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Faith Based Affordable Housing Development and Religious Land: Examining Successful Practices”

Catherine Fisher

Declines in U.S. church membership and aging religious buildings provide an increasing incentive to sell or redevelop under-utilized religious land. For congregation leaders and denomination trustees, the number of religious properties facing closure poses an enormous challenge, as well as an opportunity to reimagine the use of sacred spaces. This has opened the door for new public-private partnerships. The United States currently faces an affordable housing crisis, driven by a lack of supply and difficulty obtaining buildable land for low-income housing due to exclusionary zoning. In cities like New York, Oakland, and Atlanta, city planners have launched faith-based initiatives to provide faith leaders with technical knowledge and funding capacity to consider mixed use affordable housing development in historically underinvested neighborhoods. Likewise, the Enterprise Foundation recently announced a faith-based development grant initiative offering to help houses of worship convert underutilized land into affordable homes and community centers. 

Religious organizations that undertake development typically form either a partnership with an independent, secular developer, or a faith-based non-profit community development corporation (CDC). Estimating the extent of U.S. congregation involvement in affordable housing development is challenging due to the variety of types of religious and faith-based organizations involved. An industry survey taken in 2010 found that 14% of CDCs identified as faith-based. In 2000 the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sponsored an evaluation report to analyze the phenomenon of faith-based organization involvement in housing development. The report identified several advantages (grassroots and volunteer services) and disadvantages (limited in scale and capacity) of faith-based affordable housing development. Since then, besides a few published case studies , there is a significant gap in the current academic literature of research evaluating the activities and outcomes of faith-based affordable housing development. 

Purpose and Methodology of the Study

The aim of this research study is to attain a broad and religiously diverse sample of congregation-sponsored development projects to identify successful congregation affordable housing development partnerships and practices; determine specific barriers congregation sponsored development projects encounter, and strategies used to overcome such development barriers; and explore the role of congregation member relationships in development planning, using the lens of social capital theory. The term “social capital” is defined as the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group embedded in their social networks. Sociologist Robert D. Putnam expanded social capital concepts to include collective social networks embedded in neighborhood associations and religious congregations. Putnam identified a person’s social ties can consist of two types, bonding ties within groups, and bridging between groups of differing status. High levels of community social capital is associated with greater civic engagement and political participation . 

A mixed methods research study was conducted to collect interview and survey data from 33 faith representatives of completed and in progress “congregation sponsored affordable housing projects.” To be eligible, congregation sponsored affordable housing developments were completed or scheduled for completion after 2010. Given the complexity of defining diverse faith-based organizations, this study criteria included a single congregation or diocese, a coalition of multiple congregations, and the congregation affiliated faith-based development non-profit. This researcher compiled a list of 99 projects identified from a search of media, academic, and online databases. The researcher contacted both congregations and their faith-affiliated nonprofits. Identified faith representatives involved in the development planning were then contacted by a follow-up phone call and email to invite them to participate in the study. Interviews were conducted by phone and video call, and interviews averaged 45 minutes. Interview notes were taken by hand. Participants were concurrently asked to complete an online survey consisting of 35 questions. 

Semi-structured interview questions asked participants to describe the congregation development partnership in terms of leadership roles, land use agreement, and congregation mission; describe key lessons learned during the development and planning process; and identify what development barriers were encountered and any strategies used to overcome barriers. Participants were concurrently asked to complete an online survey. The survey consisted of 35 multiple choice and Likert Scale items grouped into the following sections by variables of interest: congregation characteristics, development partnership characteristics, urban planning social impact indicators, social capital indicators, and development barriers. 

Study Findings 

The combined sample of 33 congregations represented a diverse cross section of U.S. mainline religious denominations. The sample included Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist congregations as well as other Protestant denominations, a Jewish congregation, and three ecumenical coalitions. Seven of the total participating congregations were African American congregations based on denomination criterion used in the national congregation survey study published by sociology researchers Mark Chaves and  Alison J. Eagle in 2016. Our sample was geographically diverse with 13 participants located in the West, six from the South, nine from the North, and five congregations from the Northeast, based on census regions. Twenty-seven housing projects were constructed between 2010-2022 and six projects were in progress to be completed by 2023/24. The average time from the congregation development project start date to completion date was six years. Data from survey participants indicated the average congregation size was small, with 33.3% having less than 100 members and 40% less than 500 members. In terms of the at-risk population served by the low-income housing, congregations surveyed reported “frequently” served, were low-income families with children, formerly homeless, seniors, and disabled adults. From our survey sample, we found these congregation sponsored housing projects (based on single projects/campus) averaged 78 units in project size. Furthermore, 97% reported planning two or more on site social support services for residents. Results on the development project funding sources question showed 81% of congregation representatives checked funding from low-income tax credits, 80% city and state grants, 54.8% bank loans, 48.4% private foundation grants, 45.2 % private donations and 42% reported congregation donations. 

Congregation representatives selected from five different types of development partnerships. Our survey analysis found that 58.6% of participating congregations selected “formed a partnership with an independent developer, where the developer was usually the lead partner in the development relationship.” Only 27.6% involved a congregation that formed their own affiliated nonprofit community development organization that was responsible for leading the development. Three participants (5.5%) represented a partnership involving a coalition of congregations that created their own affiliated community development organization. 

Recommended Development Planning Practices

The main reasons congregations gave for choosing their developer were that the developer shared the congregation’s mission and vision, as well as demonstrated they had years of expertise and credibility. In some cases, interviewee’s described conflicts or issues with their developer or an earlier partner (mentioned in 10 cases). Challenges negotiating church share and control of revenue was mentioned in half of these cases as illustrated below:

Case 1 – Episcopal
The congregation planning committee was not comfortable; they requested 2 to 3 bedrooms to be included in the project, because they wanted to be family oriented and wanted to include families. They asked for a redesign… they wanted 100% of the project to be affordable. 

Case 31 – African American Baptist
Often a developer wants to put the church in the backseat. Our lawyer pushed back and negotiated for a larger percentage of the deal and the revenue. In the end it tripled the amount of cash that we got. We even got a percentage stake in the venture and a seat at the table.

In terms of land agreements, most congregations either sold their property to their developer (29%) or maintained ownership by offering a long-term ground lease (32.3%). The ground leases ranged from 55 years to 75 years. Other land use agreements did not fall neatly into categories. Two congregations shared a common campus with affordable housing residents, using a “split condo agreement” and establishing a joint owners association to manage shared space. Seven congregations purchased adjacent property to redevelop as part of their housing /community development mission, while others donated their under-utilized land to an independent non-profit developer, but added deed restrictions. Furthermore, some of these new developments were considered “mixed use” housing projects designed for inclusion of a nonprofit or retail/business spaces (8 cases). 

Interview notes were transcribed and analyzed using ATLAS.ti software. Interview data was coded using multiple iterations and constant comparison. Lessons learned and best practices for faith-based development were organized into four sequential development phases. In the first phase, the “congregation decision phase,” interviewees described the importance of taking time to attain unified commitment from the congregation and religious denominational to begin the development project (See Table 1). Themes included faith leaders should prepare for the length of time, talent and expertise needed to navigate a development project and secure adequate financial and political resources. Successful congregation engagement activities cited by faith leaders included holding listening sessions, re-envisioning retreats, establishing member task forces, doing community needs assessments, presenting proposals for congregation vote, and newsletters. Lessons learned included the need for repeated meetings with regional presbytery or diocese and importance of convincing the religious denomination to see housing as part of their faith mission and ministry.

Congregation Interviews: Lessons and Recommendations During Early Development Planning 
# Cases Development Phase
 Congregation Decision Process
6 casesImportance of congregation conducting a community need assessment prior to development
2 casesAppoint a small planning committee of committed church members to be effective
12 casesImportance of taking time to engage entire congregation in church re-envisioning process
4 casesAnticipate some congregation members will oppose plan and even may split away
2 casesMake sure to assess land for suitability before proceeding (soil, grade, access, toxins)
 Pre-development: Forming Developer Partnership
5 casesCongregation can create an RFP to help recruit and screen various developers’ proposals
10 casesImportance of finding the right developer that is experienced and aligns with vision/ mission
8 cases Be willing to negotiate as church to ask more from developer, like asking for pre-development fee
6 casesImportance of having the right architect, sensitive to design that complements nearby structures  
16 casesImportance of securing expert advisors in real estate, legal contracts, and finance 
11 casesCongregation needed to hire own representative: i.e., legal, real estate consultant
8 casesCongregation/diocese should maintain land ownership, if possible, through ground lease
11 casesImportant not just to build housing, important to consider tenant social support services
5 casesCongregation should be flexible with vision and open to make design adjustments

Furthermore, in the “pre-development phase,” successful practices that emerged were the importance of carefully selecting a developer for partnership and obtaining technical expertise. For some congregations using a request for proposal (RFP) process was critical to finding the right-fitting developer partner. This was followed by the recommendation for faith leaders to be prepared to negotiate more from the developer in terms of revenue and influence over project design. This required retaining a real estate lawyer or pro-bono professional from the congregation. In the third development phase, the “planning and implementation phase,” participants corroborated the importance of repeated community engagement and leveraging collaborative relationships to managing political opposition. Successful community engagement practices coded from interviews included going block by block speaking with neighbors, leaving door hangers, flyers, hosting community meetings, conducting community surveys, getting petitions signed, and visiting various neighborhood associations. These helped show transparency and build trust.

Finally, in the “post construction and management” phase there was the importance of keeping the congregation involved with the property and offering social service support to tenants. Two participants recommended that during lease-up congregations can help educate local residents about the affordable housing application process to mitigate gentrification.

Descriptive analysis of ten items measuring congregations’ “social capital” activities, were adapted from a grounded study of community organizations by Kandyce Fernandez and Jennifer Alexander. Their grounded study identified three dimensions of organization social capital: generated social capital, mediated civic engagement and mediated political participation. Our online survey analysis demonstrated that 83% of congregations reported “probably yes” or “definitely yes” to congregation member relationships being utilized for civic engagement and political influence, to secure support for the affordable housing project. The mean social capital score based on our ten questions was M=3.47 (SD=0.54). This was then compared to the congregation representatives’ interview data. Thematic qualitative analysis also confirmed thick descriptions of congregation members’ mobilizing their social networks and personal relationships to gain support from community stakeholders and city government. For example, one Methodist lay leader reported, “…we had 30 days to convince the council to support the project, we used all our church connections and got over 200 members there to show support, and luckily we won the vote.” 

Faith Development Barriers

Interviewee responses to the question “What barriers if any were encountered in the development planning process” were followed by further exploratory questions. The following interview themes emerged as key barriers:

Local neighborhood opposition13 Cases
Discrimination, stigmatization of low-income residents17 Cases
Zoning barriers and getting them changed or waivered20 Cases
Challenges obtaining various funding and tax credit award timing14 Cases
Gaining approval of regional diocese or presbytery 8 Cases
Unexpected added costs, construction or legal costs12 Cases
Lawsuit filed against congregation development7 Cases
Historical landmark designation of church building or surrounding area 5 Cases

Interview and survey analysis converged to confirm the strongest barrier encountered by the congregation sponsored development was neighborhood opposition. When compared to survey results, 38.7% of congregation affordable housing development projects reported “moderate to severe” neighborhood opposition. In contrast, when participants were asked to rate opposition based on city zoning regulations, 90% of survey participants reported “none” to “very mild” opposition. However, interview analysis themes describe delays or challenges with obtaining city planning department zoning changes. The majority described that city officials were privately supportive through the planning process, and that the religious congregation was seen as an asset to help address the city affordable housing concerns, but politicians were fearful of local resident backlash. 

Interviewees were asked further questions to understand the reasons given for neighborhood opposition to the affordable housing project. Often responses described neighbors were worried about high density, lack of parking, and concerns about increased traffic (11 cases). Neighborhood opposition was usually referenced by interviewees as coming from adjacent single-family neighborhoods (7 cases). A main underlying reason for resident opposition that emerged was negative stigma and prejudice against low-income people, based on race, class, gender, disability, mental health, and homelessness (referenced in 19 cases).

Successful Strategies for Overcoming Opposition

The next part of our research question examined what strategies were utilized to overcome some of the development barriers encountered. Open-ended responses on the survey were compared with qualitative interview responses and the following congregation key effective strategies emerged. 

Overwhelmingly, interviewees described their main strategy to overcome barriers was to leverage congregation member social and volunteer networks to advocate, engage with community neighborhood opposition and influence city council votes (47 quotes in 21 cases). A second main strategy was increased community engagement through a variety of meetings and outreach (14 cases). Six congregations were able to successfully pressure the state government to get their city to submit a new housing element or pass a zoning inclusion overlay zone for religious properties or amend the city charter. Policy changes specifically allowed for reduced parking requirements and building density waivers for developments using religious land. Other political strategies involved both congregation members and their community partners, for example, an evangelical pastor described, “there is a group, Yes In God’s Backyard (YIGBY) that helped us get a city charter amendment proposed and supported by the mayor” (Case 24). An unexpected finding was that four faith leaders reported redevelopment of congregation land resulted in religious revitalization, according to one Methodist minister, “it created a closer relationship to our community and strengthened our own identity as a congregation.” 


This study concludes that the best congregation-sponsored development practices must include an effective engagement of the congregation in the decision-making process. Careful deliberation should also be taken in selecting the developer partner, and negotiating land use agreements. Repurposing religious land can split both congregations and communities. Our analysis confirmed neighborhood opposition was a major barrier, and congregation members’ social capital leveraged for civic and political influence was a significant strategy to overcome this opposition. Faith-based advocacy groups and large non-profit developers can also add social capital assets that the smaller congregations lack. Our results suggest congregations are also mission motivated to ensure long-term and deeper affordability of housing units. There is an urgent need to mobilize and equip faith leaders and regional religious denomination trustees to consider affordable housing and mixed-use development as a viable strategy for under-utilized faith properties. Congregations can use redevelopment of religious land for affordable housing as a transformative strategy to preserve their legacy of faith and community service.♦

Dr. Catherine Fisher is a licensed clinical social worker and received her PhD in Social Welfare from Loma Linda University. Catherine served as clinical faculty with Azusa Pacific University. She is a member of Making Housing and Community Happen (MHCH) and conducts research and consultation on faith-based partnerships, affordable housing and effective interventions for women experiencing homelessness.

Recommended Citation

Fisher, Catherine. “Faith Based Affordable Housing Development and Religious Land: Examining Successful Practices.” Canopy Forum, May 17, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/05/17/faith-based-affordable-housing-development-and-religious-land-examining-successful-practices/.