Church Groups Supply New Housing for Poor


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.

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.

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.

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."

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