Church Groups Supply New Housing for Poor
PRAISE THE LANDLORD
When Geraldine Fowler walks through the glass doors of the Bishop Boardman Apartment building, she enters a tidy lobby without a word of graffiti in sight.Skip to next paragraph
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Her apartment is a slice of Americana - thick carpeting, lace curtains, and a cross-stitching on the refrigerator that reads, "Keep my kitchen clean, eat out." Even the courtyard behind the Bishop Boardman here in Brooklyn has been touched by a certain serenity. There, instead of the drug deals so common outside other public-housing units, residents work together to tend a flourishing garden. "There's a great spirit here," says Sister Mary Mercedes, the complex's director.
At a time when public housing is derided as a failed social experiment, this building and the thousands of other housing units run by religious groups across the country are the rare success stories. They have managed, housing officials say, to provide safe, attractive living conditions for low-income residents through their dedication to the projects they help build and the sense of community they create among those who live there.
"Churches are the strongest, most supportive foundations in communities," says former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, who encouraged the growth of religious-run housing during his tenure. "There are a lot of communities where the only viable leadership is the church."
What separates religious-sponsored housing from most other public housing is its attention to the details in people's lives. Many religious-run housing units provide services such as help with Medicaid paperwork and the staging of job fairs. They can give individual attention to residents: Bishop Boardman staff members, for example, will often visit residents who are in the hospital. And church groups typically have ties to their communities that stretch back through generations.
Even congressional Republicans, who have slashed the federal housing budget over the past two years, praise partnerships between religious groups and the US government.
Thus, as the low-income housing shortage intensifies, leaving 5 million Americans struggling to find affordable places to live, units run by religious groups are among the few beacons of hope on the housing horizon.
Small and service-oriented
Most public housing is run by locally created government entities called public housing authorities. Through these city- or county-sponsored bodies, the federal government provides money, direction, and oversight. In the 1980s, many nonprofit groups of all kinds began applying for federal funds to build housing. Religious groups are a growing subset of that - an estimated 15 percent of approximately 2,500 nonprofit groups involved in housing, say housing advocates.
HUD officials expect more money will be funneled into programs that partner with religious groups because such programs have strong track records. They also say that a larger portion of government-sponsored public housing will be patterned after religious-run housing - becoming smaller in scale, offering more services, and trying to be better integrated into the existing community.
But inherent differences will keep government-run housing from completely duplicating religious-run projects, housing officials say. "For churches, it is not their mandate to house 10 percent of the population," says Maxine Griffith, the US housing secretary's representative in New York and New Jersey. "Their mandate is to rebuild a community."
Religious organizations first became involved in housing in the 1970s, often when members of their churches or synagogues began moving out of the neighborhood because rents were rising too high or crime was too prevalent.