To stem the housing crisis, religious congregations are building homes
The crowd that prayed together at Arlington Presbyterian Church’s Sunday worship service had dwindled from more than 100 to a few dozen. Donations dropped, and for years, congregation members grappled with how to reinvent their nearly century-old Northern Virginia church.
Neighbors’ stories guided the church’s radical transformation. As church members spoke with people who worked nearby, they heard a common concern: People were struggling to afford to live there.
“Those stories broke their hearts,” says the Rev. Ashley Goff, pastor since 2018. “They really felt this call by God to do something very dramatic about the lack of affordable housing.”
After some contentious discussions, the church reached a decision to use the greatest asset it had: real estate. In 2016 the church sold its land and historic stone building to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, a nonprofit developer, for $8.5 million.
The church was razed. In its place now stands Gilliam Place, a six-story complex with 173 apartments. The building, with ground-floor space rented by the church for services, offers homes to people who earn 60% or less of the area’s median income.
Hundreds of faith groups are using their property to build homes. For cash-poor congregations that face declining revenue and member participation and rising maintenance costs, developing housing can offer a financial benefit while also expanding their social mission.
Most faiths embrace helping the vulnerable, and faith-based organizations have long provided housing. But it’s rare that religious leaders have real-estate-development expertise and resources to navigate the often-challenging financial and political barriers that come with planning and building apartments or houses.
Nonprofits and foundations have stepped in to help. Enterprise Community Partners, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and other groups provide religious leaders with training, connections to developers, legal advice, and financial support to help them make informed decisions about whether they should use their land for housing. Then, the nonprofits guide leaders through the complex development process.
Enterprise, one of the biggest nonprofits working on housing issues, has run its Faith-Based Development Initiative since 2006. Capital One, Bank of America, and local grant makers, including the Blank Foundation in Atlanta and New York’s Trinity Church Wall Street and others, provided support. In 2022, Wells Fargo gave $8.5 million to help the program expand nationally from the mid-Atlantic region where it began.
Houses of worship in Atlanta, Baltimore, Miami, New York, Seattle, and Washington are participating now. Grantmakers and local governments have committed roughly $12 million to the program for the next several years.
So far, the effort has created or preserved 1,500 affordable rental apartments in the Baltimore-Washington region. More than 1,000 homes are in various stages of development in other parts of the country, and the potential for more is huge.
“Even if just 10% of the faith-owned land got activated tomorrow for affordable housing, we’re talking about potentially hundreds of thousands of units around the country,” says the Rev. David Bowers, an Enterprise vice president and leader of Faith-Based Development Initiative. In the Washington metropolitan area alone, the Urban Institute identified nearly 800 vacant parcels owned by faith-based institutions, most of which are already zoned for residential buildings. Assuming multifamily housing could be built on that land, it could support building 43,000 to 108,000 new low-cost housing units.
Meanwhile, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a nonprofit community-development financial institution, is helping churches explore housing projects in New York and the San Francisco area. And Yes in God’s Back Yard, backed by the grant-maker coalition Catalyst of San Diego & Imperial County, has ambitious goals for faith groups in Southern California.
Most faith groups don’t opt to sell their land and tear down their sanctuary space as Arlington Presbyterian did. Rather, they want to maintain control of the land and take better advantage of underused property like parking lots or classrooms.
Congregations and other faith-based organizations have a long history of filling housing needs through land donations, Habitat for Humanity projects, and providing shelter for people who are homeless. Many churches in Black neighborhoods have been involved in those efforts, and these congregations are a priority for Enterprise, as they’ve historically had less access to financial resources to support their growth, Bowers says.
Leaders from more than 250 houses of worship across the county have participated in Enterprise training sessions. Black churches represent around 80%. The rest include a mix of churches and a few mosques and synagogues.
“Part of our work is to get more faith communities from all kinds of walks involved,” Bowers says. “When you have declining memberships and you see your building space very underutilized, it becomes pretty stark.”
Some faith organizations that build housing rely on the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the country’s largest affordable-housing subsidy program. But the process of applying for government tax credits can be sluggish, says Monica Ball, who leads community outreach for Yes in God’s Back Yard, or YIGBY. The group’s name is a play on NIMBY, or Not in My Back Yard, the acronym used to describe residents who object to new housing or other development where they live.
YIGBY helps faith leaders navigate the home-building process. Instead of relying on tax credits for development, the group hopes to demonstrate how foundations, corporations, and wealthy people can help increase the supply of affordable housing without necessarily spending a dime. Using a construction loan guarantee, foundations or donors pledge to repay a loan with their endowment or other assets. This helps developers access the funds they need while removing risk for the lender.
YIGBY is helping Bethel African Methodist Episcopal, San Diego’s oldest Black church, build 26 new one-bedroom apartments for homeless veterans and older people. The region’s severe shortage of housing means that many veterans who receive a housing voucher from the Department of Veterans Affairs often can’t find a place to rent. Housing analysts estimate the San Diego region needs to build more than 13,000 new homes annually to meet demand.
Banks are often reluctant to lend to first-time developers, so YIGBY has turned to donors and low-interest loans, to help finance Bethel’s project using a construction loan guarantee. Andy Ballester, a co-founder of the crowdfunding site GoFundMe, set aside around $5.3 million — an amount equivalent to the value of the construction loan. That money acts as insurance for the bank and will be tapped into only if the developer fails to make an interest payment on the loan.
So why haven’t more faith groups built new housing to address the shortage?
“It’s just a simple time and money and expertise disconnect,” Ball says. And while these challenges aren’t unique to houses of worship, the need to get zoning approvals from the government and deal with neighbors who resist new development often presents obstacles.
Sometimes houses of worship are at an advantage when they try to work through local opposition, Bowers says. “If people perceive the house of worship as an anchor institution and a good neighbor in that community, sometimes they have goodwill that they’ve accrued over time, and that may help.”
Places of worship are “in need of revenue and relevance,” says Ball, leader of community outreach at YIGBY.
“When you’re in the middle of a housing crisis, if you’ve got land, the best way to generate revenue and become socially relevant is build housing.”