by Michelle Boorstein for The Washington Post

June 23, 2007

Nearly three decades after Washington area faith leaders founded a movement for affordable housing, there is a new push -- particularly in the District -- to revive the effort and get the clergy to see housing as an urgent mission field.

Longtime advocates say houses of worship should be obvious allies because of the desperate need in the city, and for another reason: their land. Churches in particular own tens of millions of dollars in vacant properties in Washington. Some lots were donated by congregants; others were purchased methodically, for investment or for developing housing, among other reasons.

In the past year, the regional office of Enterprise Community Partners, one of the nation's largest affordable housing groups, has turned its focus to lobbying houses of worship, said David Bowers, director of the D.C. area branch. The group has had workshops for dozens of members of the clergy on using tax credits, accessing private money and crystallizing goals. The project has launched development of 235 units, including a rental apartment project in Northeast Washington and condominiums in Southwest. By the end of 2008, it plans to have helped clergy create 450 units of affordable housing.

And the Washington Interfaith Network, a group of 50 congregations that works on urban issues, has had congregants take monthly walks in every city quadrant to check out abandoned buildings and vacant properties in search of potential housing sites. The group has identified 20 to 25 sites, mostly in wards 4 through 8, and is working with the city to push along development, said the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, a co-chairman.

The effort has gained fuel from research at Georgetown University showing that in Ward 8 alone, about 60 churches own dozens of empty lots worth tens of millions.

The renewed interest accompanies what some call a spiritual crisis in affordable housing. It is particularly pronounced in Washington, where available land is rare and prices have been booming.

"It just makes good sense in a gentrifying city to try and be the conduit to people owning homes who might be marginalized. Our motive is different. Sure, we'll make some profit and get income stream, but it's not our main motive," the Rev. William H. Bennett II said. He spoke as he walked down 44th Street NE, gesturing to the empty, grassy squares and small homes that line the side street, most of which Bennett's church and community development corporation now own. His little Good Success Church in Northeast Washington has, since 2001, bought 30 lots worth $3.5 million. He plans housing, a restaurant and a social service center.

Yet despite the rising involvement of houses of worship with development, advocates and members of the clergy say the landscape has changed in some discouraging ways: Many city church congregants live in the suburbs and don't see city housing as a priority; federal housing support has dramatically diminished; and city land has become so pricey that congregations have trouble agreeing on real estate decisions.

Until the 1980s, the federal government was a major funder of affordable housing and looked to churches as partners. Among the organizations launched in the 1970s and 1980s were Enterprise, started by legendary Columbia developer James Rouse, who called affordable housing "mission work"; Jubilee Housing, started by Church of the Saviour in Adams Morgan; and Victory Housing, part of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.

Churches were the driving force in rebuilding affordable housing in the District after the 1968 riots. The United House of Prayer built hundreds of apartments in the Shaw neighborhood, as All Souls' Unitarian Church did on upper 14th Street NW and the Northeast Ministries Group did on H Street NE.

But since the 1980s, many advocates and housing experts say, faith-based housing groups have struggled to restructure after the withdrawal of most federal programs. And in the meantime, many basic details have changed. Thirty years ago, the movement was driven by extreme poverty, homes ruined by rioting and racial discrimination among lenders. Today, even middle-class families are shut out because of land prices. The culture of faith leaders has changed, too.

"To compare it to 20-plus years ago, no one today is saying, 'We don't need to make a profit because this is God's land and we are stewards, we don't need to make a penny.' I don't think there is a lot of that going on," said Dominic Moulden, a longtime housing advocate from the faith community.

Some housing experts, including Leslie A. Steen, the District's housing chief, say it's too much to expect the average neighborhood church to do housing in this market. She said that the city doesn't consider houses of worship real players in affordable housing and that they can be most effective through advocacy.

The withdrawal of federal dollars has also forced some innovations. With development now requiring complex funding packages and major legal and tax expertise, a new field of consultants serves congregations interested in affordable housing. A new model of clergy-entrepreneur has emerged as well, people as comfortable with banking and developers as with Bibles and deacons.

Among them is Bennett, a former corporate manager who wrote his doctoral dissertation on churches and economic empowerment. Bennett said he left his position as pastor of First Baptist Church of Deanwood after eight years over disagreements about when and how to buy and develop land for housing.

There are special snags at the intersection of religion and real estate.

Any family can disagree on property, but for a house of worship, it means coming to consensus not only on land values but also on a spiritual mission. Houses of worship, generally exempt from federal taxes and public oversight, are wary of losing those privileges. Clergy members also have to consider whether they are spiritually called, for example, to become a landlord.

"It's not easy if you are pastoring to a family and then they're not paying their rent. That's a tough place to be," said Lisa Trevino Cummins, who worked on housing for the Bush administration's Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Church and housing haven't mixed well lately at Shiloh Baptist Church in Shaw, where church members and leaders are in a nasty battle about what to do with Shiloh's many properties. In a January letter to the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith, deacon Johnny M. Howard slammed a plan to sell land to fund repairs to a church-run community center.

"Selling real estate in this day and time, when the community is changing, is not wise," Howard wrote. "The use of the property near and around the church can directly and adversely affect the mission of the church."

Pastor Patrice Sheppard of Living Word Church said that when she and her husband started fundraising in the early 1990s for their social service work in Washington Highlands, at the city's southern tip, they used two brochures: one to show churchgoers and one for secular people.

Some Christians she knew were hesitant to be involved with a project that received government funds because they felt they would be scrutinized for any church-state overlap, however slight, she said. "And some people in the church only want to give money to a church organization, not a community organization, even if it's faith-based."

Sheppard and her husband founded a community development corporation in 1998 that is developing 41 condominium units, two-thirds of them affordable.

To tour their 12 properties -- all in Washington Highlands -- is to see how difficult it is to acquire contiguous properties in Washington. On Brandywine, a quiet side street: a small, two-story brick house for transitional housing for women. Around the corner, on Danbury Street: a huge grassy lot where they hope to build townhomes. At the busy intersection of South Capitol and Atlantic: a mini-mall with a chicken-and-fish restaurant, an African hair studio and a dry cleaners, all slated to come down for the 41 condos.

There's disagreement on what prompted the renewed interest in housing among the faithful.

Some observers say today's generation of working homeless has pressed the issue. Others say the Bush administration's faith-based office boosted energy and interest, if not money. Still others say the opposite, that the affordable housing advocates from the '70s and '80s are heavily Democratic and so distrusted the administration that they opted not to work with the federal government.

Wheeler Winstead, a District-based development consultant, said the housing landscape has changed because the whole religious activism landscape has changed.

Thirty years ago, the typical congregation involved with affordable housing was large and liberal, such as Presbyterian or Jewish. Today, many of those congregations have moved to the suburbs, and their priorities might have changed to focus on immigration, for example. The typical congregation involved in housing today is a conservative, nondenominational church, Winstead said. These churches have little hierarchy to slow projects, and as they have grown and gained political influence, they have broadened their focus beyond growth, he said.

The congregations involved in housing are "a different mix," he said. "It's not the congregation of the civil rights movement."

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