Land to Live On

Originally published on Luther Seminary’s Faith+Lead Blog.

A few years ago, an unexpected visitor walked into the Trinity New Hope (TNH) property manager’s office at the end of the day. A very shy and frail woman was carrying her oxygen bag. This woman shared things that had been weighing her down for many years, things that happened when she was barely an adult. The property manager assured her that she saw value in the person sitting in front of her, that the events from so long ago should not diminish the woman’s belief that she is deserving of a good home. Since the day the woman and her grandson qualified for housing at TNH, she has thrived. She helped her daughter, the mother of the grandson, leave a bad relationship and she completed the long process of officially adopting her grandson. Recently, she celebrated 15 years at her place of employment. This is the kind of story our board has heard regularly since Trinity Lutheran Church entered the world of affordable housing. 

How Does a Church Get Involved with Affordable Housing?

The Trinity New Hope affordable housing story may be a bit unusual. In the 1990s the Sisters of Mercy wanted to create several affordable housing neighborhoods in Nampa. Meanwhile, Trinity Lutheran Church had been discerning what to do with excess land. A great partnership was born, but the project included struggles. Nampa’s Planning and Zoning Commission did not approve the original duplexes and insisted on single family homes. A neighborhood association formed to protest the development. But the congregation and Sisters prevailed. The church entered a fifty-year ground lease agreement with Mercy Housing and New Hope (16 three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes) was built. This was all in partnership with Idaho Housing and Finance Association (IHFA). 

I began serving as pastor of Trinity Lutheran in the fall of 2010. During one Sunday worship service in the early months of 2013, four big sections of the fence separating the parking lot and the New Hope backyards fell down. Mercy’s management company tore down the rest of the fence and in the spring announced that they would not rebuild any of it. That was the start of something new in more ways than we could have imagined.

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In 2014, a Mercy Housing staffer called to say Mercy had decided to leave Nampa and focus on other areas in the West. With financing from IHFA, Trinity Lutheran Church bought the houses from Mercy and created a separate nonprofit organization, Trinity New Hope. Most, though not all, board members are also members of the congregation. Our property manager’s office is in the church building. Our HUD designation is Section-42 housing. 

A Multitude of Other Models

A different housing model was begun by another church across town. Grace Episcopal Church recognized a need for housing single moms pursuing some form of education. When the house next door to the church hall was put up for sale, the priest found a donor to purchase the house. The church created a nonprofit, The House Next Door. They can provide rent-free housing for up to four moms and their kids. Residents have pursued their GEDs, associate degrees, college degrees, and even a law degree. The moms practice communal living and support one another in their parenting and academic pursuits. 

Collister United Methodist Church in neighboring Boise recently partnered with local nonprofit Leap Housing Solutions. Similar to what Trinity did in the 1990s, Collister has entered a long-term lease agreement with Leap. They hope to break ground this spring on two units (three-bedroom homes) on the church property.

First Baptist Church in Clarendon, Virginia worked with Arlington County to help finance a 10-story structure over its existing sanctuary. The end result is 70 units of dedicated affordable housing, which is 60 percent of the building’s 116 units. The project was not without controversy, but it also inspired other churches in the region to consider affordable housing models.

Gethsemane Lutheran Church in downtown Seattle also built up, adding a seven-story building stacked on top of two floors of church facilities. The 50 apartments in Compass Dekko Place serve individuals and families earning between 30 to 60 percent of the Area Median Income.

Spokane Urban Ministries (SUM) formed as a response to the growing need for affordable housing in the Spokane area, and reflects the combined effort between four ELCA congregations: Grace, St. Paul’s, Emmanuel, and Salem. Each church gave either a sizable financial gift or land to the project: 47 affordable apartments in West Central Spokane. In the following years, Grace closed, and St. Paul and Emmanuel merged to become All Saints Lutheran. All Saints and Salem remain active participants in the ministry of affordable housing through SUM and involve ecumenical partners in the work as well.

In Orange County, CA, Garden Grove United Methodist Church campus on Main Street built Wesley Village on unused land. This 47-unit affordable housing complex is a multi-generational affordable housing community that includes senior housing and adult day care, a Head Start center, and health services, all part of a partnership with the nonprofit community organization Jamboree Housing Corp

Components of Good Designs

I made several assumptions while writing this piece, chief among them that readers are already aware of the housing crisis impacting many communities right now. Nonprofits addressing this issue can point you to the statistical data you might need to make your case. They can also help you both understand and explain the variety of barriers to housing faced by so many people. To this information, along with the variety of models described above, I will add a few things which can be helpful in every context.

Partnerships are clearly crucial to any venture into affordable housing. Fortunately, most regions facing an affordable housing struggle or crisis also have organizations addressing the problem with creativity and expertise. Churches do not have to do this work alone. 

What we bring to the conversation is our theological lens. When I sat in conference rooms,living rooms, and the sanctuary in 2014, I talked about neighbor love and neighbor justice. I quoted Matthew 25:31-46, hoping it was okay to add housing to the list of feeding, welcoming, visiting, and clothing. I also quoted Martin Luther’s explanation to the Seventh Commandment, “We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”

Reflecting over the last five years, I am struck by what a gift proximity to TNH has been to our congregation. To see the houses each time we drive into the church parking lot is significant. A few Trinity members help explain the impact it’s had over time. One member wrote, “Jesus taught that true faith is shown in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, which often involves going outside ‘our group’ of Sunday morning worshipers. We have Trinity New Hope houses on the perimeter of our parking lot where we can see the children playing in the yard. We have its business office inside our education wing. We have church members serving on its board of directors. We participate in activities that support the residents.  Each time we show up at 8 S Midland (or drive by) we are reminded that faith is not just about what ‘we’ want/need but about selfless ministry to the world. Our participation makes us a more hopeful and less self-centered congregation.” A newer member reflected, “Trinity New Hope is part of why I first came to Trinity. It gives witness to the congregation’s commitment to serving the community. Trinity New Hope is one indication that TLC has a living and active faith that has real world implications (rather than being a Jesus centric social club).” A long-time member shared, “I think we’ve gained from other Christians or non-Christians for serving people with low-income housing. Kind of like putting our money (and energies) where our gospel is.”

Call to Action: Helping without Real Estate

I have tried to provide different models and tips for churches that might want to use their land for housing. However, there are other valuable ways to help solve the housing crisis. Once you know who is working on the issue in your community there are abundant ways to partner: donations, prayer, writing letters to Planning and Zoning or City Council, testifying in favor of Conditional Use Permits or other zoning changes, and writing letters to the editor. You can also raise awareness about housing issues by hosting discussions on books like Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. In fact, time spent in any of these areas might lead someone to ask, “What about that unused land in back of our building?” What step will you take today? 

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