Faith fuels affordable housing

There is a critical shortage of affordable housing in America, and religious groups have emerged as a pivotal player in the urgent quest to increase the supply.


How bad is the shortage? A Harvard University study from 2012 found that 20.2 million households pay more than half their income on rent or house payments, and that number is quickly growing. Housing is considered affordable when it costs 30 percent or less of a household’s income, but one in four spends more than that. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a person working full time at minimum wage can no longer afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country.

What are congregations and faith-based organizations doing? They are building and renovating housing, lobbying government officials to create or require housing for low-income families, and partnering with government and secular organizations that build housing. They are the largest provider of housing for seniors in the nation, and they frequently target housing for other special-needs populations, such as disabled people.

The affordable housing crisis is blamed on rising land costs, diminished federal housing supports, high occupancy rates for apartments and the fact that there is little money to be made building housing for extremely low-income families – all factors that discourage builders from planning lower-income housing despite the dire need. The faith community can’t solve the shortage of affordable housing, but most observers say congregations and religious organizations are having a significant impact in some areas and that they are poised to play an even larger role.

Why it matters

People of faith regard helping the poor as a moral obligation. If households are spending a third or more of their income on housing, they often don’t have enough for food, health care, education or other needs.

Angles for reporters

  • The National Housing Trust Fund was established as a provision of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, which President George W. Bush signed into law. The passage of National Housing Trust Fund legislation was a major victory for low income housing advocates and the lowest income people in our country with the most serious needs. The NHTF will, once capitalized, provide communities with funds to build, preserve, and rehabilitate rental homes that are affordable for extremely and very low income households.
  • Congregations have been active in affordable housing for decades. What’s new is that the need for affordable housing has increased and congregations are creating new ways to address the need. Megachurches and major religious organizations sometimes build entire neighborhoods. Many, many smaller churches focus on creating housing for special-needs populations, such as seniors or people with disabilities. Many religious organizations create nonprofit corporations in order to do so.
  • Government agencies  and secular affordable housing providers are increasingly partnering with faith groups interested in creating affordable housing. Many for-profit developers partner with religious groups to get access to government funds available for affordable housing.
  • More clergy, congregations and religious organizations are pressing government officials and legislators to create more affordable housing. In Ripon, Calif., affordable housing advocates – including one faith-based group – got the city to adopt a policy that requires one of every 10 units in new subdivisions to be sold to buyers who meet federal requirements for very low, low and moderate income – at prices that can wind up being hundreds of thousands of dollars below market value. The Chicago Housing Authority adopted the Plan for Transformation in 1999, in part because of lobbying by religious organizations. The plan is changing low-income housing into mixed-income developments and scattering low-income residents throughout the city instead of concentrating them in a few areas.
  • Shrinking congregations are partnering with affordable housing providers, such as Enterprise Community Partners, and selling part or all of aging properties that are expensive to maintain. These sales allow the congregations to raise money to revitalize their ministries or downsize their buildings while adding affordable housing to their communities.
  • Housing affects everyone – people of all faiths and people of no faith at all – and Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations and organizations are involved in pressing for creative solutions for meeting the need for affordable housing. Community-organizing groups – some faith-based, and some secular but including people of faith – are active in seeking and urging solutions to the lack of affordable housing.
  • Racial and ethnic minorities have lower rates of homeownership and often spend higher proportions of their income on housing than Anglos. Many congregations are working with government or secular organizations to provide financial workshops, housing counseling and loan assistance to members.
  • Some of the country’s largest congregations do the least on affordable housing, while some of the smallest congregations do the most. It’s not about money or size, says author Jill Suzanne Shook. It’s about the size of the vision and the ability to create relationships in different sectors that are needed to create affordable housing.
  • Stories about affordable housing can be told through the people whose lives are transformed by their new living situation. Families benefit from safer neighborhoods. Sometimes children do better in school because of a more stable living situation. Sometimes people can pay for health care when their rent doesn’t cost as much. Sometimes residents participate in the management or decision-making in their apartment complex for the first time. Sometimes churches are started when a clergy member lives in a complex and invites people to worship.

Definition of affordable housing

According to the U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Development: “The generally accepted definition of affordability is for a household to pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing. Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.”


  • The State of the Nation’s Housing 2012, an annual report by the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies, found that affordability is still the biggest housing challenge in America.
  • Read the executive summary of “Rethinking Local Affordable Housing Strategies: Lessons from 70 Years of Policy and Practice,” a 2003 report from the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute.


Additional articles

National sources

  • Frank S. Alexander

    Frank S. Alexander is a professor and founding director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University in Atlanta. He is co-editor of The Teachings of Modern Orthodox Christianity on Law, Politics & Human Nature (2007). He is an expert on homelessness and housing policy.

    He is director of the affordable housing and community development project at the Center for the Study of the Law and Religion at Emory University in Atlanta. The project provides assistance to local governments and nonprofit community development organizations and has led legislative initiatives in Atlanta, Michigan, Indiana, Arkansas and Louisiana. Alexander is the author of books on land banks and housing trust funds and has studied how U.S. housing policy impacts families.

  • Donald H. Layton

    Donald H. Layton is CEO of Freddie Mac, which was created by Congress in 1970 to work with mortgage lenders to help Americans get lower housing costs and better access to home financing.

  • Dorothy Hopkins

    Dorothy Hopkins is CEO of the Foundation for Community Empowerment, which researches and analyzes strategies to narrow income gaps in Dallas neighborhoods. He can talk about the need for affordable housing, the challenges in creating it and the faith community’s role.

    Contact: 469-221-0700.
  • Paul Wycisk

    Paul Wycisk is Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of the National Urban League, whose goals include economic empowerment of African-Americans through home ownership. It is active in helping people learn about buying a home and obtaining financing.

  • Ched Myers

    Ched Myers is a leader in the Sabbath Economics Collaborative, a group of theologians, educators and activists who work for economic justice. He is also co-founder and program director of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in Oak View, Calif.

  • Nicolas P. Retsinas

    Nicolas P. Retsinas is director emeritis of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He chairs Habitat for Humanity International, serves on the board of the National Housing Endowment and Enterprise Community Partners and is on the board of directors of the National Housing Conference. He co-edited Low-Income Homeownership: Examining the Unexamined Goal and Building Assets, Building Credit: Creating Wealth in Low-Income Communities and co-authored Opportunity and Progress: A Bipartisan Platform for National Housing Policy.

  • Hipolito “Paul” Roldan

    Hipolito “Paul” Roldan is chief executive officer of the Hispanic Housing Development Corp. in Chicago, which says it is one of the largest nonprofit housing developers in the nation. He was the only employee when community leaders formed it in 1975 to improve Latinos’ housing and has since received a MacArthur “Genius” Award.

  • Jill Suzanne Shook

    Jill Suzanne Shook is editor and co-author of Making Housing Happen: Faith-Based Affordable Housing Models, in which chapters describe effective models for housing. She has been asked to speak to secular organizations and seminaries about the “theology of housing,” to explain why people of faith are so motivated on this issue.

  • NeighborWorks America

    NeighborWorks America is a national nonprofit created by Congress. Affordable housing is one of its primary goals, and it provides financial and technical assistance to religious groups that work on affordable housing issues. It has district offices around the country.

Faith-based organizations

  • Wayne Gordon

    The Rev. Wayne Gordon is co-founder and chairman/president of the Christian Community Development Corp., with works to “reclaim and restore” communities by supporting the work of Christian community development corporations, including those that provide affordable housing. He is also a founder of the Lawndale Christian Development Association, which is involved in affordable housing.

  • Jim Knight

    Jim Knight is executive director of Jubilee Housing, a Christian nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing and support services in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. It was founded in 1973 as a ministry of Church of the Savior, which is known nationally as a small church that has made a big impact through its extensive outreach.

  • Bob Lupton

    Bob Lupton is president of FCS Urban Ministries in Atlanta. The community development corporation, with a staff of 60, constructs housing, mainly in four Atlanta neighborhoods.

    Contact: 404-627-4304.
  • Habitat for Humanity

    Habitat for Humanity has a Better Built Program that promotes energy-efficient, environmentally friendly construction and encourages good stewardship of natural resources and raises awareness of the environmental impact of house building.

  • Family Promise

    Family Promise is a national nonprofit that helps low-income families achieve sustainable housing independence. It has 124 volunteer affiliates across the country, with more than 4,500 congregations involved.

    Contact: 908-273-1100.
  • Hyepin Im

    Hyepin Im is founder and president of Korean Churches for Community Development in Los Angeles, which helps churches develop social services, including affordable housing.

  • Jewish Funds for Justice

    Jewish Funds for Justice works for economic justice, including affordable housing. Its national Tzedec program increases home ownership in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods by pooling low- and no-interest loans from Jewish philanthropists and reinvesting them in community development financial institutions. It has organized millions of dollars in real estate projects across the country and has offices in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

  • Tunua Thrash

    Tunua Thrash is executive director of West Angeles Community Development Corporation in Los Angeles. Begun by the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, it is active in creating affordable housing.

Secular organizations

  • National Low Income Housing Coalition

    The National Low Income Housing Coalition wants to end “America’s affordable housing crisis” and is active in pushing the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund Act in Congress.

  • Enterprise Community Partners

    Enterprise Community Partners helps build affordable housing for low-income Americans by providing financing and expertise to community and housing developers. It has begun a new push to partner with congregations. It has offered workshops to teach clergy about tax credits and other issues and also bought property from churches in order to build affordable housing.

  • OpenDoor Housing Fund

    Jerry Konohia is CEO of the OpenDoor Housing Fund, which provides financing for affordable housing to nonprofit and for-profit developers and tenant associations in the Washington, D.C., area. It was created in July 2007 through the merger of the Washington Area Housing Trust Fund and the Unitarian Universalist Affordable Housing Corp. It has a subfund for faith-based developers.

  • Local Initiatives Support Corp.

    The Local Initiatives Support Corp. helps resident-led, community-based development organizations turn distressed neighborhoods into healthy ones and works to increase the amount of affordable housing. Its home page links to 30 offices across the country.



  • William C. Apgar

    William C. Apgar is a senior scholar at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is a former assistant secretary of housing at HUD. Affordable housing is one of his main areas of interest. He is a founding member of the board of Preservation of Affordable Housing Inc., a nonprofit organization that acquires and rehabilitates housing aimed at low- and moderate-income households.

  • Jerome P. Baggett

    Jerome P. Baggett is professor of religion and society for the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley at the Graduate Theological Union. He wrote the book Habitat for Humanity: Building Private Homes, Building Public Religion (2000) and Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith (2009). He is currently conducting a research project on American atheists. He teaches courses on New Atheists, religion and politics and spirituality.

  • Xavier de Souza Briggs

    Xavier de Souza Briggs is an associate professor of sociology and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a research fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is editor of The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America.

  • Ram A. Cnaan

    Ram A. Cnaan is a leading expert on faith-based social services and the chair of the doctoral program in social welfare at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He wrote the article “Defining Who Is a Volunteer: Conceptual and Empirical Considerations” for the journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (1996). He is also director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research and co-author of The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare.

  • Dennis Culhane

    Dennis Culhane is a professor of social welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies homelessness and housing policy.

  • Bruce Katz

    Bruce Katz is vice president and director of Metropolitan Policy and holds the Adeline M. and Alfred I. Johnson Chair in Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He is also a former chief of staff of HUD.

  • D. Bradford Hunt

    D. Bradford Hunt is vice President for research and academic programs at The Newberry Library. He wrote a book called Planning a Social Disaster: The Unraveling of Public Housing in Chicago.

  • Ronald Lawson

    Ronald Lawson, a sociologist, teaches in the urban studies department of Queens College at the City University of New York. His research focuses on urban religious movements. Previous research included landlord-tenant politics.

  • Margery Austin Turner

    Margery Austin Turner is a scholar who specializes in housing, community development and racial issues at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. The Urban Institute posts a page with resources from its focus on “Housing America’s Low-Income Families.”

  • David J. Wright

    David J. Wright is director of urban and metropolitan studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York and project director and associate director of the Roundtable on Religion & Social Welfare Policy. He is the author of It Takes a Neighborhood: Strategies to Prevent Urban Decline and The Flip Side of the Underclass: Unexpected Images of Social Capital in Majority-African American Neighborhoods. His research focuses on community organizations in neighborhood development.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • National Fellowship of Housing Ministries

    The National Fellowship of Housing Ministries calls itself a national ministry that helps faith communities find creative ways to create affordable housing for families.

  • Floyd Flake

    The Rev. Floyd Flake is a former Democratic congressman from New York and pastor of the 15,000-member Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York in Jamaica, Queens. In the summer of 2007 the church completed the Greater Allen Cathedral Affordable Housing Residence, which has 54 apartments for low-income tenants.

    Contact: 718-206-4600.
  • Faith in New York

    Faith in New York, which is affiliated with PICO, is involved in affordable housing.

  • Derek E. Broomes

    Derek E. Broomes is president and chief executive officer of Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, which has developed more than 2,000 units of affordable housing. It is a diverse, interfaith coalition of more than 90 congregations.

    Contact: 212-281-4887.
  • ARISE (A Regional Initiative Supporting Empowerment)

    ARISE includes 12,000 members of congregations and community groups around Albany, N.Y. Affordable housing is one of its goals, and it is promoting a regional housing plan.

  • Reformed Church of Highland Park Affordable Housing Corp.

    The Reformed Church of Highland Park Affordable Housing Corp., in East Brunswick, N.J., was created to build six apartments for girls to live in after they are too old to be in the foster-care system. The church created the entity after deciding it needed to help provide affordable housing.

  • Washington Interfaith Network

    The Washington Interfaith Network is a coalition of 45 congregations that works on increasing the amount of affordable housing, both by building it and by lobbying city officials to create it. WIN is affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation.

  • John M. Wagner

    John M. Wagner is director of the Office for Community Development of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which works to provide affordable housing in the area.

In the South

In the Midwest

  • Bethel New Life

    Bethel New Life, a faith-based community development corporation on the West Side of Chicago. It has built 1,100 units of affordable housing in its neighborhood, including single-family homes and a five-acre campus with a 125-unit apartment building.

  • United Power for Action and Justice

    United Power for Action and Justice in Chicago is a coalition of people from religious, civic, health and labor organizations. Through Ezra Community Homes, it has built 1,000 affordable homes on the city’s West Side.

  • Religious Action for Affordable Housing

    Religious Action for Affordable Housing in Ann Arbor, Mich., works to increase the amount of affordable housing in a variety of ways. It has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Avalon Housing project.

  • Jonathan Bradford

    Jonathan Bradford is executive director of Inner City Christian Federation, a nonprofit corporation that develops, builds, rehabilitates and repairs affordable housing in Grand Rapids, Mich.

  • Debby Reisinger

    Debby Reisinger is interim executive director of MICAH (Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing), through which 150 Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations organize to advocate for affordable housing. It’s based in Minneapolis.

  • East Side Heart & Home

    East Side Heart & Home works to develop affordable housing for low-income families. It’s a project of the Family Center of East St. Louis, St. Vincent DePaul Church in St. Louis, the Catholic Urban Program of East St. Louis and the East St. Louis Development Corp.

  • Leslie Strnisha

    Leslie Strnisha is director of program and evaluation at the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland in Ohio, where she works on the foundation’s affordable housing initiatives. They include two projects where affordable housing is linked with comprehensive services.

In the West

  • EAH

    EAH develops, manages and promotes affordable housing in California and Hawaii. Originally named the Ecumenical Association for Housing, it has developed, acquired or renovated more than 5,000 units of affordable housing since its founding in 1968. It has won dozens of awards and has a staff of 350.

  • Shalom Ecumenical Center-Affordable Housing

    Shalom Ecumenical Center-Affordable Housing builds affordable housing for the elderly and disabled in Kennewick, Wash. SEC is a project of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Richland Lutheran Church and Lord of Life Lutheran Church, all in Richland, Wash.

  • Congregations Organizing for Renewal

    Congregations Organizing for Renewal works to create affordable housing in Hayward, Calif., where 80 percent of families can’t afford the median-priced home. COR represents 13 congregations.

  • Orange County Congregation Community Organization

    Orange County Congregation Community Organization lobbied the city of Anaheim to include affordable housing in a large new housing development.

  • CATCH (Charitable Assistance to Community’s Homeless)

    CATCH is a partnership among the city of Boise, Idaho; 12 local congregations; and the business community to provide long-term housing and supportive services to the area’s homeless population. Each participating congregation sponsors a homeless family’s housing for six months or a year; CATCH also is developing a 10-year plan to address homelessness.

Related source guides