toward those whom churches seek to serve. In some cases, as in the tiny-home movement in Los Angeles, what may appear to be innovative turns out to put the needs of the surrounding neighborhood first and those of residents last.
The Christian nonprofit Hope of the Valley has built six camps of prefabricated structures to house the houseless. One such camp – not on church property but on a strip of land bordering a busy highway – houses 224 tenants in 117 two-bedroom units, each less than 70 square feet. The concept is for residents to live there for three to six months before finding more permanent shelter. The structures lack kitchens and rules do not allow residents to cook their own meals in any manner.
Tenants are required to undergo “wellness checks” three times a day, are searched by security guards upon returning to the community and locked out of the camp after a 10 p.m. curfew, Hope of the Valley’s CEO told one publication, which criticized this approach as “a cage by another name.”
Alternatively, congregations might consider the experience of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco. In 1964, it built the 13-story Martin Luther Tower on one corner of its property to provide 121 affordable apartments for seniors. It’s now finalizing plans for a second affordable apartment tower alongside the first and envisions a third property on its campus in about a decade.
Lyle Beckman, who walked San Francisco’s streets every night for 15 years as its night minister, now serves as St. Mark’s interim pastor. He said the congregation’s experience and emphasis on interacting with the residents has varied through the years. However, the congregation was clear in its decision to do more for those needing safe, secure, affordable housing.
His advice for congregations?
“Just know very clearly why you want to do this in the first place,” he said. “If it’s just to make money, it’s not going to work. If it means you think that automatically 100 people will join your church, they are not necessarily. Will having housing on your property change the way the congregation lives its life? Maybe, maybe not. It can, absolutely. But there’s got to be a strategy to make that connection.”
Twenty miles away in San Mateo, members of First Presbyterian are hopeful that pending policy decisions at the state and local levels will open the way for it to realize its plans to provide affordable housing for seniors and young adults aging out of foster care.
“This isn’t just a development project because there is a faith element,” said John Tastor, the tireless retired insurance executive working on the project. “We talk about community and people look at that in various ways. This gives us a growing awareness of what community looks like beyond our walls and boundaries.”