No single entity can accomplish as much as groups working together. If government, churches, businesses, financial institutions, and educational institutions combine their commitment, strategies, and resources, communities in the United States will be able to rebuild poor neighborhoods, making them communities of hope and opportunity for social and economic justice. One housing advocate and activist has been quoted as saying, “There are more churches in America than there are homeless families.” What would happen in our communities if every church adopted a homeless family—or made affordable housing a priority?
Churches and faith communities are in a unique and vital position to help solve the housing crisis, as well as other social ills. Biblical injunctions, in the Old and New Testaments, make very clear our obligation as people of God to help people in need.
Is not this the fast that I choose? . . . Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isa. 58:6)
If you see a brother or sister in need and do nothing to help them, how can the love of God be in you? (1 John 3:17)
As communities of faith, we are the body of Christ. We are God’s hands: God’s emissaries to the poor; we are God’s voice: God’s advocates for the poor. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth . . .” we are in effect agreeing to cooperate with God by bringing to our world God’s design for communities of peace and justice.
The members of your church have a wealth of skills and knowledge as well as roots in the community. In your congregation there are teachers, city officials, social workers, business people, real estate brokers, contractors, bankers, and others who are aware of the many needs in your neighborhood. Some have immense financial resources. Some in your midst have very few tangible resources but can give firsthand accounts of their needs and struggles. As a gathering place for people of faith, no other organization is better equipped, spiritually and materially, to address the needs of the poor in your community. Together, with the proper understanding, guidance, and organization, the people of your church can work toward making God’s kind of community a reality.
Initially, you might use the following summary of the crisis to raise awareness in your congregation about housing issues. Housing issues differ greatly from one region to another, so you will also want to do further research about the housing needs in your state, county, and neighborhood, and also share that information with members of your church.
Homelessness and housing issues are complex. One glaring problem, however, is found across the entire nation: a decreasing supply of affordable housing units. A 1998 study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found major housing shortages in almost all of America’s 45 largest metropolitan areas, as well as in rural communities.
Housing is considered affordable if 30 percent or less of family income is spent on housing costs. This means a family making $3,000 a month should spend no more than $900 a month on rent and utilities combined. According to National Housing Data, there are only 40 affordable units available for every 100 low-income renters. Right now, more than five million low-income American renters spend 50 to 80 percent of their income on housing costs, leaving very little for other necessities. For them, the threat of homelessness is real, especially if they should suffer a major illness or accident, or lose a job or a spouse.
The lack of affordable housing in America is causing severe social problems, including more homelessness among the working poor. The 2001 U.S. Conference of Mayors from 27 U.S. cities reported an average 22 percent increase in requests for emergency shelter assistance from homeless families alone. Fifty-two percent of these requests went unmet. And the problem is getting worse. All over America shelters are full; affordable housing units are full; waiting lists are full; and every day hundreds of thousands of people are turned away empty.
For every homeless person in a shelter or on the streets, many more live in unstable or temporary housing situations. Staying in cheap hotels is often the last step before becoming homeless. Evidence shows that many women, especially those with children, will stay with abusive partners rather than face homelessness. Others survive by doubling up with another family, which creates overcrowding problems.
Overcrowding, a common result of a lack of affordable housing, is defined as one or more persons per room, not including bathrooms and hallways. For example, four persons living in a one-bedroom unit with a kitchen, dining area, and living room is considered overcrowded. Studies show that children from at-risk or overcrowded home environments suffer chronic illnesses, learning difficulties, and behavior problems at a much higher rate than children in adequate housing. In addition, overcrowding is illegal and such families risk eviction and may end up on the streets.
Roots of the Affordability Problem
Social scientists, researchers, and analysts point to several issues as sources of the housing shortage:
The Affordability Gap. The increasing numbers of poor renters combined with the declining numbers of affordable units has created the worst affordability gap on record. Between 1974 and 1993, rent climbed 13 percent and wages decreased by 8 percent.
Loss of Formerly Affordable Units. Public outcry against “slumlords” and drug houses has resulted in the demolition of much of what used to be affordable housing. Rundown firetraps and old public housing projects are being torn down and replaced by offices or market-rent units, too expensive for low or moderate-income families.
The Section 8 Wait. The Section 8 rent-subsidy program works on a voucher system and reimburses landlords a portion of the rent. People applying to the program have an average 20-month wait to become certifiably eligible for Section 8 housing. After certification they can apply for a Section 8 voucher, which they need to have in hand to show potential landlords, but the wait for vouchers takes up to 22 months. By the time they get a voucher, Section 8 renters have another wait: it takes an average of 16 months for a unit to become available. This translates to a nearly five-year wait.
Increasing Costs. Affordable housing can be an oxymoron. Land is expensive, not to mention the costs of contractors, materials, permits, and fees needed to build housing according to strict building codes. Although these higher standards in building codes ensure safer buildings and environments, they also ensure high rent and mortgages.
Neighborhood Resistance. The American public does want something done about homelessness and the housing crisis—as long as it happens in someone else’s neighborhood. Whenever affordable housing is proposed in a moderate-income neighborhood, a nonprofit developer often faces red tape and intense resistance. Many neighborhoods pass strict zoning regulations to exclude affordable housing. This “Not In My Back Yard” attitude, or “NIMBYism,” has killed many nonprofit affordable housing projects.
Lack of Political Will. Government policies have turned away from housing assistance in recent years. Housing is such a complex and controversial issue that politicians rarely use it as a platform for rallying support. For the sake of balancing the budget, the government has made major funding cuts in the Department of Housi
ng and Urban Development (HUD). Little money is available for subsidizing rents anymore, and the Section 8 housing program is being downsized—to the point of becoming nearly nonexistent. The resulting crisis of homelessness and lack of affordable housing has been called by some “the problem that cannot be solved.”
In order to help members of your church understand the need to address housing issues in your community, you might want to begin with some of the following activities:
- • Include information provided in the above summary of housing issues for newsletters, bulletin inserts, and education forums to provide an orientation to the issues.
- Visit various facilities in order to get different perspectives on homelessness and housing issues. Such facilities include emergency homeless shelters, transitional housing, and permanent affordable housing.
- Contact your local Housing and Urban Development office to learn about your community’s homeless assistance plans. This plan lays out the need for assistance; what housing and services are being provided to meet those needs; the gaps between the two; and what the community is proposing to fill these gaps.
- Talk to homeless people. Befriend a homeless or low-income family struggling with housing issues. Find out what life is like for them.
- Find some local churches that are addressing housing or community development issues and invite speakers to your church.
- Volunteer at a homeless assistance facility or a building project, such as Habitat for Humanity.
- Learn about the various support services for the homeless and low-income renters. Services might include job training and placement, medical, chemical and mental health, ESL, GED preparation, literacy, child care, teen programs, and legal assistance. Many organizations and facilities offer housing and services at the same location.
- The Internet is an excellent educational tool. You can learn a lot about housing issues, find organizations in your area, and discover a project you would like your church to become involved with or emulate without ever leaving your computer. Listed under “Current Issue” at the Alban Institute Web site (www.alban.org) are Web sites and contact information of various organizations addressing housing, homelessness, and other related topics.
- Print out some of the fact sheets from the National Coalition for the Homeless and the latest issues of “NIMBY Report” from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, and read them to your board or congregation.
At this point your church should have a fairly good idea of your community’s particular housing issues. The questions in the sidebar on page 9 are designed to elicit discussion and help your group determine its focus and mission.
People who work in successful housing and service programs highly recommend intentional relationship building and collaboration with other groups. In Richmond, Virginia, Strategies to Elevate People (STEP) social services programs emphasize the importance of proceeding “carefully, cautiously and with commitment; avoiding fads, abstaining from quick fixes, and building quality relationships with community and people of good will.”
There is no set formula to tell you how to progress. Every church and every area’s needs are unique, and there is plenty of room for innovation as well as replication in creating affordable housing. Your church must pray and work together to figure things out; however, if you follow the suggestions of educating yourself and your congregation, if you form discussion groups and committees of informed people, if you walk by faith and not by sight, a way will open.
Faith-based groups encounter all kinds of obstacles to their projects, whether organized as a legal nonprofit corporation or carried out in some other manner. In addition to the usual difficulties that come when working with people, you will face institutional fortresses, which are not built to suffer change. The education and partnership organizations listed under “Current Issue” on the Alban Institute Web site can help you prepare for and navigate around barriers such as obtaining startup, program, and staffing funds; staffing gaps; federal, state, and local regulations; discrimination, and many other unforeseen difficulties. The more complex your initiative, the more thought you will want to give to resources and strategies for overcoming barriers. A number of possibilities are available.
1. Working with government agencies. Some states, cities, or counties have a state faith-based and community initiatives liaison or someone in a local office or agency whose role it is to connect faith-based organizations to the appropriate government agencies. It is a good idea to work with one of these officials early in your development process.
2. Tailoring the program. Another important strategy for overcoming common barriers is to tailor your program to the needs of the people in your area. If you do your homework and get to know the people in need of services, you will be more likely to create a successful program. An excellent way to do this is to conduct a “listening campaign.” Talk to low-income people in your church or community: visit churches in poor neighborhoods and ask the people about their housing concerns, the problems they face, and services they lack. Include at least one or two low-income people or people of color on your committee or teams; it is only just and right that they take part in developing the programs that will have an impact on them.
3. Drawing on members’ skills. It is also vital to grow your program according to the skills and experience of your parishioners. People have a hard time getting excited and involved in programs they have not helped develop. They may feel as if they are being made to fit into prefabricated “boxes” or roles and will not be able to sustain interest and enthusiasm for long. On the other hand, people who are invested in a project will commit themselves to it. A program with enthusiastic, committed volunteers will attract other volunteers with like passion. The most successful programs are ones that address the needs of the community while building upon the expertise, stories, and energies of the people of the church.
4. Establishing partnerships. Building steady partnerships with churches and other organizations will also help reduce the turnover rate and strengthen your nonprofit. Find a few people with good networking, communication, or fundraising skills who will commit to building partnerships. Let them work to create a campaign of mutual investment, so other churches, community groups, and local businesses can feel some ownership in your organization and its efforts. Educate those partnering congregations using the principles and suggestions discussed earlier, such as poverty simulation.
One inner-city transitional housing program provided a way for nearby suburban churches to take ownership in its projects. The volunteer coordinator enlisted three different churches to help buy three different buildings. Each church raised money and awareness, sending volunteers to help rehabilitate and furnish its unit. A healthy competition and unifying camaraderie developed among the various volunteers; this in turn created a connection of community between the urban and suburban neighborhoods. Each facility was named after each church, and those churches now feel the responsibility and desire to maintain an active presence in their projects. They built unity along with transitional housing units—a unity that continues to enrich their lives and neighborhoods.
5. Working with businesses. Consider
working with your local banks and other businesses as well as other churches. One Minnesota bank gives substantial annual contributions to Our Saviour’s Housing and also sends meals and volunteers every month. Complex projects depend on the stability that partnerships provide.
6. Learning from success. Studying other successful faith-based housing and service projects will help strengthen the development of your own nonprofit. The Fannie Mae Foundation’s Web site publishes profiles of their Sustained Excellence and Maxwell Awards recipients. These stories prove that with determination and the right connections, faith-based nonprofits can overcome incredible obstacles and create wonderful opportunities for justice and renewal in even the most desperate neighborhoods.
Your church can play an important role in helping to change society by actively addressing housing issues in your neighborhood. It will be an exciting adventure, but it will not be easy. Like all pioneers, you will face frustrations, barriers, and even dangers to your mission. There may be times when you feel like giving up, but if you organize, pool your many resources, and work together, you will discover a new way of life; a way of life that vitalizes your church and community. Individually and corporately, the people of your church will learn valuable lessons. Your faith will be challenged in many ways, but it will become stronger as it becomes more practical and tangible.
This article was excerpted from an appendix in Starting a Nonprofit at Your Church by Joy Skjegstad. This book will be published by the Alban Institute in September 2002 (AL255).