Using church buildings to address housing crisis

housing crisis

Helen McIlvaine gets excited when she sees a church.

Driving around her hometown of Alexandria, Va., on a bright and sunny morning last week, McIlvaine slowed the car at white spire after white spire.

She turned her head, cocked an eyebrow and scrutinized each red-brick square on its grassy plot.

“I sort of go past everything and say, ‘That could be affordable housing,’ ” McIlvaine said.

“I go past a Scottish Rite temple and say, ‘Do they really need all that land?’ Once you start looking, you can’t stop — there are opportunities everywhere.”

Over the past five years, McIlvaine has proved her own maxim.

In her work for the city of Alexandria, where she serves as director of housing, she has shepherded four churches through selling or leasing all or part of their land and converting it to space for affordable housing.

At least two more churches are “in the pipeline,” McIlvaine said.

And it’s not just Alexandria.

Churches across the District, Maryland and Virginia are turning their properties into living space for low-income residents.

David Bowers, vice president of the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, said his organization has helped seven houses of worship in the Baltimore-Washington corridor do this in the past 12 years.

Enterprise is working with roughly two dozen more churches.

Bowers said the Mid-Atlantic region has become a national leader in this arena, pioneering a faith-based solution to the dearth of affordable housing that advocates across the country are beginning to imitate.

He and others at Enterprise, which formed its Faith-Based Development Initiative specifically to encourage this tactic in 2006, hope to bring the strategy to major cities across the nation.

Proponents say churches are ideally suited to build affordable housing.

Houses of worship often sit on valuable land but are less concerned with cutting the best deal possible, thus minimizing costs borne by nonprofit developers.

And, for churches faced with shrinking congregations and underutilized buildings, installing affordable units offers a fresh infusion of cash and a better way to serve the community, backers say.

“In Matthew 25, we are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked,” the Rev. Sam Marullo, a former professor at the District’s Wesley Theological Seminary, said at a forum on faith and affordable housing in the District last month.

“I would add into that Matthew 25 quote, ‘Build housing for those that need housing.’ ”

When McIlvaine walked through the door of Alexandria’s Office of Housing in 2006, no one there was thinking about churches.

But she couldn’t get them off her mind. Continue reading

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