Turn Congregational Houses Into Affordable Homes

shifting from shelter to housing

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Christ Episcopal Church is in an affluent residential neighborhood along a main artery connecting the suburbs with uptown Charlotte. Its clergy preach that proximity is important, an especially important message for a middle- and upper-income congregation that could easily become insulated from poverty and homelessness.

 For one night each month over the past twenty years, Christ Church has opened its doors to those experiencing homelessness as part of “Room in the Inn,” a local winter shelter program. Parishioners prepare dinner, set up cots, stay overnight, and serve breakfast, truly proximate to those who have no place else to sleep. As the parable goes, these parishioners are dedicated lifeguards for those drowning in the river of homelessness.

sacrificing rental income

Several years ago, a group of parishioners walked into the rector’s office and insisted that the church could do more. Their proposal was to leverage part of an upcoming capital campaign to purchase four properties adjacent to the church – expensive real estate with stately houses. Christ Church proceeded to launch a $9.5 million capital campaign that included the acquisition of these properties along with $2.5 million for local outreach grants and $1 million for innovative programming. The church then spent several hundred thousand dollars renovating two of the houses – which were already duplexes -- yielding four 1600-2100 square-foot homes. From the street, the houses look like single-family homes.

For the past seven years, these four units have been rented to Charlotte Family Housing, a non-profit agency that empowers families to move from homelessness to self-sufficiency. The agency pays the church $1/year for each unit, and charges each family 30% of their monthly income in rent, the national standard for affordability. The rental income is plowed back into the units for maintenance, and the church remains responsible for capital repairs. 

Charlotte Family Housing provides caseworker support to address the barriers that led the families to become homeless and to enable them to increase their earnings and pay their own rent without subsidy in market-rate housing after two years.  Nine out of ten families graduating from Charlotte Family Housing’s program remain self-sufficient for at least two years after support and subsidies have ended, sustainably transitioning from homelessness to self-sufficiency. 

living faith with proximity at Christ Church

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, inspired both congregants and clergy when he spoke at Christ Church in 2016. For many it was powerful, for others it was life-changing. Nearly all the challenges faced by a community would benefit from Bryan’s four-step approach to striving for justice: staying hopeful, changing the narratives that create policy problems, staying proximate to the issue, and being willing to do uncomfortable things.  Christ Church continues to lean into Stevenson’s four tenets by offering transformational classes; arranging pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., Montgomery, and Selma; conducting racial equity trainings; and financially supporting local agencies committed to changing lives. 

Addressing homelessness is an integral part of Christ Church’s mission.  Changing lives is at the heart of the gospel and evident in nearly every miracle, teaching, and conversation Jesus had with his followers. Followers of Jesus are called to serve others, to care for the marginalized, and to meet people where they are - even if that is on the streets. 

The early Christians understood the importance of homes, because it was in the home where the earliest believers shared the good news of Christ with one another. A home provided the ideal place to gather, share meals, and to build community. Homes also provided refuge and a safe place for the early Christians as they sought to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. 

Today churches across the country provide a welcoming place to learn about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the importance of the home remains just as critical. Research has proved affordable and sustainable housing creates physically, mentally, and emotionally healthier adults, youth, and children. In other words, to help provide housing is to do as Jesus did – to care for the whole person.   

hard-to-house tenants

Christ Church is not alone in choosing to use congregational homes to address the affordable housing shortage. Congregation Har HaShem, a Reform synagogue in Colorado, has a long history of providing temporary shelter to the homeless in its community. Like Christ Church, Har HaShem also has two houses on its property, but its partnership includes not only a non-profit agency but also a commercial property manager, with the intent to demonstrate a viable affordable housing model to for-profit landlords in Boulder.

For more than a decade, Har HaShem had opened its doors to those experiencing homelessness as an overflow winter shelter, routinely serving 50 people each week and sometimes surging past 100 – becoming one of the largest shelters in the area. In addition, up to 30 people each night were welcome to camp on the synagogue grounds in other months, a critical resource because of Boulder’s no-camping ordinance on public property. But the congregation wanted to connect with more meaning -- and more impact -- on the population it had been serving.

Bridge House, the agency operating the ongoing homeless shelter, also operates a Ready to Work program for clients with histories of substance abuse, incarceration, and/or mental health issues, seeking to transition them into market rate housing. In an already tight rental market, these clients have difficulty finding landlords willing to rent to them.

Leasing the two synagogue houses to Bridge House instead of to local college students provided difficult-to-find housing for the clients. Boulder Property Management manages the houses for Har HaShem, preparing the tenants for the responsibilities of market leases and relieving synagogue maintenance staff from also tending to the houses.  Bridge House subsidizes the leases, and the synagogue benefits from Bridge House rules for the new tenants who – unlike the college students – agree to limited visitors, no alcohol, and no marijuana (legal in Colorado).  The synagogue pays for repairs to the houses and for the fee to the management company.

pursuing justice at Congregation Har HaShem

The vision articulated at Congregation Har HaShem is to create meaning in its congregants’ lives through Jewish practice.  The synagogue’s vision statement explains, “We work to make the world more just,” citing the text from Deuteronomy “tzedek, tzedek tirdof - justice, justice shall you pursue.”

Alan Halpern, executive director at Congregation Har HaShem, frames the model with Bridge House and Boulder Property Management in terms of its potential to impact housing justice in the community. He says, “We are hoping to demonstrate that existing housing stock can be subsidized, that people who experienced homelessness on the streets of our city can be good tenants, and that we can do this without millions of dollars of construction, which -- by the way -- still requires a subsidy.”

There is little ongoing involvement between synagogue volunteers and the tenants because of Bridge House’s emphasis on building independence.  The temple men’s club is partnering with two local churches to help furnish apartments for other graduates of Bridge House’s Ready to Work program, continuing the social action work that is traditional for Congregation Har HaShem (and many others). But Halpern points out the difficulty of working for justice, saying, “Sustained advocacy is harder to do than collection and education.”

on-site housing — a resource across faiths

Whether your church is inspired by the teachings of Jesus or your synagogue is moved by the Jewish responsibility to pursue justice, houses on congregational land provide an opportunity for congregants to live their faith using the on-site resources of their religious institutions.  

Christ Church focuses on families who experience homelessness; Congregation Har HaShem addresses hard-to-house singles.  Both congregations utilize the expertise of outside agencies to manage the social work needs of their tenants.  And both congregations use an intermediary to handle the transactional demands of property management.  Both congregations began their journey to creating affordable housing through the more traditional volunteer activity of using a house of worship as an emergency shelter.  

draft your plan

Consider the following questions to start your congregation on the journey to use a house on its property for affordable housing:

The Place

o  Do you have a house on your congregational property that could be repurposed for affordable housing? 

o  What is its current purpose? How much would it cost to accomplish this purpose in another way? 

o  How much would it cost to prepare the house(s) for occupancy? 

The People

o  Is there a particular population that your congregation has already demonstrated a connection to through volunteer work or donations? Would this housing serve that population? 

o  Also consider the mission relevance to your congregation of people with barriers to stable housing:  low-income seniors, those recently released from prison, LGBTQ young adults, moms with multiple evictions, minimum wage workers (perhaps at businesses in your congregational neighborhood), refugees, people with disabilities, or a specific income level group.

The Partners

o  Is there an agency that could be your partner in this housing initiative – selecting the tenant and supporting the client? 

o  Would this agency also serve as building manager – collecting rent, responding to maintenance needs, complying with local ordinances? If not, does your congregation have this capacity or would you need to contract with a professional management company?

o  Who would appropriately manage volunteers from your congregation eager to participate? 

The Plan

o  What constitutes success for this project? Do you intend the client to live there indefinitely or move on to another home after stabilizing their situation? 

o  What is the decision process if there are neighborhood complaints or if client situation becomes unworkable and needs to be terminated? 

o  Is there an expectation that this initiative would be financially self-sustaining or are there congregational funds accessible for subsidy?

Judy Seldin-Cohen is a volunteer organizer on housing issues at the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte, and she serves as the board chair for A Way Home, a $20 million public-private housing endowment.  She is also the co-author of the recently published book Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement Is Good for Synagogues, Jews, & America.

The Reverend Matt Holcombe is Associate Rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he provides clergy support for spiritual growth and adult formation. He is committed to visioning, designing, and facilitating unique learning opportunities to equip and empower people to grow spiritually through relationships with God, neighbor, world, and self.

This post is part of a series on Faith in Housing.  Christ Episcopal Church and Congregation Har HaShem are examples of how to “Lease Housing” — an  on-site  option for congregations with  sizable funding  accessible for affordable housing.

This post is part of a series on Faith in Housing. Christ Episcopal Church and Congregation Har HaShem are examples of how to “Lease Housing” — an on-site option for congregations with sizable funding accessible for affordable housing.

Judy Seldin