The small crowd, mostly women, gathered on the stone steps of City Hall in Lynn, Massachusetts, holding signs in English and Spanish. Their placards offered simple slogans like “la renta esta muy cara,” “rent is very expensive.” Chants were equally straightforward.

A woman holding a bullhorn asked, “What do we want?” 

“Housing!” the crowd responded. 

“When do we want it?” the woman shouted.

“Now!” said the crowd.

The protest was organized by Essex County Community Organization, a multifaith network that includes 59 congregations, and it took place on the same day that Essex County Community Organization and two allied groups submitted identical proposals for affordable housing to the municipality. 

“A lot of times as activists we say, ‘This is wrong. You have to stop doing it.’ We don’t put a lot of fruit on the table,” said Allison Luke, an Essex County Community Organization member who says God brought her to activism. Luke, a first-generation American, moved to Lynn two years ago after rising rent prices pushed her out of the nearby town of Malden. 

But now faith-based groups are doing more than calling attention to the nation’s increasingly unaffordable cost of living. “We’re doing a full menu,” Luke said, “We’re offering policy solutions and ideas — things that are more tangible.” 

Across the country, faith-based organizations and houses of worship are responding to skyrocketing housing prices with initiatives ranging from protests and policy proposals to efforts to build affordable homes on excess church property. Religious leaders and housing experts alike say the latter, in particular, is a win-win situation that more churches nationwide could and should be taking part in. As interest in religious affiliation dwindles and churches have less of a need for extensive complexes, creative solutions — like selling or leasing church property to create affordable or mixed income housing — could also generate an income stream that will help keep cash-strapped congregations afloat while simultaneously serving the community, they said.

“There is a massive shortage of housing in the U.S., and we know that churches own millions of parcels of land in the U.S.,” said Jamie Smarr, senior vice president of the NHP Foundation’s Affiliate Program, which helps create and preserve affordable housing for low and middle income seniors and families.

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But faith-based solutions to the housing crisis will require close coordination between religious institutions and the government. While some policymakers believe that church and state should be separate, “that’s a constitutional principle that doesn’t apply here,” said Smarr. “We’re trying to solve a tremendous public policy problem.” 

The NHP Foundation is increasingly hearing from religious leaders who want to do something with their institutions’ holdings to help Americans who are struggling to find a place to live, Smarr added. 

The rise of ‘mission-driven development’

While religious leaders and housing experts agree that the government has to formulate better policies vis-a-vis housing, they also say that churches could hold a key.

“Excess property or dilapidated, falling down buildings … could be repurposed,” said the Rev. William Shillady, executive director of the United Methodist City Society, who has spearheaded a number of such projects, including one in the Bronx where a church that had closed and fallen into disrepair was converted into a 12-story apartment building for seniors and the formerly incarcerated. 

The Rev. Shillady has heard estimates that, in New York City alone, there is “300 million buildable square footage on church properties that could provide for significant new buildings.”

He calls projects to turn church property into housing “mission-driven development.” To make this work, it’s essential for religious leaders to work with nonprofit organizations and socially conscious developers. “It’s a joint venture,” he said. 

Similarly, when the Rev. Joe Bankard, in Boise, Idaho, took the helm of Collister United Methodist Church six years ago, he immediately looked at a three-quarter acre lot adjacent to the building and asked what the church should do with the space. He brainstormed some ideas for the space with the church council. The group contemplated turning it into a parking lot, a park, a prayer space or a community garden that could help provide food for those in need.

The church got estimates for these projects but, “it seemed like the bigger need is housing,” said the Rev. Bankard. “No one is starving to death in Boise. But people are homeless and have nowhere to go.”

After talking to a local nonprofit about building affordable housing, “it felt like a no-brainer. Instead of having another park where we might have another potluck once in a while, people will live here 24/7 and we will meet a fundamental need,” the Rev. Bankard said.

Getting the project moving meant working closely with a nonprofit as well as the municipal government, which was very supportive of the endeavor. “The city of Boise recognizes the crisis they’re in and they really rolled out the red carpet. They helped fund … the project through their own housing grants,” he said. “We sailed through planning and zoning. … They really want faith communities to do this.”

Two standalone four-bedroom, two-bath homes are currently being built; the plumbing is going in now, and the Rev. Bankard said he hopes the first families will be able to move into the houses in September of this year. 

Shorter-term solutions

The key problem with most initiatives to build low- or mixed-income housing is that they can take years to come to fruition. For Americans who are seeing their rents skyrocket or who are being forced out of their rentals into a crazy housing market, solutions are needed now. 

In the short term, congregations have discretionary funds that can help church members who are in a crisis, the Rev. Shillady said. While these grants are typically “once and done,” they can make the difference between eviction and staying in a home. 

Working in partnership with a local nongovernmental organization, California’s San Pedro United Methodist Church is using four of its classrooms to shelter four families at a time, according to the Rev. Lisa Williams, who said she is increasingly seeing working-class and middle-class families struggle with the rising prices.

“One of the families that is there currently — he’s a postman, he works during the day and the wife works at night,” she said.

The Rev. Williams feels that religious institutions should be at the forefront for the push for “change and for proper policy.” That effort means building relationships with officials, politicians and other community stakeholders, and holding them accountable, she said, adding that clergy need “to get bolder” on taking stands on political issues like housing, which is a matter of “human dignity and human rights.” 

“Feeding people is wonderful and helpful,” said the Rev. Williams, “but we need to take it to the next level.”

To that end, she’s working with a nonprofit to build 54 affordable and permanent housing units, a project that has been years in the making already. 

The current crisis could spur some religious institutions to embark on similar projects, laying the foundation for more long-term solutions. 

“One thing I’m really focused on is helping congregations get over what I call their ‘edifice complexes,’” said the Rev. Shillady, who explained that religious communities should “get out of their buildings and see what the community needs. … It’s looking and dreaming about what could be instead of what is.” 

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He added that the old “build it and they will come” model of church is over. Religious leaders have to pivot and come up with new forms of outreach and worship that might mean leaving the building behind.

“What we have now isn’t working,” said the Rev. Shillady. “Every congregation is spending so much money and energy on their building they’re forgetting what they’re supposed to do, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ who will go out and transform the world.”

As for pastors who want to work on the housing issue, the Rev. Shillady acknowledges that it can be hard. “The unfortunate thing is we don’t have courses in seminary that teach you how to be a CEO or real estate entrepreneur,” he said.

So when the Rev. Shillady retires in just a few weeks’ time, he’ll embark on a new sort of ministry: He’s going to use his experience and hard-fought expertise as a consultant to help others build more socially conscious housing. 

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