Church Groups Supply New Housing for Poor
PRAISE THE LANDLORD
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At that time, only the largest church-based organizations could afford to take out their own loans or take on the entanglement of government grants that might be available to them.Skip to next paragraph
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HUD's religious outreach
Then, two years ago HUD Secretary Cisneros created the Religious Organizations Initiative within his department. In 1996, HUD began taking workshops on the road to explain the nuts and bolts of how any church can form a nonprofit organization and apply for federal grants to house the elderly, homeless, poor, and disabled.
HUD does not document how many faith-based organizations receive grants from the government, but Art Agnos, HUD director of special projects, says, "Absolutely, it's growing." Last year, HUD for the first time began tracking religious groups' participation in housing the homeless and people in transition from homelessness. The groups accounted for 12 percent of the money granted to such programs.
The way religious organizations get involved in housing is still complicated. The most sophisticated groups weave together a patchwork of city, state, and federal aid. Many absorb property that belongs to the church and use grant money to build or rebuild on that land. Some purchase sites, and the grant money pays the mortgage. Under a different grant, organizations can qualify for rent subsidies.
Harlem's housing saviour
The Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem runs 16 buildings of low-income housing. They've netted city and state grants, as well as federal rent subsidies and grants used to take over building mortgages for a limited time. They've built housing for the homeless, disabled, elderly, and low-income.
"The reason we started was because the housing stock was just falling apart," says Canaan housing director Shirley Claiborne.
But Canaan's recent decisions reflect the problems that threaten even these successful church-HUD programs. After opening new housing units every several years for last two decades, Canaan's next project is a primary health-care facility. Why the switch? There is a need, Ms. Claiborne says. But there is also available funding from the state.
The 1997 federal housing budget provided for no additional rent subsidies for private landlords, nonprofit groups, or religious organizations. So, while federal grants may be available to religious organizations to build new housing, there is no new money from HUD to match the rent that low-income residents can pay. Without that money, Claiborne says, churches cannot afford to build new housing.
Yet housing experts say there's a dire need for new, low-income apartments.
HUD figures show that 5.3 million households of very low-income renters pay more than half their earnings for housing. "Very low income" is defined by the federal government as households that live on less than half the median income of the city or town where they are located. The number of these worst-case households grew by 1.1 million between 1978 and 1993. At the same time, HUD's budget has been cut from $25.7 billion in 1995 to $19.4 billion for 1997.
In the meantime, the larger religious organizations will keep pushing for the financial support they need from the government. Smaller churches will expand the movement. And Geraldine Fowler and the 199 other residents of the Bishop Boardman Apartments in Brooklyn will continue to enjoy the warmth and care they receive there.
"It has been very nice," says Ms. Fowler of her 10 years at the Bishop Boardman. "Everybody here has been so lovely."