Construction of housing developments “in God’s backyard” is being carried out by churches

These churches are being decimated financially by a coronavirus. It’s possible that affordable housing may be the solution $255 limit at ConsolidationNow.

To combat dwindling Sunday attendance and contributions, the Arlington Presbyterian Church in Virginia turned to an affordable housing developer. The Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing purchased the church’s century-old sanctuary in 2016 after the congregation’s membership had dwindled to 60 from its peak of 1,000 in the 1950s (APAH).

An affordable housing complex was created in its place after the developer demolished the chapel and replaced it with a seven-story, 173-unit development. The church is now renting space on the bottom level of the building sale to serve its members.

As CEO of APAH, Nina Janopaul, stated of the $71 million projects that opened in November: “We had an alignment of goal.” In their minds, “the church is not the edifice, but the people and their purpose.”

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the number of Americans attending church had been steadily decreasing. During the lockdown, church attendance dropped to zero for months, highlighting the financial difficulties caused by a lack of faith. Advocates for affordable housing and religious leaders try to end homelessness find opportunities in dire situations. More and more people are calling for religious organizations to turn their excess land into homes because of a decline in membership and engagement.

San Diego YIGBY movement leader Monica Ball says that “land that belongs to religious groups is intended to be for the services of the needy.” Amen if [the coronavirus] leaves us with a more accessible area to construct more urgently needed houses.

Arlington Presbyterian was compelled to sell its sanctuary because of a de-churching trend that has affected congregations throughout the nation. According to Duke Divinity School professor Mark Chaves, who oversees the National Congregations Study, around a third of American communities polled between 2018 and 2019 reported having no funds. As the United States went into lockdown mode and religious services moved online, church contributions fell. In May, the CEO of evangelical research company Barna Group warned the Economist that up to one-fifth of all U.S. churches might collapse within the following year.

By 2006, $28 billion had been borrowed by churches in the United States—a practice that led to a significant rise in church foreclosures during the 2008 financial crisis. As of 2012, the National Congregations Study released in 2015 found that 26% of American churches, synagogues, and mosques have mortgages or other debt. Moreover, half of the congregations had a debt-to-income ratio of less than $100,000, while the median debt was $170,000.

A rise in church closures would contribute to what many regards as an overabundance of land. More than 550,000 individuals were homeless in the United States before the coronavirus. Economic damage caused by the epidemic and dwindling safeguards for tenants put this number at risk of rising.

Because religious organizations are exempt from paying property taxes, the land they possess is a money pit for cities that is also underutilized as a source of housing. According to a report released in May by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, around 38,800 acres of property held by religious organizations have development potential in California, a state with one of the nation’s most significant homeless populations. 

There are more than 9,000 acres of property owned by religious organizations in San Diego and Los Angeles counties alone, according to Berkeley research. Building affordable housing on that land might help alleviate the state’s housing deficit.

Making this process simpler is one of the goals of new legislation enacted by the California Senate in late June. Developers of low-income housing in California would be able to get around specific land-use regulations if they started projects on property owned by religious groups under the plan. 

Local rules in San Diego stifled a proposal to transform a church site into affordable housing last year because the apartments would have lost too many parking places, a requirement for the church. By offering religious sites wanting to create 100% affordable housing special designations that enable projects to bypass elements of the rezoning process for multifamily housing, this measure would eliminate such obstacles. According to Berkeley research, a large portion of faith-owned land in California is designated solely for single-family usage.

St. Francis Apartments in Denver, a 50-unit low-income housing complex that opened in 2018 after St. John’s Cathedral leased an underutilized parking lot to a nonprofit developer, might be possible in California if the measure passes the legislature. 

Building shelters for previously homeless persons in the Capitol Hill district of Denver serves the religious aim of its neighbors while satisfying proponents for affordable housing who regard vast surface parking lots as hurdles to overcoming homelessness. “The housing problem is evident to everyone,” Richard Lawson, dean of St. John’s Cathedral, said in 2018. To help individuals who aren’t profiting from the current economic climate, it’s incumbent on us, says Obama, “to look at how to utilize all of our resources.”

When attempting to create houses on property they own, churches may run into additional challenges apart from zoning restrictions. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, a key source of funding for subsidized housing, tends to support larger-scale buildings that are more affordable to the general public. As the Berkeley research shows, that’s a little much for some religious organizations. According to Emily Cadik, executive director of the Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition, low-income housing complexes employing the LIHTC include at least 50 units. Larger structures help developers of affordable housing to adjust rising land prices, which have necessitated the creation of more homes on smaller acres.

YIGBY, for example, aims to assist churches in navigating the difficulties of their financial situations. Ball said that her organization’s goal of constructing 3,000 homes by 2025 would be achieved by avoiding the LIHTCs as much as possible. As Ball said in an email, the fundamental purpose of YIGBY is to “create a distinct species of cheap housing and construction financing to speed and economical production of high quality, eco-friendly basic home as infrastructure for vulnerable communities.” Loans from Self-Help Federal Credit Union and gifts from donors will be used by the organization.

In late June, the group welcomed its first religious partner. Church members of San Diego’s oldest African-American congregation, Bethel A.M.E., want to use philanthropic donations and credit union money to build 16 one-bedroom apartments for the city’s elderly and disabled. In the words of Bethel AME’s pastor, “this endeavor fulfills the core goal of our church.”

There are also commercial realities to consider. Because of the difficulties in finding a cheap site, some churches are willing to accept the most profitable offer they can get, which is generally from developers more concerned with the financial return on their investment than the social benefit of the project. 

Many churches are located in rapidly gentrifying locations and where there is a limited supply of real estate. 142-year-old Brooklyn church was sold in 2011 to a developer who transformed it into 40 luxury flats. If a dozen of Brooklyn’s 80+ Catholic parishes had to collapse, would Catholic leaders forsake affordability in their housing missions? New York Times reports that between 2013 and 2018, more than three dozen religious establishments in Manhattan were either demolished or converted into luxury buildings.

In her research on what happens to churches when they dissolve, sociologist Tricia Bruce found that choices regarding the religious property are often made on the spur of the moment.

Since these more significant markets and capitalist forces dictate the result of their labor, “they lack the resources required to leverage outcomes that are compatible with the goal,” Bruce added.

There are initiatives like LISC’s and legislation in California to provide an alternative to the commercial market for churches. Churches lack a “written agreement that prescribes what to do and what not to do” that would help them better use surplus or unoccupied property, significantly if a pandemic speeds closings, according to Bruce.

Advocates worry that if the epidemic forces the state’s already-struggling religious organizations to collapse, the lack of a strategy for repurposing the buildings will squander valuable chances.

One hint may come from the demise of the North Highland Presbyterian Church in Denver. A coronavirus attacked the church just as it was spending down all of its treasury. Less than a quarter of the church’s income comes from individuals renting or leasing chapel space for events like Quinceaneras, yoga courses, and acting seminars. Those funds were depleted on March 31 due to North Highland’s closure due to the epidemic.

The church’s previous pastor, Ashley Taylor, uses Zoom to stay in touch with her members. While she doesn’t know what would happen to the church building, which is owned by the Presbytery of Denver, developers were calling her regularly before the outbreak.

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