Using Church-Owned Land
In the first edition of Making Housing Happen, Dr. Rev. DarEll Weist tells the story of a 150-year-old congregation’s journey from sanctuary to community. I have included that story below for you to enjoy. But to summarize it here, they had a dwindling congregation, but a very large facility, so they had to decide how to best use their buildings and land. DarEll could not get away from God’s message to “Build a Community” “Build a Village” so he finally asked for help from the architecture department of UCLA which eventually help him to master plan their entire block. They created a diverse ethnic and economic community in downtown Los Angeles by building an award-winning affordable housing “village.”
As the story unfolded, fears of the congregation emerged and were laid to rest as they stepped out in faith, took a big risk, and discovered the many stakeholders in the community who were willing to work alongside them. They discovered that the vision and provision was orchestrated by God. DarEll tells of challenges faced when an ordinary congregation makes affordable housing a part of their mission statement and takes on huge task of creating a new community. DarEll makes it clear, “Affordable housing is a ministry to the community, first to the people who need it, and secondly to the community who needs to embrace it,” DarEll comments.
DarEll was called to create a community—ensuring the future of the First United Methodist of LA. He tells of the challenges of merging a community and a congregation ministry, and touches on the management of affordable housing.
In the new edition of Making Housing Happen, this story is summarized in the introduction to the Part II Tangible Structures part of book.
In addition to the story, this section tells of how some older cathedral churches are finding ways to stay alive financially by selling the air rights over their buildings or part of their land and partnering with their city and with affordable housing developers. With tax credits, bonds and other creative affordable housing funding sources, church parking lots are being used to create parking structures combined with affordable housing. The famous Rugged Cross Baptist Church in Bedford-Sturtevant, NY, has built 50 supportive housing apartments for the formally homeless on their parking lot.
See: Rugged Cross Apartments: http://www.dunndev.com/L3/ruggedcross.html
When Jesus asked the boy, “What do you have?” The mere two loaves and four fish were multiplied. Churches are looking at how they can multiply their assets to love their neighbors by helping them to afford a place to live.
Here’s the chapter from the 2006 version of Making Housing Happen:
“Build a Community”
A Congregation’s Journey into Affordable Housing, Los Angeles, CA
By Rev. Dr. DarEll T. Weist
On the way to my car, I detour through Hope Place and Villa Flores to recount what God has done. Hope Place encompasses Hope Village’s 66 units of one to three bedroom family housing and Villa Flores’s with 75 units of senior housing.
On the podium deck I see little Jesus—a six- month old, born at Hope Village. His mother, Lilian Rivera, watches him a raised grassy patch. Her three older children play on the jungle gym with Ruth and Beliu—twins enrolled in the Children’s Learning Center in Hope Village Alemtsehay, the twin’s mother—born in Ethiopia—reads a textbook for her college courses. I watch Nester and his friend play ping-pong. Anne, a Korean waves as I pass by. The south elevator lifts me to the upper garage housing the social service delivery arm of South Park Neighborhood Center. In the computer lab, Miriam teaches Windows in Spanish to a group Hispanic day workers from Villa Del Pueblo, a family housing complex a down the street. Walking by the Children’s Learning Center playground I see four children still waiting for their parents—representing four ethnicities and three languages. Intent on playing with a truck in the sandbox, I take note that “vroom” is “vroom” in any language.
Crossing the red stamped asphalt alley, Pembroke Lane, I enter Villa Flores Senior Housing. My eye catches and three seniors enjoying the Taper California desert garden. They wave as I past the multipurpose room where Mrs. Kim leads seniors in line dance.. In the lobby to, I encounter eight well groomed Hispanic women, two in wheel chairs with their attendants, chatting and sipping coffee—their afternoon ritual. As I approach my car, my heart sings as I consider the global community that God is building.
This is the kind of community that First United Methodist Church, Los Angeles (First Church) is called to serve. Here, we see glimpses of the biblical descriptions of Isaiah 65: 17-25 - where there is hope and justice for all of God’s children. Isaiah’s holistic vision of what life should be like became my
Biblical mandate of God’s vision for the city.
Daring to Listen
First Church is one of the oldest Protestant Churches in Los Angeles (1854); one of America’s Mega-Churches from the 1910’s to 1950’s with 5,000 members. When the Red Cars, LA area public transport, were dismantled in late 1940’s the church plunged to 200 members. The huge 3,500 seat sanctuary with its Tiffany panels, fabulous organ, and 40 classrooms became a liability. The un-reinforced masonry would not stand a southern California earthquake. For 60 years it stood on the corner of Hope and 8th Street. When it sold in 1983, the church purchased two office buildings with a sanctuary and church offices carved out of the first and second floors. The rest of the space housed a child day care center and an incubator for social justice non-profits and advocate groups like Farmer’s Market, The Homeless Health Care Project, Asian Pacific American Legal Services.
As the newly appointed Senior Pastor, on that first Sunday in 1989, I looked over the multicultural remnant —average age of 70—and said to myself, “What one thing can I do to insure that there will be a First Church in 20 years?” I had a leadership responsibility for the present and future health of the congregation. I could have answered in a number of ways, but the word that came to me was, ‘Build a community-- a neighborhood-- and then from the neighborhood you will build a congregation.’ What a big surprise! I thought that I was to build the congregation but the word was to first build a community.
Our large block had flat vacant space, our five-story and two-story buildings and a four-story National Cash Register office building that was being rehabbed for 40 units of handicapped housing. First Church owned one third of the block; the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) owned the rest.
In 1989 building any kind of housing, even affordable housing, in downtown Los Angeles was novel. Market rate condos had been built in the last ten years, but had a difficult time selling. No one wanted to live downtown. South of downtown, Sister Diane Donoghue with Esperanza Housing was starting to build affordable housing. To the West, the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) and West Los Angeles Church of God in Christ were initiating their affordable housing projects, but none near downtown. Despite South Park, being declared the future bedroom community of downtown Los Angeles, yet almost nothing had happened to make that a reality—especially for workers. To the contrary, older dwelling were being torn down, displacing long-term residents to make way for office buildings and parking lots
This was a novel idea for another reason. As a United Methodist I had been a local church pastor, a campus minister, a church bureaucrat and a missionary theological teacher, but never an affordable housing developer. I had no background or training in urban planning or building design. To the contrary, I was born on the prairies of North Dakota! However, I did have good administrative skills.
The congregation said,” Pastor we are fine the way we are, don’t bother yourself about it, it all sounds too risky, too much work.” I sensed they were just scared. And, I could not get away from the vision: ‘Build a community, build a neighborhood and then out of the neighborhood build a congregation!’ other pastors had a similar response: ”Why would you create that much work for yourself?” “You don’t know anything about building, why would you put yourself though that kind of pain?” But the vision persisted. After much prayer, discernment, I decided that I needed a mentor.
With fear of rejection I talked to Robert Harris, Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California. I feared he might say, “That’s a nice idea, pastor, but this work is difficult, it is only for professionals, I suggest that you hire someone with the real knowledge to do the work. You leave that to us and you just continue preaching.” Instead he sympathically listened and said, “I have just the teacher for you, John Mutlow.” The next day I met with John, a USC professor, and told him my story. He didn’t laugh, rather he took me seriously and invited me to his class that worked with architectural and design issues. I had a live project, so I became the class resource. As I explained the vision, they provided feedback and I learned. Before the end of the semester John said, “DarEll, next semester we should Master Plan the block.” I said, “John, we don’t own the whole block, only one third.” “This means you have development rights. The Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) who owns the rest doesn’t know what they want to do with it” he said. So I was off and running with another learning experience.
About half way through that semester the area project manager for the CRA/LA said to me, “CRA would like to Master Plan the block.” I told him, “What a great idea!” (The same vision was coming to a number of people at the same time.) However, I told him, “We don’t have the $60,000 to pay the architect who would do the Master Plan.” “Oh,” said CRA project manager, “We have the money, but no one to staff it.” I told him that my executive assistant and I would be happy to staff it. Another learning experience! The Master Plan included 445 units of housing, 48% market rate and 52% affordable with a day care center, social service neighborhood center, a church building, meditation garden, offices and parking.
During that semester John Mutlow said we needed to talk about a HUD 202 Senior Housing project which introducing me to a whole new community of resources: architects, financial consultants, engineers, contractors, CRA project managers, building inspectors real estate agents, management companies, and other non profit and faith based developers—a host of people wanting to help God’s vision come to life on our block.
As these partnerships developed, John Mutlow and others introduced a world of funding possibilities: Foundation grants, Tax Credits, HUD allocations, grants from Community Development Department, HUD pass through grants from City Housing Authorities, tax exempted bonds, bridge loans, money from the Federal Home Loan Bank, etc.
Early in this process I created a 501c3 Development Corporation, the 1010 Development Corporation. The fragile multi-ethnic congregation had no ability or prior experience to say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to developing affordable housing and if pushed they would say ‘no.’ However since this was a ministry of the First Church, seven board of directors are from the church and six from the community at large. The church needed ownership and a positive relationship with the project. The community directors came from USC, UCLA, Bank of America, Metropolitan Transit Authority, a contractor and a future resident of the senior housing. The 1010 Development Corporation brought the congregation, the stakeholders, and the residents into conversation, providing skilled advisors to build 141 units of affordable housing.
In my case, I did not ask for approval from the congregation, but for permission to explore the project with the development corporation. The congregation had all kinds of questions, “Where is all this money coming from? If the project goes bankrupt, will we lose our church? Will we like the people who move in?” Many of the questions had no answers until we worked through the project. For example, most of our affordable housing was financed with Tax Credits, meaning we have a limited partner or tax syndicator that owns’ 99.9% of our project for fifteen years. To most congregations this sounds like a very bad deal; and ours was no different. But the community board of directors gave the church directors the courage to risk when decisions were beyond them. Now they see how building a community is creating a future for their congregation and they are grateful.
Doing the work
Our development team initially an architect, financial consultant and a developer, helped us define how much housing we could build on our land and if we could get it financed. Having a contractor come on board immediately was essential. The contractor and architect teamed up to design and build our project within its budget. Value engineering helped us find less expensive and even better design elements. The diversity of development team members, from different companies greatly enhanced our project.
John Mutlow suggested we begin with Villa Flores. In planning this seven-story, seventy-five unit senior complex, our earthquake solution was unaffordable—our first crisis! Redesigning the subterranean footing and placing apartments on the ground floor proved cheaper and better. But questions arose: “Would that be safe?” The solution: storefront type window space to provide security where plants and other decorations enhance the building. Pages of questions emerged in our weekly construction meetings: “The carpet color?” “The make and type of refrigerators?” “Where should a bathroom emergency outlet should be placed?” “Should the bedrooms have ceiling fans and the multipurpose room a full kitchen?” We were creating space for people to live well.
Half way through construction, it hit us that funding for the Taper California desert garden was overlooked. The garden required extra light soil since it would be above the subterranean parking garage, making it expensive. Delighted, we found foundations that understood our mission, feeling honored that we would ask them to help.
After thirteen months, the construction was complete! We received our occupancy permit early on an October afternoon of 1998. By 5:00 pm that evening ten qualified residents were sleeping in their apartments!
Hope Village was on the fast track. One year after finishing Villa Flores we began building our family housing. Challenges abounded. Our building, one story too high for a certain category of residential funding, forced us to redraw plans mid-construction. After our weekly construction meeting, I wanted to see the cable TV and phone jacks. Perusing the partially built units, we were suddenly inspired to have cable and phone/data outlets in each of the 150 bedrooms. Our tenants deserved computers and Internet access and they are very grateful!
Dealing with realities
In market rate housing amenities are swimming pools, beauty salons, weight rooms etc. But amenities for affordable housing are enriched social services like computer labs, ESL classes, nutrition classes, etc. At Hope Place we have these enriched services, plus our day care center, food distribution, senior and youth programs, and a weekly parish nurse. These instill skills, new life and new hope, as our church’s continues the tradition of social service in Lost Angeles since 1890.
These amenities along our community choir and regular barbeques for the tenants of Villa Flores, Hope Village and Telecu Plaza foster natural relationship with church members and among tenants. God is creating a community! As a result, the neighborhood is a safer place. As residents take responsibility for each other and our beautiful buildings, pride is instilled. Our attention to upkeep causes residents treat the project with respect, preserving our property value.
It requires gutsy faith to sign loans and obtain grants for $25 million dollars. Even though it is not personally our money, it nevertheless affects a dearly loved organization. Depending on other professionals to carry out our mission and dreams is not how congregations normally function. We depended on a host of advisors, even now, we depend a property manager. But even a management must be managed.
I now help other congregations build affordable housing, two congregations quit in the middle of the planning stage. The commitment and risk was too much.
Decisions big and small for which the congregation had little or no background were more than we could imagine. We developed an outstanding prayer life, giving us confidence that we were doing God’s agenda. Prayer calmed me numerous times when I knew this task was beyond me, when I doubted myself. Prayer allowed us to find out–of-the-box solutions. God created a new community, and changed lives—especially my own. The congregation grew in their prayer life and their understanding of God dream for the city.
My gifts in administration were used to help realize the dream. Understanding the rules and the limits of multiple funding sources required someone who could manage a complex project and guide the congregation in the learning experience. I wanted my congregation to see beyond their own church to people who they never thought would be a part of their congregational family. But, I initially had to step out, asking the congregation to not put up roadblocks. Once the buildings were up the church adopted them as their own—after they understood what it meant to create our community. Namely, that affordable housing is not a profit center or a way to balance the congregational budget. (In a good year, there is a small amount of residual receipts left after all the reserves are satisfied and bills are paid.) And it means that with public funds we must be willing to take the tenants God gives us, those who qualify with background checks, by income level, and family size. We have excess applications, so tenants are chosen by lottery. God has a marvelous way of giving us good and interesting tenants…
Imagine a fourteen-year-old Hispanic doing his Chinese homework! He says he will be trilingual in about two years: English, Spanish and Chinese. As part of the team of neighborhood youth from Hope Place he painted a 35-foot mural of Heroes and “Sheros” installed on the fence at Hope Village. He participates twice weekly in our after school youth programs.
Our Korean harpist teaches private harp and piano lessons to our children and music at our Children’s Learning Center. She occasionally plays for First Church’s worship services. Harp music is regularly heard from a studio-offered rent-free out of gratefulness for sharing her talents!
I discovered that God often gives only the part of the vision we need at the moment. The rest comes as we work it.
I discovered that church culture tends to be in risk-avoidance—at all levels of church administrative bodies--local, regional or national level. Initially I received little or no support from bishops, program staff, or fellow pastors. They wanted to see the whole vision; God had only given me part of it. When the buildings were completed, their attitude changed to one of support, but they had to be convinced.
I discovered a whole group of professionals in the community, many of them uninterested in our Sunday Worship services, but believed in the dream. They were proud to be part of God’s work for the city and ready to give many hours. The congregation and I see this as ministry to this creative group of professionals.
I discovered there are many people willing to serve as mentors. They helped me ask the right questions, gave me the right books to read, and help solve difficult problems.
I discovered that God would make available the resources to do God’s agenda.
I discovered that building affordable housing is a spiritual journey. My prayer life, my relationship with God and my understanding of God’s mission in the world has grown.
I discovered that God’s community is multi–age, lingual, cultural, economic, religious and handicapped. The congregation’s ministry is within that community.
Building a community of people on our block is just the beginning. It is then out of this neighborhood that a new congregation of God’s children will come.
See: 1010 Development Company: http://1010dev.org/