UU churches support affordable housing efforts
by Donald E. Skinner
The UU Fellowship of Frederick, Maryland, has long been active in issues surrounding poverty. So it was natural that when it appeared that Frederick County was losing its affordable housing, the congregation would take on that issue as well. "This is a rapidly growing area, with lots of gentrification issues," says the Rev. John Morehouse. "We wanted to do something to make sure people from all income levels could continue to live here."
In support of this goal, the congregation participated in an "Affordable Housing Lobby Day" in February in Annapolis, raising housing issues with state legislators. It also took part in a fair housing conference organized in May by the county human relations commission, and contributes regularly to affordable housing causes.
The congregation's real strength in addressing housing issues comes from the ties it has to community organizations that are involved in fair housing. Morehouse, for example, chairs the county human relations commission. Former church treasurer Nan McNamara is a financial officer of Interfaith Housing of Western Maryland. Associate minister Ron Crawford is a real estate professional active in fair housing and low-income loan programs. "The most important reason we have any impact at all on housing issues is that we have bridges to these existing organizations," says Morehouse. "There's no reason to do it all on your own."
Congregations contribute to affordable housing in many ways. After United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, sold its antique silver collection last year, it donated $100,000 to the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization's affordable housing fund, which is used to provide no-interest, five-year construction loans for affordable homes. "We believe it's not enough to ask the state and the cities to do something about affordable housing," said the Rev. Sheldon Bennett. "So we are bringing our own money to the table too."
The UU Society in Stamford, Connecticut, converted its 1875 parish house into ten units of affordable housing for homeless people in 2000 with the help of subsidies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section Eight program, plus several grants and loans. Metcalf House tenants are provided help in getting their lives together and moving back into society. The house also provides a modest income for the church.
Metcalf House president Don Currie is a member of the UU Society. "So many cities have reached the point where the cost of housing is driving out not just low-income but middle-income people," he said. "It's having a devastating effect on family life."
Housing education can be just as important as building actual units. The Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, California, didn't have the resources to help build housing, so instead it organized a Saturday tour of eight affordable housing developments and later produced a video to help show people that affordable housing could be attractive and have a positive impact. About 400 people took the tour, including many government and business leaders. "We showed them that our community knows how to build and has built well-designed and well-maintained affordable housing. We just need more of it," said Joanne Nay, a coordinator for the tour.
Affordable housing has denominational backing. In April, UUA president the Rev. Bill Sinkford participated in a national call to action, urging elected officials to turn their attention to affordable housing. In a press conference on the steps of the nation's capitol, he said, "Creating adequate affordable housing is more than a political issue. It is a moral issue. For it is only when our neighborhoods embrace and protect all of our citizens that our society can be considered just."
Affordable housing has, of course, been around a long time as a social and religious issue. Interest swelled in the sixties and seventies, fueled by Great Society money. In the eighties it was dormant. In the nineties interest began to peak again, as the economy boomed and gentrification occurred in many urban neighborhoods, pricing many people out of the market.
Historically, the federal government built affordable housing. About eight years ago, it stopped and began providing financial incentives to the private sector, thus generating increased interest among religious communities and other organizations.
The two largest UU-related affordable housing programs are in Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. The UU Affordable Housing Corporation is a community development loan fund, founded and supported by many UU congregations in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area. With a three-million-dollar fund, created by investments from congregations and individuals, it provides below–market rate financing to developers of housing for low- and moderate-income families, the disadvantaged, and persons with special needs.
Affordable housing is a natural issue for UU congregations because it's tangible, says Mark Knight, executive director of UUAHC. "You can see it, touch it, and work on it. People can point to it and say we helped build that."
In the Twin Cities the UU Affordable Housing Program has existed for two years and is supported by a dozen congregations. It uses its $100,000 UU Affordable Housing Fund as a revolving loan fund for nonprofit developers of supportive housing serving the poorest families and individuals in the region. The money is also used for homelessness prevention programs through nonprofit agencies in two local counties.
The UUAHP meets with officials to promote affordable housing and participates with other housing partners in an annual "Day on the Hill for Affordable Housing" with state legislators. "It's exciting because it has shown us we can work together and create more impact," says Jo Haberman, social justice coordinator at First Universalist Church and an organizer of the UUAHP. Public officials are listening, she says. "We can look around and see more units available for lower income people. In our last city council elections affordable housing was the pivotal issue, and the new mayor set up an affordable housing problem-solving team. We're making a difference."
For information on investing in affordable housing contact Jim Gunning, chair of the UUA's Socially Responsible Investing committee: (201) 836-5901.
Donald E. Skinner is a contributing editor to UU World and editor of the UUA's InterConnections newsletter for lay leaders.