CityViews: The Potential Role for Church Land Amid NYC’s Housing Needs

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Jim Henderson

The Church of the Visitation near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.

While it may sound a little unusual, churches have started to become a bigger player in the solution to the affordable housing crisis that is plaguing the U.S. More and more churches are striking deals with developers and being converted in part into affordable housing units. While the growing movement of converting church properties to social housing started in the Washington D.C. region, other cities in the U.S. have followed suit, including New York, San Francisco and Boston. According to Bria Builders’ CEO Ericka Keller, the company has 1,100 units of affordable housing in its pipeline, all with faith-based organizations.

Nationwide, church attendance peaked in the 1960s, which has left churches today with dwindling congregations, overbuilt facilities, surplus land, and high maintenance costs. And the problem may worsen in the years to come. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, religious disaffection is soaring among Americans under 30.

At the same time, as the affordable-housing crisis deepens across the country, low-income individuals are finding themselves faced with upscale redevelopment projects and rising rents they cannot afford.

The combination of these two issues makes the idea of creating affordable housing on church property appealing to both religious leaders and housing advocates. Because these communities are faith-based, this solution allows them to not only be good stewards but also preserve the land that they’ve inherited. And, for churches facing shrinking congregations and underutilized buildings, they can “right size” their facilities for their congregations while also receiving additional income from installing affordable units. This new stream of money can be used to help churches modernize and even undergo activities to help forward their mission.

What’s more, church-held properties are often large and centrally located, with substantial parking lots. For local governments looking to develop affordable housing, such properties can be a windfall. And, because houses of worship are less concerned with cutting the best deal possible versus those in the real estate industry, they can potentially minimize costs that would be borne by nonprofit developers.

Cities across the country, specifically New York City, are even launching programs to aid non-profits in the construction of new affordable housing. One such initiative, the New York Land Opportunity Program, is a joint venture with a goal of helping faith-based institutions with limited real-estate experience based in Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. The program will provide free technical assistance, including access to lawyers and architects, to explore the possibility of turning vacant or underutilized property into viable housing projects. The partnerships are planned to develop hundreds of new affordable units, while maintaining the faith institutions’ existing programs and worship spaces.

Like anything else, this idea of transforming churches into affordable housing, hasn’t come without opposition. Some residents have complained that replacing “the quiet church at the end of the street” would make way for increased traffic and less space for parking. Other, more religious critics have found the idea to be objectionable and have claimed that adding affordable housing units would desecrate a holy space.

However, while many of these concerns are valid, the benefits of these projects far outweigh any of the issues that have been raised. Not only is it providing a welcome and much-needed solution to the affordable housing crisis, but it’s also directly allowing churches to address the needs of their immediate community. Some congregations have even seen an inflow of new members because they have appreciated the church’s efforts to bring affordability and help to their communities.

More broadly, it is also bringing the idea of faith and religion back to the national conversation in a positive way. Churches and other mission-driven organizations have the opportunity to be seen as indispensable members of their neighborhoods.

And, as it relates to the argument that these units would compromise the sanctity of a congregation, Pastor James Henry of St. James United Methodist Church sums it up best, “The truth is, the origins of the church were buildingless. Jesus was walking around with people, and there were no buildings — in the end it’s really about the people.”

Heidi R. Burkhart, Founder and President of Dane Real Estate, is a 14-year veteran of the real estate industry and has facilitated closings in excess of 11,500 affordable housing units and over $1.6 billion in transactions.

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