Is Redeveloping Religious Spaces A Solution To D.C.'s Housing Crisis? As Amazon carves out a new home in Arlington, the county is continuing its search for new solutions to a growing problem: the shortage of affordable housing.
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NPR logo Is Redeveloping Religious Spaces A Solution To D.C.'s Housing Crisis?

Is Redeveloping Religious Spaces A Solution To D.C.'s Housing Crisis?

Gilliam Place, an affordable-housing development built on the site of an Arlington church, opened last week. Lloyd Wolf/Courtesy of APAH hide caption

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Lloyd Wolf/Courtesy of APAH

As Amazon carves out a new home in Arlington, the county is continuing its search for new solutions to a growing problem: the shortage of affordable housing. One possible answer? Redeveloping underused religious spaces.

"Land is one of the prime cost factors in housing," said Judith Meany, a clinical associate professor in architecture and planning at Catholic University. "And it's not one that many people understand is frankly driving the housing affordability crisis."

As the county considers feasible ways to create more affordable units, underused churches — in part a symptom of an overall decline in attendance at religious institutions — present one possibility in a patchwork of housing solutions, with the added benefit of onsite services.

Last week, a new affordable housing development opened off Columbia Pike, built on the site of Arlington Presbyterian Church. Gilliam Place, named for church elder Ronda Gilliam, aims to marry the needs of the church with the needs of the local community, offering a new worship space, a forthcoming cafe with a bilingual culinary training program and 173 affordable units, 15 of which are accessible to residents with mobility impairments.

"Gilliam Place provides a model for how congregations faced with declining membership, but still driven by faith to serve the community, can ensure their sustainability and [transform] the lives of many through affordable homes and opportunities to advance their careers," wrote Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey to WAMU via email.

About six years ago, the church met with the nonprofit Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing to discuss new ways to maximize its local impact.

"This congregation, which was declining in its average Sunday attendance, decided to do a spiritual deep dive and figure out how they could be more relevant to their community," said APAH chief executive Nina Janopaul. "They came to a discernment that what they could do with their asset, their 1.5 acres on Columbia Pike, is turn it into affordable housing."

APAH purchased Arlington Presbyterian Church for roughly $8 million (a $2 million discount on its appraised value) and went to work on constructing a six-story, 9,000-square-foot property, Janopaul said. The $71 million project was funded by a handful of public and private entities, including the Virginia Housing Development Authority, Capital One and $18.1 million from Arlington County's Affordable Housing Investment Fund.

Already, there are some 2,000 people on Gilliam Place's waiting list in a county that has not met its annual goal of creating 600 new units of affordable housing, Janopaul said.

"We are, no question, in a crisis — we've been losing 1,000 units of market-affordable housing per year since 2000," Janopaul said. "The county did an Affordable Housing Master Plan in 2015 that basically said, 'We don't have enough housing to house the people that live here now, not to mention new people we think are moving in with new jobs.'"

The Columbia Pike development is not the first to be re-purposed from an underutilized local church. In 2012, another APAH-backed housing complex, vPoint, was constructed atop a Baptist church in Clarendon, with 70 affordable units.

"These sites are in our urban corridors, and the trend appears to be not just adding affordable housing in these sites proximate to transit and services, but to provide some services and other amenities on-site," said Elizabeth Gearin, professor of sustainable urban planning at George Washington University and the vice-chair of the Arlington County Planning Commission.

It's a concept that has taken hold both regionally and nationally. In D.C., St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church opened affordable housing units in 2008 on the site of its elementary school, with the help of private, city and federal funds. Earlier this year, D.C. mosque Masjid Muhammad applied for a zoning map amendment on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE for a development that would include 85 affordable homes. And similar developments have also popped up in other cities facing housing shortages, including Chicago and Oakland, California.

Some faith-based housing developments, as they're sometimes called, have been subject to lawsuits. The church behind vPoint, for example, was sued for potentially violating the separation of church and state.

And not every attempted project has come to fruition. In 2017, Arlington County approved plans for Central United Methodist Church in Ballston to be redeveloped into a complex offering daycare, new church space, public art and affordable apartments. Janopaul said the development has since shifted from affordable housing to market-rate housing, due to the difficulty APAH and another developer had in securing low-income housing tax credits.

Indeed, the costs associated with transforming a religious space into a housing development are many, from the price of the land itself, roadwork or other infrastructure, the "sticks and bricks" costs and administrative costs such as zoning-application fees, Meany said. It's a lot for jurisdictions to bankroll.

"Their affordable housing funds are not limitless," Meany said, who also serves on a citizen committee in Loudoun County dedicated to housing needs. "So we have to come up with more than one strategy."

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