As some mainline denominations shrink across the country, many are selling and repurposing their buildings. Oftentimes, other faith communities can make sense as buyers for these sacred spaces. In New Hampshire, the Islamic Society of Dover hopes to purchase a former United Church of Christ building in Portsmouth, and establish a new mosque in the space. In Pennsylvania, a Mennonite school purchased the former building of a Reformed congregation.
In other cases, disposed faith properties become other non-religious community facilities. In the Silicon Valley region, a former Baptist church will soon become a drug addiction treatment facility that will serve homeless and low-income people.
In other communities, faith-based organizations seek to utilize their property for housing. Oftentimes, these projects provide affordable housing to their communities -- as the Calvary Lutheran Church in Minneapolis is doing. But, in other cases, faith-based organizations partner with developers to build luxury, market-rate housing, and use the sale proceeds to improve their house of worship and support their mission, as a Tampa synagogue recently signed a deal to do.
Beyond developing their properties, faith communities pursue all sorts of community work to support their neighbors. In the Bay Area, one of the epicenters of the US's housing crisis, churches have worked to build tiny homes for their homeless neighbors. In New York State, Governor Hochul announced a $3.8 million community health program designed to serve Black communities, which will be administered at Black churches and faith-based organizations.
In New York City, faith-based organizations can often serve as community anchors in a neighborhood. This article highlights the Arab communities living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. After several mosques opened, the neighborhood's Muslim population increased, and new businesses -- operated by and catered to the needs of the neighborhood's Yemeni, Egyptian, and Palestinian residents -- opened. (In 2021, Bay Ridge's Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District installed festive lights for Ramadan for the first time.)
As inflation rises to levels not seen in decades, housing prices in particular are soaring. The increase in housing prices puts many at risk of eviction. Evicted families see cascading negative effects in their lives: lower academic achievement as children have to switch schools, higher food insecurity, declining mental health, and other negative health implications. The eviction crisis is also a public health crisis; in the New York Times, Lucy Tompkins asked if Medicaid and Medicare should pay for people's rent.
In order to address the escalating homelessness crisis, Portland, Oregon, has announced its "Built for Zero" program, which will generate a list of all unhoused people in the city with the aim of locating housing for them. Critics of the program say that in a country like the United States where homelessness is criminalized, generating such a database isn't far off from putting out a warrant for homeless individuals' arrest. Additionally, collecting data on homeless populations isn't of much use if the city won't make efforts to build enough housing for the people they are surveilling. (Not every city embraces the same data collection paradigms that Portland does. Articles in Next City and Technology Review highlighted efforts to make data collection more equitable and focused on justice.)
Expanding housing stock is almost certainly necessary to ensure housing affordability. This week, in New York City, Mayor Adams unveiled a $5 billion plan to increase affordable and supportive housing and address the homelessness crisis. The plan relies significantly on decreasing building regulations that increase construction costs, and implementing new zoning regulations that allow a wider range of housing typologies.
As we seek to expand affordable housing and increase density in many neighborhoods, many communities oppose development that will change the "community character" of their neighborhood. (Though an increasingly vocal contingent of "YIMBYs" fight against this rhetoric at zoning board meetings and on online message boards, as profiled by Max Holleran in his new book, Yes to the City.) But what if we were to pursue an alternative path to density, one rooted in community, not in market-rates and profits. Writing in Shelterforce, Daniel Hennessy highlights alternatives to market-driven approaches to build affordable housing, such as community land trusts.