Ready for Change? Talking to Your Congregation About What to do with Your Church Real Estate

The housing crisis in San Francisco has worsened in recent years, with a 30% increase in the homeless population since 2017. City officials are constantly looking to combat the problem in different ways. It’s a critical situation; people who might otherwise be able to support themselves are being pushed out by rapidly rising housing costs, only to find the usual support systems overloaded and slow. There’s no single solution, but Mayor London Breed recently called on the city to “provide more shelter [and] more exits from homelessness.” But who can provide the affordable land needed for these projects in the midst of a real estate boom? The perfect candidate would have both property and a desire to help those in need: congregations with church real estate. 

envisioning the future of church real estate

Plan Ahead- Inventory Church Resources

Before you consider dedicating church real estate or resources to the cause, it’s important to take stock of your congregation. Do you have the vision and the ability to follow through on a long-term project? Are the congregants willing to make a change, or is there some resistance to altering a beloved church building? How much space will the church realistically need in the future? Although your church might be willing to make sacrifices for the good of the community, some of the best plans are mutually beneficial; they allow churches to right-size their buildings while also fulfilling a mission to serve their neighbors.

 You might have heard of one scheme that has taken root in places like Portland, Oregon, and the Washington D.C. area: tiny houses. Specifics vary, but small villages of transitional housing units can often be built on church land without radical changes to the existing structures. Some villages, like Agape Village built by Central Church of the Nazarene in Portland, consist of basic shelters with a communal bathroom and kitchen. Others, like the Pee Wee Homes at The Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC, are fully functional, sustainable houses with indoor plumbing. Churches can screen housing applicants and set requirements for income and other benchmarks. Many tiny house communities are self-governed, with residents obligated to attend regular village meetings and volunteer their time to help with maintenance. Residents also have access to partnering community organizations that can help with things like healthcare, job preparation, and crisis management, and Agape Village even hopes to gather members from local churches to adopt its residents and help them fully integrate into the community.

bringing the community together thanks to church real estate

Consider Selling or Leasing the Church Real Estate 

If your church real estate includes extra land, or has found a new space to move into, you might be able to consider a more traditional affordable housing development. You can either sell church real estate outright or lease it to a developer and maintain ownership. St. James United Methodist Church in Alexandria, VA, did the former. The congregation moved from their old church building to a slightly smaller building down the street, leaving the old location open for a nonprofit developer to build 93 units of affordable housing. Building St. James Plaza, as it’s called, took three years and was challenging at times. But Pastor James Henry has said it’s had a positive impact on the community, and the church has even added new members who were attracted by the visible example of mission-forward thinking.

Something important to consider when planning a large project like this is how it will fit in with your church’s organizational structure. An affordable housing project will bring together your faith-based goals with those of the secular community, so it might be helpful to establish a nonprofit organization that is separate from your church. Some types of funding are not available for direct distribution to religious organizations, but setting up a 501(c)(3) organization would allow funds to be directed toward the housing project itself. A separate nonprofit can also protect the church from liability. Of course, it will require additional paperwork, and you’ll want to be sure everything is set up correctly from the start to take advantage of your church real estate. If you’d like to protect the project’s faith-based mission going forward, for example, make sure that is reflected in the new nonprofit’s governing documents.

If your church real estate might be a good candidate for an affordable housing project, but you’re not sure where to start, contact DCG Strategies. We’re experts at working with faith-based organizations to ensure their mission takes priority. We can help value your church real estate, assess the local needs, and devise a plan that suits both your congregation and the surrounding community.