Churches Are Building Housing Developments ‘in God’s Back Yard’

(CITYLAB) Alex Wittenberg, July 18, 2020

The Arlington Presbyterian Church in Virginia was dealing with declining Sunday attendance, and fewer donations, before deciding to turn to an affordable housing developer for help. In 2016, with membership down to about 60 from a height of 1,000 in the 1950s, the church sold its century-old sanctuary to the nonprofit Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH). The developer razed the church and built a seven-story, 173-unit affordable complex in its place, allowing the congregation to escape increasing costs while fulfilling an obligation to care for the poor. Today, the church leases space on the ground floor of the building to serve its congregants.

“We had an alignment of mission,” Nina Janopaul, the CEO of APAH, said of the $71 million project that opened in November. “Their mantra was, the church is the people and the mission, not the building.”

Americans were already going to church less and less before the coronavirus shut down large social gatherings. After physical church attendance fell to zero for months during lockdown, the financial troubles caused by waning religiosity were thrown into sharp relief. But the situation, seemingly grim, has been cast as an opportunity by affordable-housing advocates and religious leaders working to combat homelessness. Religious institutions own thousands of acres of land in the U.S., and amid falling membership and participation, calls to convert surplus faith property and places of worship themselves into housing have gained traction.

“Land that belongs to faith communities is supposed to be for the services of the vulnerable,” said Monica Ball, who helps lead the Yes in God’s Back Yard (YIGBY) movement in San Diego. “If [the coronavirus] leaves us with more open space to build more desperately needed housing, amen.”

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