IN 1996, I co-founded a tutoring and mentoring ministry for low-income students in partnership with a church in Pasadena, California. My visits to student homes helped me recognize the problem that the high cost of housing posed for children’s long-term success. Without decent, affordable housing in good neighborhoods, multiple families were squeezed into tiny apartments concentrated in one part of town—a situation that could breed gangs, homelessness, crime, and soaring dropout rates. I began to ask myself what the church might be doing to find solutions to this complex issue.
Here are seven viable ways churches and other groups are responding to today’s housing crisis.
1. Financial literacy and foreclosure prevention. With thousands of homeowners losing their houses through foreclosure, one of the biggest priorities is figuring out how to keep folks in their homes. As Alan Mallach, author of A Decent Home, argued this summer in Shelterforce magazine, U.S. housing dollars should focus on helping families to stay in their homes by creating a robust support system to help homeowners with repairs, long-term home improvement planning, good mortgage products, ongoing counseling, and emergency assistance. Mallach also argued for providing more low-income rental units in high-demand cities such as Palo Alto, California, (but not in places like Las Vegas, where vacancy rates are high and rents are low).
One leader in helping homeowners avoid foreclosure is the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA). In 1994, under the leadership of former Federal Reserve Bank regulator Bruce Marks, the organization helped to expose Fleet Bank’s predatory practices and negotiate a settlement (including a $140 million, NACA-administrated home loan program for low- and moderate-income people). I’ve had the joy of helping several of my low-income neighbors save their homes by bringing them to NACA events at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Several groups in California, many of them faith-based, are also doing this work, including the community development corporation of West Angeles Church of God in Christ; the LA-based Korean Churches for Community Development; and Northern California Urban Development. But NACA and groups like these only begin to touch the desperate need today; we need many more groups engaged in foreclosure prevention.
2. Mutual self-help. Most people are familiar with Habitat for Humanity’s “sweat equity” model, where volunteers help build a home that is then sold to a low-income family with a no-interest loan. Less known is the “mutual self-help” model, where families in rural America first qualify for a mortgage, then partner with seven to 11 other families who will all build their homes together.
The model first gained prominence in the Central Valley of California in the 1960s through the work of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The Quaker group had listened to the housing dreams of migrant farm workers, many of whom lived in squalid conditions—30 families might share one rusty faucet. In response, AFSC offered the mutual self-help model: Families would work together to build their homes, with no one moving in until all the homes were completed. This built community as well as housing. The success of this model inspired the formation of Self-Help Enterprises, based in Visalia, California, which has helped more than 5,000 families build homes. The model has been so successful that today some self-help housing is sponsored by the USDA’s Rural Development program.
3. Adaptive reuse. Consider the abandoned buildings in your community. One example: The Atlanta Stockade in Georgia, a city jail until 1924, had sat empty for decades. In the 1980s, Christian community developer Bob Lupton of FCS Urban Ministries invited Atlanta’s top architects (who would more typically be working in competition against each other) into the Stockade to view the original architectural plans he had discovered. As the architects entered, they could visualize how this “symbol of injustice could be transformed into a symbol of compassion,” says Lupton. Within four years, 67 apartments were housing low-income workers, who spend only about a third of their income on their housing expenses.
In Chicago in the wake of the 1960s riots, Bethel Lutheran Church leveraged its church building, putting it up as collateral five times to buy apartment buildings. Its community development ministry, Bethel New Life, made the buildings into affordable housing, taking them off the speculative market. With this experience, in 1989 the ministry bought a 9.2-acre, 434-bed, seven-building dilapidated hospital that today houses, along with many other community services, 125 units of subsidized housing for seniors, plus assisted-living slots for 85 more seniors.
Adaptive reuse preserves both the natural and human resources that went into the initial use of a building and maintains the charm and character of communities.
4. Community land trust (CLT). This model is my favorite because of the way it reflects the spirit of Jubilee law (Leviticus 25:8-13). It originated partly in India. Vinoba Bhave, one of Gandhi’s spiritual successors, started a campaign to quell violence after Gandhi’s death by asking local landowners to donate land for the landless, which they, surprisingly, did. But families were unable to make good use of the land without the necessary tools, fertilizer, and seeds. Many ended up selling the land and moving to the city. To remedy this, the land was given to the village as a whole, which acted as the land’s trustee. Here the seed of the CLT concept was planted: Land would be placed in a trust and governed by board members from the broader community, along with those living on the trust.
Today in the U.S. about 250 CLTs exist. There are many variations within the CLT model. Land can be contiguous or scattered, and leased for a variety of uses—cooperatives, rentals, offices—but in most cases it’s used for housing. Residents own the building, but lease the underlying land through a 99-year, renewable lease. Each CLT designs a resale formula to provide a fair return for the homeowner’s investment yet keep the property affordable for future low-income households. CLTs create a permanent form of affordability, preserve housing subsidies, prevent absentee landlordism, and give low-income folks the pride of homeownership.
A model similar to CLTs is common among colleges and universities. One example is at California State University Channel Islands. The institution retains the ownership of the land, selling only the homes to faculty during their years of employment. This keeps employees close by, minimizes traffic, and brings revenue to the institution and equity to the homeowner.
5. Using church-owned land. Often we don’t see what we’re holding in our hands—after all, 5,000 people were fed from five loaves and two fishes! Many churches have parking lots, property, and even airspace that can be used to create affordable housing. When Rev. DarEll Weist of First United Methodist Church of Los Angeles felt called to “build a village,” he first thought his call was to build a congregation, but later realized he was to build affordable housing. His church had land but no money. Weist had no experience, so he contacted the architecture department at the University of Southern California, where he found professor John Mutlow, an expert in affordable housing. The church owned a third of the block. That gave them development rights for the whole block, especially since the other owners had no plans for it. With permission from the church, Weist founded 1010 Development Corporation, which master-planned the entire project. Today there is indeed a village, including 66 units of family housing and 75 senior-citizen housing units.
6. Tenants taking ownership. In 1995, a group of homeless families that were members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), a grassroots group in Philadelphia, had moved into St. Edward’s Cathedral, then vacant, to make a public statement. To show solidarity and prevent their eviction, Shane Claiborne and other students from Eastern University moved in with them. Eventually members of KWRU and the students helped to move a number of the homeless families into abandoned homes, at times being arrested for this activity.
Take Back the Land, a national movement founded by Miami-based “squatter’s realtor” Max Rameau, has moved many families into abandoned properties, asserting that it improves neighborhoods by preventing homes being stripped and other illegal activity. Not worried about being arrested, Rameau said, “We are challenging corporations’ right to own thousands of homes that they keep vacant while human beings are left homeless.” He considers his home-squatters to be like the civil rights movement activists who defied Jim Crow by sitting in the front of the bus.
In the 1990s, Paul Smith, a Harvard grad, moved into a decayed, gang-infested apartment building in Los Angeles, to be a neighbor to the poor and to share the gospel. When tenants began to discuss the deteriorating conditions in their building, the idea of a resident takeover emerged. After a rent strike, the unresponsive landlord—convicted of criminal building neglect—abandoned the property. These poor, mostly immigrant residents became “slumlords” of a valuable property near downtown LA. With the help of community organizers and public-interest lawyers, the tenants formed a nonprofit corporation called Comunidad Cambria, which partnered with the city housing department and developers and to purchase and renovate the building. For a time I was the asset manager of this sparkling building, and I witnessed the pride of shared ownership, where many young people now choose college over gangs.
7. Community organizing. Because of my background as an evangelical, with little experience in these areas, I had difficulty grasping the concept of community organizing. I struggled to understand how community organizing works, and I even wondered if it was biblical. Then I got a taste of the work of two community organizing groups, South Bronx Churches and East Brooklyn Congregations. Together they created 4,000 units of housing thanks to the work of 60 member churches—an accomplishment that has been breaking the cycle of poverty, lowering crime, and infusing hope where there had been none.
My own ministry also began to take on a new flavor of systemic transformation. I began to see how Moses, Nehemiah, and Jesus were consumate organizers. I discovered countless examples of how listening to the dreams of lower-income community leaders, gathering up their stories to create a united story, and speaking truth to power were transforming the church and every level of society. For example, in Montgomery County, Maryland, a bedroom community of Washington, D.C., 20 churches organized and were able to help persuade the county council to set aside 2.5 percent of all property taxes for an affordable housing trust fund.
Let’s imagine many more ways we might take seriously housing our nation—especially the most vulnerable.
Jill Shook is author of Making Housing Happen: Faith-Based Affordable Housing Models.