Amid housing crisis, religious groups are opening up land to build homes

Amid housing crisis, religious groups are opening up land to build homes

Emma Badway, a 26-year-old autistic woman who is mostly non-verbal, was living with her parents in Arlington, Virginia. She wanted her own place, but because her income was low, she couldn’t afford to move out. So when the opportunity to move into a two-bedroom apartment came up in December 2019, she jumped at the chance.

Ms Badwe now lives Gilliam Place, an affordable housing complex built on property owned by the Arlington Presbyterian Church. “My world has become so much bigger,” she said.

Ms. Badwe is the beneficiary of a growing real estate trend: Across the country, faith-based organizations are redeveloping unused or abandoned properties to help ameliorate the housing affordability crisis, while also fulfilling their mission of doing good in the world. are doing.

Except for a few affluent churches or synagogues, most religious organizations are land-rich and cash-starved, said Geoffrey Newman, executive managing director of Savills, a real estate services company.

“They are analyzing what they can do to ease their financial stress and what role real estate plays in that process,” he said. “If the stars align with good assets, a strong real estate market, active developers, favorable zoning and visionary institutional leadership, there is great potential.”

Yet the challenges are increasing. As more and more religious houses move toward affordable housing, they face resistance from parishioners, “not in my backyard” reactions from local residents, and solvency questions from lenders. have to do. They are also hampered by their lack of expertise in the field of real estate development. But, as the Rev. Ashley Goff of Arlington Presbyterian Church said, faith-based organizations see the need to “do something bigger than themselves” and feel the pull.

And the need is great. According to real estate listing site, there is a shortage of 2.3 million to 6.5 million homes in the United States. A separate estimate from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an affordable housing advocacy group, suggests there is a shortage of 7.3 million affordable homes for low-income renters.

Faith-based organizations can make a dent in the housing crisis, said Ramiro Gonzales, board chair of Impact Guild, a community development incubator in San Antonio whose Good Acres program aims to help churches maximize their assets for community benefit. There are more than 3,000 acres of faith-owned property in San Antonio, a large portion of which is under-utilized, Mr. Gonzales said during a panel discussion On reusing church property last year.

That land could be used to house 100,000 families, he said, adding, “This is clearly within the limits of what the Church already has to solve this problem.”

The story is the same across the country. Mark Elsdon, a minister and developer in Madison, Wis., said up to 100,000 Christian church properties will be sold or reused in the next decade. “That’s a quarter to a third of all the churches in the United States,” he said. “Not everyone has property, but if even half have property that’s a big number.”

For example, faith-based organizations and nonprofit colleges in California own more than 171,749 acres of potentially developable land, according to a recent report from the Turner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley. There are more than 4,000 acres of church property in San Diego alone, said Evan Gerber, developer and consultant for Yes in God’s Backyard, a group that seeks to develop affordable housing from faith-based properties.

And faith-based institutions own about 800 vacant parcels in the Washington metro area, said Peter A. Tatian wrote in a 2019 report. They concluded that if multifamily housing could be built on that land, it could support the construction of 108,000 new homes.

In an attempt to increase revenue and do good, faith-based organizations are turning to their unused land and underutilized buildings as solutions for affordable housing. By the time Ms. Goff arrived at Arlington Presbyterian Church in 2018, Gilliam Place was already under construction.

“Our congregation started asking ourselves, ‘What does it mean for us?’” Ms. Goff said. “This is a big, existential question, and they had a sense that affordable housing was an issue they could do something about.”

The congregants decided to tear down their house of worship, sell the land for $8.5 million, and build something new. Along the way, the church teamed up with a non-profit developer, the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing. The church now rents 173 affordable homes at Gilliam Place, which house 500 people, including Ms. Badway.

State and local governments are also recognizing the potential to increase the housing stock. Andrew Gounardes, a New York state senator representing southern Brooklyn, introduced a bill in December that he said would “streamline the process and improve the way religious institutions seek to help solve the state’s housing crisis.” They’ll be able to do that.” Develop affordable housing on their property.”

Similar bills were passed in California in October and in Seattle in 2019 Virginia lawmakers Drafting a bill based on California.

Regardless of state laws, projects often face make-or-break decisions at the local level. Neighborhood buy-in is a small step in the journey, said the Rev. David Bowers, vice president of faith-based development initiatives for Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit developer. “There’s NIMBYISM, zoning approval,” he said. “It’s the nature of the beast.”

Then there is the question of financing. “Banks are hesitant to do business with churches for fear of default,” said Bishop RC Hugh Nelson, lead pastor of the Ebenezer Urban Ministry Center in Brooklyn, who worked with Brisa Builders Corporation on Ebenezer Plaza, a project that includes 523 affordable apartments. , includes 43,000 square feet of sanctuary and ministry space, and 21,000 square feet of commercial space in Brownsville.

And the growth process itself requires stamina. Ebenezer Plaza took nearly a decade: The church raised enough money to buy two city blocks in Brownsville for $8.1 million in 2011, but the project ran into delays, including buying out 22 existing tenants, environmental remediation and a rezoning process. Was. Construction workers broke ground in 2018, and residents were finally able to move in three years later.

IKAR, a Jewish community in West Los Angeles, is in the process of building 60 apartments for older people who were previously homeless. “We’re in the fifth year, and it may take six years by the time we’re done,” said Brooke Wirtschafter, IKAR’s community organizing director. “This is not an unusual timeline.”

Additionally, “unscrupulous” people looking for deals may target faith-based organizations, believing that these organizations may not be knowledgeable about real estate, Bishop Nelson said, adding that he has heard from other clergy. Have heard horror stories. At the beginning of the development of Ebenezer Plaza, Bishop Nelson returned to school to attend an executive program focused on real estate development at Fordham University.

Richard King, 52, moved into a new apartment in Ebenezer Plaza last year (where he won the housing lottery) after living on the streets and in shelters. He was working a variety of jobs at a distribution warehouse, but was injured in a motorcycle accident and uses a wheelchair.

In his new one-bedroom, “My nurse’s aides and doctors can come visit me every day,” Mr. King said. “Otherwise, I’d have to live in a nursing home, and I don’t want that.”

The new communities are expected to increase the value of the neighborhood and bring positive change to residents.

Bishop Nelson said of Ebenezer Plaza, “Once our property was rezoned, every property around us went up in value.” And church members clean up around the block, he said. “We want the space to reflect what Brownsville will look like when local people take ownership of their community,” he said.

For faith-based organizations, this “makes radical common sense,” Mr. Bowers said. “Houses of worship are in every community,” he said. “They often have land in a sea of ​​need – food deserts, affordable housing deserts. “If we can bring these organizations together, we can affect change.”

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