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De Blasio Eyes Underused Church Property for Affordable Housing

By Gwynne Hogan | February 18, 2016 3:30pm
 St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 628 Bushwick Ave.  is being gutted and turned into market rate apartments.
St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 628 Bushwick Ave. is being gutted and turned into market rate apartments.
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Tony Blahd

BUSHWICK — Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration is reaching out to clergy members across the city to see if they want to partner with private developers to convert underused parking lots, buildings and other church properties into affordable housing.

"There may be some houses of worship that may be in a position to help," with the mayor's housing plan that promises to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing by 2024, said Jonathan Soto who works specifically with clergy across the city on behalf of the mayor.

"It could be any house of worship interested in developing their property," Soto said.

The effort might involve wrangling non-profit developers, helping direct funding toward projects, getting involvement from local politicians and helping churches navigate the city's land use process, mayoral spokesman Wiley Norvell said.

"We’re taking every opportunity to build more affordable housing, and many of our faith communities have been deeply involved in affordable housing for decades," Norvell said, adding that though there's currently no specific formula for how the administration plans on working with churches.

While the administration has begun to look at church-owned property for affordable development, an audit released Thursday by Comptroller Scott Stringer found that the city owns more than 1,100 vacant lots that it could be using for housing.

HPD Commissioner Vicki Been called the audit misleading and refuted it saying that of the 1,100 lots, only 670 are suitable for residential development. Of those 400 are already in HPD's pipeline and 270 are on the horizon for the last eight years of the mayor's affordable housing plan.

Most of the lots cited by the comptroller in his audit, 556 to be exact, are in Brooklyn, where the administration has started putting out feelers if churches might be willing to turn their properties into housing.

"We’re in the worst housing crisis in generations," Norvell said. "We need every tool and every partner, working together, to keep this city affordable."

Soto began the process of reaching out to clergy to see what kinds of possibilities there could be for housing development on church land. 

“My role is to...see what next steps are possible, we don’t have any roadmap but we’re trying to create a space for feedback," Soto said. "The mayor’s office wants to be responsive and reactive to concerns of clergy and those who feel that they could create more affordable housing.”

Soto has focused on Brooklyn in the past two months he said, looking at the example Kingdom Faith Developers, a coalition of churches who've been working with the borough president's office, to get affordable housing built on church properties for the past two years. 

Kingdom Faith has three projects in the works on church properties, two in Brownsville and one in East Flatbush, said Kingdom Faith chair Pastor Kermit Williams.

And there are more than 40 churches all across the borough have expressed interest. Borough President Eric Adams had previously pitched the plethora of churches and church-owned land in his borough as a good place for the mayor to encourage development of affordable housing, DNAinfo has previously reported.

"What happening is we have a lot of churches who can't maintain [their buildings and] who have a lot of problems, the buildings are older, the memberships are dwindling," said Pastor Gilford Monrose, who works in Adams's office.

Churches make a swap with vetted developers, he said. The developers get to build affordable housing on church land. The borough president's office helps churches navigate the complex, bureaucratic land-use process, Monrose said.

"The church gets a new facility, they get community spaces, and they help the community by putting affordable housing on their site," Monrose said.

For years churches all across the borough have been flipping from congregations to developers and turned into mostly market rate housing, though in some cases, the church managed keep their stake in the property and parlay the construction of subsidized units.

Giving struggling congregations who may be at risk of losing their properties a way to develop housing might return their "sense of agency," Soto said.

Certain clergy members at the Wednesday meeting where he floated the idea for housing development on church property, said they'd been considering what do with underused spaces, and welcomed the idea.

"There [is] so [much] wasted land, so many wasteful facilities," said Pastor Marc Pierre, the head of a congregation in Jamaica, Queens, that owns a building next to their church that is mostly unoccupied.

Turning the underused space into housing would let the church provide for, "the people that really need it," he said. "It would be a great thing."