Sign up for our free newsletter
Walking into the Temple of Praise near the end of a service is like lifting the lid of a tea kettle: The energy inside the Southern Avenue SE church is so intense, with worshipers dancing and wailing and fainting in the aisles, that it seems like it could boil over at any minute. Even when the fervor subsides and worshipers trickle out, more flow back in to take their places for the next service—there are three on Sundays, each packed to the gills.
The interdenominational Temple of Praise—where Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry is a member—is the closest thing D.C. has to a megachurch. It’s growing fast, having already overpopulated the cavernous, mall-style building it constructed in 2003, and is looking to build another facility while turning the old one into a charter school. But the house of worship’s tremendous energy has also been channeled in other directions: With city financing, it constructed transitional housing for homeless women in 2007, will soon open a facility for female ex-offenders, and plans to break ground this year on 45 affordable townhouses on three acres behind the church.
And Bishop Glen Staples isn’t stopping there. He’s working on building a medical clinic, and wants to construct senior housing and a new community center, as well as a credit union, local retail, and restaurants—which neither the market nor the government have brought to that part of Ward 8 (even the local McDonald’s is vacant).
“There’s nothing here,” says Staples, taking a break in his dark wood and leather-trimmed inner sanctum, while the noon service thunders outside. “I don’t know if politicians are able to do anything, if they want to do anything, I don’t know, but I do know nothing’s been done. So it’s incumbent on us to try to do something.”
“Doing something” has been facilitated by contributions from the burgeoning congregation. In 2003, the church created its own community development corporation in response to the Bush administration’s faith-based initiatives program, allowing it to take advantage of federal grants. Staples also tapped people with serious legal and development expertise to run it, and now dispenses real estate advice to the 200-odd churches that have affiliated with Temple of Praise, at large conferences that have both a spiritual and very earthly curriculum.
Temple of Praise’s development program is exceptional, but it’s hardly unique. There’s a building boomlet underway in the city’s houses of worship, as congregations capitalize on increasingly valuable land they’ve been sitting on, and respond to a desperate need for affordable housing. Catholic Charities just opened a glittering new complex in Eckington. A 60-unit affordable rental building sponsored by Bible Way Church is under construction at 1st and K streets NW. Emory United Methodist Church plans senior housing, affordable rentals, and transitional housing next door to its church on Georgia Avenue. Israel Baptist Church in Brentwood is working on senior housing, a community center, and new health clinic. Matthews Memorial Baptist Church broke ground last summer on 99 affordable rentals on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, as part of the New Communities project for Barry Farm just down the hill.
There’s so much going on that At-Large Councilmember Michael Brown, who chairs the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development, is putting on an “interfaith housing summit” in late February to connect house hunters with religious groups.
The particularly important thing here: These are the kinds of building projects many neighborhoods either grumble about or reject altogether. A church’s willingness to put them in its own neighborhood demonstrates a confidence in its ability to be a positive and stabilizing influence, re-knitting an urban fabric shredded by drugs and crime, in places where private capital would never voluntarily go.
And capital, increasingly, is something that churches are equipped to marshal and deploy. “I believe the Bible also teaches not only about spirituality, but economics,” Staples says.
Of course, houses of worship building actual houses isn’t a new phenomenon for Washington. Some of the biggest apartment complexes in the District are church-sponsored, like Gibson Plaza in Shaw and the Golden Rule Apartments off New Jersey Avenue NW, both built in the years following the 1968 riots.
But churches are also connected to their congregations, and some left the city in the 1980s or downsized to smaller buildings. Many buildings were bought by other religious organizations, like the Chinese Community Church’s 2006 purchase of the old Corinthian Baptist Church at 500 I St. NW (which itself was a synagogue for years). Not all of them made it back to productive use, though—Friendship Baptist Church on Delaware Avenue SW, even after being bought by an investor and being approved for residences and nonprofit office space, has yet to find a new occupant.
As land in the city became more valuable over the last decade, churches raised money for their own renovations by selling rights to developers for condos or office space, or partnering with them to build mixed-use facilities, like First Congregational’s glassy new building at 10th and H streets NW downtown, where the church will occupy the first two floors.
About four years ago, the national housing finance non-profit Enterprise Community Partners saw an opportunity being missed. After an inventory of the region’s religious institutions, it identified 747 houses of worship in D.C., comprising some 2,000 lots on 670 acres. The organization reached out to good candidates, and now have about 20 churches working with it on some aspect of developing housing, with plans to deliver hundreds of units by the end of 2012.
“The name of the game has been preservation of existing affordable stock,” explains Enterprise vice president David Bowers. “But at some point, there needs to be a productive angle on it.”
Enterprise is like a one-stop-shop for faith-based development: They’ll do an organizational capacity assessment, identifying how a church should set itself up for building projects. They’ve got predevelopment grants, a battery of real estate consultants, pro bono legal assistance, and relationships with banks willing to underwrite the whole operation. (From a lender’s perspective, churches can be both a risk—since they’re rarely willing to put up their main asset as collateral—and a reliable investment: If they’ve been in one place for 100 years, they’re not likely to pick up and leave on a moment’s notice.)
From a church’s perspective, developing housing is attractive as well. Land actively used for religious purposes isn’t taxed—you’d be hard-pressed to find any churches on the District’s tax sale list. But properties they might have acquired and allowed to sit empty are, sometimes taxed at the higher vacant property rate. Plus, once the project is built, even affordably-priced housing creates a long-term revenue stream.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Allen Chapel AME, on Alabama Avenue SE, decided to build 93 units of senior housing after getting a bequest earmarked for the purpose from a congregant. But it took years to clear their vacant land of liens, figure out whether the site had human remains underground, and then obtain a property tax abatement to get them out of a financial hole—all of which required learning new tricks.
That’s the hardest part for churches taking on ambitious building projects: Slow-moving, bureaucratic bodies don’t always operate at the speed of the money they need to make things happen.
“I always tell folks that people in the development community think on a quarterly timeline,” Bowers says. “People in the faith community tend to think through a timeline of eternity. The sense of urgency can be a little different.”