A local nonprofit is hoping more than just developers and local governments step up to address the Treasure Valley’s affordable housing problem.
On Thursday, LEAP Housing Solutions kicked off a series of virtual panels aimed at encouraging faith communities to help develop low-cost housing. LEAP Founder and Executive Director Bart Cochran led the discussion about the process of housing development with three church leaders in the region in the hopes of leading the way for the over two dozen attendees to take the leap into housing low-income Idahoans themselves.
“We believe that faith communities can just say ‘yes in God’s backyard,” Cochran said, playing off the common term for neighbors objecting to affordable development, ‘NIMBY’. “There’s incredible potential among faith communities to create housing. We invite you to partner with us to create affordable housing.”
A growing need
An informal survey conducted by LEAP found 168 faith communities across the Treasure Valley who have a total of 180 acres of unused or accessed land, larger than the Boise State University campus. He said developing a portion of this land with dedicated affordable housing units could both help make a dent in the growing need for low-cost housing in the valley, and enrich the ministry of the participating faith community as well.
LEAP Housing Solutions is not a religious organization, but Cochran said it is a “faith informed” one.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates Idaho has a deficit of roughly 24,000 affordable housing units statewide. Cochran said this gap is only growing, especially in the Treasure Valley, because even in the best years for affordable housing development, only between 200 and 300 new units come online.
To help, he encouraged interested faith communities to evaluate if they have any land they could develop and what their unique interests are in developing it. During the seminar, he and the other participating panelists shared their projects, tips for entering into a housing-based ministry and how to engage with neighbors to head off conflict.
This isn’t LEAP’s first attempted foray into partnering with a church for housing development.
The nonprofit and Methodist congregation Cathedral of the Rockies held a series of community meetings in 2018 over the possibility of redeveloping the vacant lot near the church, called Block 75, into housing. The proposal deeply divided the North End and the congregation itself.
Some residents argued for the need of affordable housing and the church’s mission to use the vacant land for good, while others were concerned it would disrupt the historic neighborhood and wasn’t the proper fit. There has been little movement on the project since, and the church says it’s still in the planning stages.
“We are continuing in the research & discernment process of understanding the needs within our community as well as the desires of our congregation and our surrounding neighbors,” a statement on the church’s website says. “We are in conversations with partners that can help us explore what a structure that provides affordable housing, parking, green space, and stylistically fits the North End could look like.”
Different churches, different projects
Cathedral of the Rockies and Block 75 didn’t come up in Thursday’s panel. Instead, Cochran hosted three other church leaders from the Treasure Valley to talk about their ongoing projects.
Meggan Manlove, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Nampa, described her church’s experience of taking over ownership of 16 single family, affordable homes on the land next to their church. Manlove said she leaned into Jesus’ parable in the book of Mathew about the sheep and the goats, as well as the writings of Martin Luther when she was working through the congregation’s decision to take on the management of the housing project after Mercy Hospital decided to give up the project.
She said building community with their tenants, who live right near their church, has been inspiring.
“Proximity is really important,” she said. “It would have been very different if we had gotten a piece of land four miles away and they decided to do this with the property. The fact that we see this every time we pull into our parking lot is profound. It’s transformative.”
Reverend Karen Hunter and Deaconess Kat Tigerman from Nampa’s Grace Episcopal Church shared insights from running their nonprofit The House Next Door. The project houses up to four single mothers working on their education in a house next door to the sanctuary. Since it was founded in 2015, The House Next Door has housed 16 mothers and 27 children.
“Impact wise, besides us accompanying these families and observing their transformation, we are also transformed and humbled about what they’ve been through and how strong they are,” Tigerman said.
Joseph Bankard, who works part-time as the pastor of Collister United Methodist Church and as a professor at Northwest Nazarene University, encouraged interest congregations to seek out LEAP as a way to develop their land. Once they decided they wanted to pursue affordable housing, the church worked with the nonprofit who developed a site plan, took the project through the planning and development process, and will do the property management.
The project entails two single family homes on the church’s property.
“It really didn’t feel like a giant risk,” he said. “It felt like a no-brainer. All we’re doing is saying we’re trusting a local nonprofit to build affordable housing and manage it for the next 50 years.”