Places of Worship Tackle Affordable Housing Shortage

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Tabernacle Southeastern Baptist Church in Washington DC wants to add nearly 80 rental units to its land in an underserved neighborhood.

The 90-year-old Tabernacle Southeastern Baptist Church has been a spiritual refuge in Ward 8 in Washington DC for decades. Ward 8 has some of the worst inequality in the city, including high rates of poverty, teen pregnancy and other statistics, according to Pastor Donald Isaac.

“We have a very difficult community,” says Isaac. “We have been blessed with an entire block, and have now embarked on a process to develop a project which we call the First Street Village.”

The plan is to demolish the existing church and replace it with not only a new place of worship, but also nearly 80 rental units and community spaces. The Southeast Tabernacle Baptist Church‘s nonprofit partner, the East of the River Clergy Community Partnership (ERCCPP), received a $50,000 grant along with capacity building grants.

Across the country, faith-based institutions like the Southeast Tabernacle Baptist Church are tackling the housing crisis head-on, a movement dubbed YIGBY, or “Yes to God’s Backyard.” While helping low-income families aligns with the mission of churches, some also see it as a way to attract members and tap into additional sources of income.

One initiative is Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit that describes its mission as making affordable homeownership possible for millions of families, advancing racial equity, and building upward mobility. The nonprofit organization recently announced $8.5 million in grants from the Wells Fargo Foundation to help places of worship across the United States convert underutilized land into affordable housing and community facilities. The funding will help create approximately 6,000 affordable housing units.

Launched in 2006 in the Mid-Atlantic region, Enterprise’s faith-based development initiative has helped faith-based organizations create or maintain more than 1,500 affordable housing units and a community health clinic. Since 1982, Enterprise has invested $54 billion and created 873,000 homes in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

“This is a creative approach that over the years has been found to be effective,” said David Bowers, Enterprise vice president for the Mid-Atlantic market and senior adviser for Faith- Based Initiative. “We want to continue to expand to help meet the needs, as more resources become available.”

Houses of worship not only provide land, Bowers noted, but also a mission-focused perspective.

“So many people across the country need more affordable, healthy and sustainable housing,” he said. “There is this alignment of the mission, to help and to meet the need.”

In July 2014, Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released a study concluding that nearly half of all renter households in the United States were burdened with costs in 2012.

“The need is there now, it was there yesterday and it will be there tomorrow to provide more affordable housing for low- and middle-income people,” Bowers said. “Unfortunately, this is a time of prime need.”

Eileen Fitzgerald, Wells Fargo Housing Affordability Philanthropy Manager, said in a statement, “As community anchors, places of worship are at the center of so many lives. By working together, we can bring a whole new level of innovation to the housing supply challenge.

Bowers noted that nearly every community has at least one or more houses of worship of various faith traditions: “Many of them have land, whether it’s airspace in a place like New York, or acres of land in some places, especially in some suburban areas”.

Faith-based organizations participating in the program will have access to funding, training, technical assistance and peer-to-peer learning.

“The training component is really important to lay the groundwork,” Bowers said. “We will also provide technical assistance so that places of worship have access to a development consultant, who will work with them to help them develop their development concept.”

For Isaac and others, the question is crucial for the religious community. He hopes other faith-based institutions will follow. “We hope this will be a model for other faith leaders in the district,” he said.

Kristi Eaton is a freelance journalist based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and elsewhere. Visit her website at KristiEaton.com or follow her on Twitter @KristiEaton.

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