June 3, 2022
The small crowd, mostly women, gathered on the stone steps of City Hall in Lynn, Massachusetts, holding signs in English and Spanish. Their placards offered simple slogans like “la renta esta muy cara,” “rent is very expensive.” Chants were equally straightforward.
A woman holding a bullhorn asked, “What do we want?”
“Housing!” the crowd responded.
“When do we want it?” the woman shouted.
“Now!” said the crowd.
The protest was organized by Essex County Community Organization, a multifaith network that includes 59 congregations, and it took place on the same day that Essex County Community Organization and two allied groups submitted identical proposals for affordable housing to the municipality.
Across the country, faith-based organizations and houses of worship are responding to skyrocketing housing prices with initiatives ranging from protests and policy proposals to efforts to build affordable homes on excess church property. Religious leaders and housing experts alike say the latter, in particular, is a win-win situation that more churches nationwide could and should be taking part in. As interest in religious affiliation dwindles and churches have less of a need for extensive complexes, creative solutions — like selling or leasing church property to create affordable or mixed income housing — could also generate an income stream that will help keep cash-strapped congregations afloat while simultaneously serving the community, they said.
“There is a massive shortage of housing in the U.S., and we know that churches own millions of parcels of land in the U.S.,” said Jamie Smarr, senior vice president of the NHP Foundation’s Affiliate Program, which helps create and preserve affordable housing for low and middle income seniors and families.
But faith-based solutions to the housing crisis will require close coordination between religious institutions and the government. While some policymakers believe that church and state should be separate, “that’s a constitutional principle that doesn’t apply here,” said Smarr. “We’re trying to solve a tremendous public policy problem.”
The NHP Foundation is increasingly hearing from religious leaders who want to do something with their institutions’ holdings to help Americans who are struggling to find a place to live, Smarr added.
While religious leaders and housing experts agree that the government has to formulate better policies vis-a-vis housing, they also say that churches could hold a key.
In the short term, congregations have discretionary funds that can help church members who are in a crisis, the Rev. Shillady said. While these grants are typically “once and done,” they can make the difference between eviction and staying in a home.
Working in partnership with a local nongovernmental organization, California’s San Pedro United Methodist Church is using four of its classrooms to shelter four families at a time, according to the Rev. Lisa Williams, who said she is increasingly seeing working-class and middle-class families struggle with the rising prices.
“One of the families that is there currently — he’s a postman, he works during the day and the wife works at night,” she said.
The Rev. Williams feels that religious institutions should be at the forefront for the push for “change and for proper policy.” That effort means building relationships with officials, politicians and other community stakeholders, and holding them accountable, she said, adding that clergy need “to get bolder” on taking stands on political issues like housing, which is a matter of “human dignity and human rights.”
“Feeding people is wonderful and helpful,” said the Rev. Williams, “but we need to take it to the next level.”
To that end, she’s working with a nonprofit to build 54 affordable and permanent housing units, a project that has been years in the making already.