In my faith community, I struggled to reconcile how a majority of the church’s budget was devoted to the mortgage of a sprawling property — with tax exempt status — that was seldom used. One-third of giving in the United States goes to religious institutions. However, 75 percent of those funds are allocated to congregational upkeep, including properties and staff.
Unable to make progress towards better stewardship at my church, I decided to find a way to use church land to better meet community needs.
According to a 2018 study by Wilder research, 10,000 Minnesotans were homeless in 2018, and about a quarter of those homeless were not taking refuge in shelters. After six months of research, I was convinced that affordable housing for our most vulnerable populations is the most valuable thing that a faith community can do with its resources.
Many people who have experienced homelessness feel the system has failed them. The standard approach to homelessness — called Housing First or “providing four walls and a roof ” and professional services — falls short. Homelessness cannot be eliminated with housing and professional help alone.
A Community First approach centers relational and social needs in addition to providing shelter. For people who have been homeless for upwards of ten years, that trajectory may have begun when they were living in homes of extreme abuse. When we can increase someone’s sense of social belonging in a stable environment, they are more likely to feel supported in the long-term.
I co-founded the nonprofit, Settled, with Gabrielle Clowdus. We are proposing a development we call Sacred Settlements, which includes low-cost rooming units in the form of tiny homes that will be built by volunteers and future residents on underutilized land of religious institutions. The homes will be fully furnished.
To keep costs low, they will not include plumbing, but rather a dry toilet and gravity fed sink. Common bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry units will be located a short distance away. Total development costs, including infrastructure, are a fraction of those for traditional affordable housing units.
The housing and development proposed is based on hundreds of hours of listening sessions from those with lived experience being homeless.
Faith communities can uniquely act as developers because of a little known law called the Religious Land Use Act. From our research, we have determined that the largest barrier to building more affordable housing is the Not In My Backyard spirit, which stifles proposed housing projects due to neighborhood opposition. The Act provides cities a defense if, after approving a development, they are sued by a third party resident of the area.
Currently, we are partnering with Faith Lutheran Church in Forest Lake to explore building our first Sacred Settlement on their property. We have a committed team of social workers, social scientists, lawyers, business strategists, designers, counselors, pastors, homemakers, home-builders, and those who have experienced homelessness themselves, collaborating to make this model become a reality.
Faith communities have the power to optimize untapped resources and fill gaps to influence one of the most intractable social issues of our day. Together we can rediscover the community that we need.
Anne Franz (she/her) has over 10 years of international consulting, corporate, and non-profit experience focused on leading change, strategy, and innovation in complex environments and systems.