As some congregations seek to sell and vacate their buildings, it isn’t unheard of for municipalities to purchase houses of worship and repurpose them for community uses. I was recently in Northeast Ohio for a wedding, and in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland, the city purchased a former United Methodist Church and turned it into a community center for seniors. But municipalities repurposing sacred buildings raises some architectural questions – after all, the separation of church and state is enshrined in the country’s founding documents. In Vienna, Virginia, the town council is looking to remove a steeple from a church building they purchased to retrofit as a police station.
In advance of West Park Presbyterian's July 19th Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing, West Side Rag published two op-eds offering differing perspectives on the future of the building. One is in favor of granting the building a hardship exemption, largely because it seems unlikely that the congregation will ever realistically be able to raise the funds to restore and maintain the historic structure. The other op-ed highlights the architectural significance of the building, and suggests that granting hardship exemptions may have dire consequences for the historic fabric of our City.
Outside of the United States, some sacred sites are dealing with a high-tech problem: social media users disturbing worshippers in their spaces. In Nepal, where TikTokers have gained a reputation for disrespecting religious and historical sites, some temples and pilgrimage sites have begun to implement “No TikTok” policies, and installed CCTV systems and security guards to enforce the policies. Some tourism boosters, however, have complained that the outright ban may have negative effects on visitorship to the region, and that a more nuanced messaging campaign may have been better to draw attention to the issue.
Back in the United States, while a few high-profile shootings at houses of worship have dominated most news coverage, gun violence at houses of worship, as in most places throughout the US, remains a consistent problem. This past week, three people were shot and injured outside of a Chicago church after attending a funeral service for an anti-violence advocate. In Brattleboro, Vermont, police shot a “person of interest” in a missing persons case on the steps of the community’s Unitarian Universalist Church, the second shooting on the site in two decades. In Canarsie, Brooklyn, a minister and his wife were robbed at gunpoint during a live-streamed service. In response to persistent violence, many houses of worship are implementing new security initiatives, such as installing security cameras and developing active shooter protocols.
While houses of worship across the board may fall victim to gun violence, individuals belonging to non-Christian faith traditions are also at risk of discrimination and hate crimes in their daily lives. A survey of New York City Muslims from the Muslim Community Network found that 49% had been the victim of a hate crime, and that 76% were witness to a hate crime. And in digital space, anti-religious hate speech, particularly anti-Semitic content, is often given an extra push by social media platforms’ algorithms.
In the face of great social problems across the United States and the world, many faith-based organizations are working to help their communities at home and abroad.
As food insecurity has risen since the start of the pandemic, many organizations are continuing to provide food to the hungry. In New Brunswick, New Jersey, the Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple started a program, Elijah’s Promise, which has provided 53,000 meals to those experiencing food insecurity since starting in 2020. On the global scale, faith-based non-profit Buddhist Global Relief has been working to address food insecurity across the world, recently funding 54 projects.
In Central Florida, a non-profit, Hablamos Español Florida, is partnering with local churches in an effort to increase Hispanic voter registration in the region.
In large cities across the United States, there is a shortage of public bathrooms, especially as many have yet to reopen after being shuttered to the public during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bathroom access is also very unequal, with unhoused people often denied access to restrooms in private businesses. Some faith-based organizations have opened their doors for people looking for a toilet. This article, from 2014, highlights Trinity Wall Street’s bathroom ministry.
Across the press, a few articles highlighted non-traditional faith leaders in New York City. A recent documentary profiled Reverend Vince Anderson. Anderson’s day job is as the artistic and music of queer-friendly Christian community Bushwick + Abbey, and Anderson has held many nightlife residencies throughout Brooklyn giving “dirty gospel sermons” with his Love Choir. In Lower Manhattan, long-time community activist and performance artist Reverend Billy has opened “Earth Church” in an Avenue C storefront. In addition to weekly services on Sunday nights, their community regularly hosts protests to demand swift, large-scale action to address the climate crisis.
Across the United States, inflation is worsening the decades-long affordable housing crisis. At home in New York City, competition for affordable units is steep: lines stretch around the block and renters enter bidding wars to offer rent above asking. But the housing crisis extends beyond New York City and other big-name coastal cities: many areas of the US that in 2012 had housing oversupply had an undersupply of housing by 2019. And that was before the pandemic, when a home buying frenzy drove up housing costs, and a newly remote workforce purchased homes in areas like Columbia County, where existing residents could not compete with the offering prices new, white-collar workers could put up. Even mobile home parks, once an undersung stalwart of rural and suburban affordable housing, are becoming less affordable: as corporate investors purchase parks, ground rents are spiking for mobile home owners. And just as housing prices (and temperatures) reach record highs, many states and governments (like Texas) are pursuing evictions at their own record rates, leaving many on the brink of homelessness.
Faced with this massive housing affordability problem, planners, government officials, and real estate development professionals have suggested various solutions that could solve the crisis. In Slate, Henry Grabar suggested that turning hotels into permanent housing might offer an overlooked solution. In Pew Trusts, Erika Bolstad looked to shipping container homes as an alternative to more-expensive traditional accessory dwelling unit construction; though shipping containers often are not significantly less expensive than traditional building materials, and used shipping containers may present toxic hazards to their inhabitants. Other writers have proposed various methods of speeding the development of new homes, with the hope that additional supply will bring down housing prices through the logics of supply and demand. In the Washington Post, Hayden Dublois highlighted Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's efforts to reduce bureaucratic delays for new housing permits statewide, and the subsequent spike in building permits. In the New York Times, Conor Dougherty and Ben Casselman advocated for building more homes across the US, even when markets lack enough qualified buyers to purchase them in the short term.
In Bloomberg, a profile by Peter Waldman of the startup SoLa Impact asks if "more capitalism" can solve the housing crisis. Of course, many posit that capitalism is actually what got us into the affordable housing crisis, as geographer Alex Ferrer tweeted: "There can never be anything but insufficient and inadequate housing for the poor so long as capital is tasked with providing it." There may be solutions to the housing crisis that exist outside of market- and developer-driven capitalist frameworks. This includes public housing, as Dana Cuff compellingly wrote in Dezeen, of the aesthetic and cultural value that public housing, a much-maligned but still-robust source of affordable housing, may provide for suburban communities, who have notoriously resisted the construction of public housing complexes.
While various publications are promoting solutions to the nation's affordability problem, many municipalities seem to be taking steps to implement increasingly inhumane policies against people experiencing homelessness: Miami's city commissioners are considering moving homeless individuals to a camp on an island in Biscayne Bay that is shared with a wastewater treatment plant.
And, as a reminder of the interrelated nature of urban issues, a new study highlighted differing outcomes in Philadelphia’s eviction court based on an individual’s proximity to public transit. People without access to, or who lived further away from, reliable public transit were more likely to be evicted, often because they were not able to make it to housing court on time to make their case. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the country’s housing crisis – cities must pursue a multi-pronged approach to address the urgent need for affordable housing.