How Faith Communities Are Addressing the DC Region’s Housing Challenges
Sharisse Baltimore (not pictured) and her six children, who lived in a homeless shelter for months, enjoy their first day in a house after being placed in assisted housing in Washington, DC. Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments recently announced that 56,250 new housing units are needed in the next decade to serve low- and moderate-income households in the region. Ten percent of those units may come from a somewhat surprising partner: the faith community.
The Faith-Based Development Initiative (FBDI), a project of Enterprise Community Partners, has been working with houses of worship for the past 13 years, helping them find ways to ensure “people of all incomes have access to fit and affordable housing and community resources.”
At a recent summit, Rev. David Bowers, Enterprise’s vice president and mid-Atlantic market leader, discussed how affordability challenges affect many people in the region and stated that one of the FBDI’s goals is for the faith community to contribute toward developing 10 percent of the 56,250 additional new units—or 5,625 new homes.
I was honored to speak at the summit, titled Houses of Worship in a Changing Community: The Suburbanization of Poverty and Urban Displacement, hosted at the Washington National Cathedral and organized by Enterprise Community Partners and the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers.
After Rev. Bowers’s welcome, I discussed the Urban Institute’s recent research on the Washington region’s current and future housing needs to give the group more context for their discussions that morning.
For example, most households in the region with incomes of less than $54,300—more than 500,000 households—pay 30 percent or more of their income toward their rent or mortgage, a level that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development considers unaffordable. These incomes include people with full-time jobs such as nursing assistants, food preparation workers, and paramedics.
I also talked about some of the policy options that can help the region address its housing challenges:
- preserve existing affordable housing
- produce more housing
- protect vulnerable tenants and homeowners from rising costs and displacement
In this “three-point sermon” (as a later speaker described it), I also highlighted what the faith community can do to support the region’s affordable housing goals and described areas where they might have the biggest impact.
Support efforts to care for those who are homeless or vulnerable to becoming homeless
Many houses of worship are already doing this, by raising money and even directly providing shelter, meals, clothing, and other essentials to individuals and families at risk. Along with services provided by nonprofits, these efforts are a vital part of the region’s social safety net and, for those who have proven their capacity to deliver high quality services, need to be continued and even expanded.
Make surplus land available for housing production
Available land for development is becoming scarcer, particularly in DC. For this summit, Urban looked at property data for DC, Arlington, and Montgomery and Fairfax Counties and found nearly 800 vacant parcels owned by faith-based institutions, making up almost 726 acres.
Most of these parcels are zoned residential and if we assume multifamily housing could be built on that land, depending on the density of housing, it could support the construction of between 43,000 and 108,000 new housing units.
Use influence to support more housing and more housing affordability in communities
Although the region clearly needs more housing, new development can be met with strong opposition. Those against a proposed project may speak out online and at public meetings or display “No!” signs on their front yards.
Residents may have legitimate concerns about the effects of new development and should be free to express them, but those views may not always represent the opinions or interests of the larger community.
To ensure decisionmakers hear a balance of views, faith communities can be more vocal and organized in supporting much-needed new housing development. I highlighted the example of Neighbors for More Neighbors, a grassroots effort to mobilize voices in Minneapolis in support of a new plan that proposed building more housing to address the city’s shortage of houses and apartments.
The group organized residents to speak at hearings in favor of the plan and created their own window and yard signs so proponents could publicly display their support. Neighbors for More Neighbors has successfully demonstrated that organizing for more housing can be a positive influence on local policy.
Other speakers at the summit highlighted work already completed or underway that has been supported (PDF) by the faith-based community, including housing developments, community centers, and training facilities.
Examples of projects supported by FBDI include the following:
- Matthews Memorial Terrace, a 99-unit housing development and community center in Anacostia
- Gilliam Place, a development with 173 units of affordable housing and a bilingual culinary training program in Arlington
- The Israel Manor Life Learning Center and Senior Residences (PDF), a community and health care facility with 47 units of senior housing in Brentwood
It was truly inspiring to learn about these wonderful efforts.
As Urban has noted, solving the region’s housing challenges is not the job of local governments or nonprofits alone. The faith community, along with businesses, philanthropy, and others, all need to play a role. Although the challenges are large, by working together, the region can rise to meet them.