One of the best uses of empty church buildings: homes for new religious congregations

A recent piece by Jonathan Merritt suggested there are many empty American churches and communities struggle to know what to do with them:

Many of our nation’s churches can no longer afford to maintain their structures—6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year in America—and that number will likely grow. Though more than 70 percent of our citizens still claim to be Christian, congregational participation is less central to many Americans’ faith than it once was. Most denominations are declining as a share of the overall population, and donations to congregations have been falling for decades. Meanwhile, religiously unaffiliated Americans, nicknamed the “nones,” are growing as a share of the U.S. population…

Converting old churches into residential spaces, like St. Augustine’s and St. Vincent De Paul, is becoming more popular. Churches’ architectural flourishes—open floor plans, exposed brick, vaulted ceilings, and arched windows—often draw buyers of means who are looking for a residential alternative to ubiquitous cookie-cutter developments.

While this type of sacred-to-secular conversion may be a tough pill for former members to swallow, many are even less satisfied with the alternatives. A large number of abandoned churches have become wineries or breweries or bars. Others have been converted into hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and Airbnbs. A few have been transformed into entertainment venues, such as an indoor playground for children, a laser-tag arena, or a skate park.

Based on research I have been working on in recent years, I’ll offer a suggestion of what could be done with these buildings that is not covered in the article: repurpose these buildings for other religious groups. I have found a variety of religious congregations that are willing to buy and/or use older religious buildings constructed by others: megachurches that are opening satellite campuses, new congregations that would not have the resources to buy land and construct a whole new building, and minority religious groups or immigrant groups who are new to areas. The biggest stumbling block might be not just the price of the building but also the possible price of renovations. At the same time, a church in decent condition could look very attractive to religious groups with limited budgets or who want a building that already fits in with the surrounding neighborhood. Numerous churches and synagogues in the Chicago area have been reused by different religious groups, particularly as certain groups left urban neighborhoods in white flight or congregations dissipated due to declining attendance.

Are there any religious organizations that try to match buildings with possible congregations? The article discusses a group that works with churches to use less of the building and use of the rest of it for community space. But, how about a directory where a new or growing congregation could go to in order to find a congregation that is trying to leave their building?

Below the surface, one of the issues present in this article is the matter of zoning. It is not necessarily easy to initially get approval to build a religious building in certain locations but it can be even harder to take what was once a religious building and convert it to another use once the neighboring residents get used to the religious building over decades. Residents like the predictability of their surroundings, even if they do not necessarily like the religious building in the first place.

The joint spread of McMansions and apartments in Charlotte

Rarely are the evils of McMansions and apartment complexes joined together but one observer in Charlotte suggests this is exactly the case:

As a 20-year resident of Charlotte, I’ve long observed that shoehorning apartment complexes and oversized homes in and around uptown does not prevent sprawl. Apartment complexes and McMansions are popping up like mushrooms in our historic uptown neighborhoods, yet sprawl has accelerated.

I strongly suspect we’re being sold a bill of goods by elected officials who are firmly under the thumbs of developers. Developers need us to believe they’re doing something for the greater good so we’ll allow them to destroy the character and design of our historic neighborhoods.

At first glance, these are two very different kinds of development. Apartments bring density and certain kinds of residents (whether lower-status residents in the eyes of neighbors or wealthy renters who are gentrifying places). They may include tall buildings or a lot of buildings. In contrast, McMansions are large ostentatious homes that may be teardowns (replacing smaller, older homes). They may not loom over surrounding area like apartments and generally McMansion residents are well off but the change in housing unit may be just as stark.

What appears to be the common thread of concern from this one resident is that both kinds of development are different than what is currently there. If I had to guess, these “historic uptown neighborhoods” are filled with well-kept, single-family homes with decent sized lots built decades ago. Both the McMansions and apartments, in their own ways, present very different kinds of structures. The same concerns might be leveled against an ultra-modernist home or a block of row houses: they are not like what is already in the neighborhood.

Often, McMansions or apartments are restricted to areas of similar structures. This is typically the purpose of zoning: keeping single-family homes away from land uses that residents fear might disturb the neighborhood’s character, and, ultimately, their property values. When developers or local officials start mixing uses, particularly in established areas, this may not go well at the beginning.

When a car repair shop is not high-status enough in Naperville

Naperville has “high hopes” for the Naperville Crossings commercial and entertainment development on the southwest side of the large suburb. These plans do not include a “high-end” auto repair shop:

But nearby homeowners associations weren’t in favor of it, and city council members didn’t go for it, either. By a 6-3 tally, they voted down the shop’s request for a conditional use, saying the business isn’t what they envisioned for the area and they’re willing to wait for something that is…

Jonathan Wakefield, development director for Houston-based Christian Brothers, said the shop would play well with its neighbors because people need somewhere to go or something to do while waiting on car repairs. The shop would have run shuttles to work, school or Metra stations, but he predicted some customers would stay and shop or grab a bite to eat.

Council member Kevin Coyne still was hesitant, saying a car repair business doesn’t blend well next to a day care, a fire station and a frozen custard shop.

“What of any cachet will want to move in next door to an awkward mix of business uses,” Coyne said.

Mike Reilly, president of the nearby White Eagle homeowners association, predicted “the start of a downward trend for Naperville Crossings” if council members were to abandon the original goal and allow the repair shop.

This is a common issue in many suburbs: a retail development has long-standing vacancies. See earlier posts involving grocery stores (here and here) and shopping malls (here and here). But, how many of these suburbs turn down possible occupants in order to wait for better ones? I would guess Naperville is in a minority of suburbs that can afford to do this.

Additionally, I would be interested to dig more into what is so bad about a higher-end car repair place. More noise? Most of the activity would take place during business hours. A lower-class clientele? Maybe; everyone needs a car in Naperville and there are plenty of wealthy residents nearby who need their cars serviced? The lower status activity of car repair? Perhaps this is similar to homeowner’s associations restricting car repairs in driveways and limiting the parking of RVs and work trucks and vans. This seems like an issue of social class and Naperville as a wealthier suburb with a certain reputation will wait for a more appealing use.

How communities limit the construction of manufactured housing

Manufactured homes might be a viable solution to affordable housing but it is not easy to place such homes:

While courts today are unlikely to uphold outright exclusions, barriers for manufactured housing come in other forms. Some towns require manufactured homes be in a manufactured housing community. Others restrict them from residential zones.

Unequal treatment—including aesthetic rules, like a pitched-roof requirement, that exclude mobile homes by default—is common. Conditional use laws require pre-approval before a manufactured home can go up, and often approval is denied. Advocates for manufactured housing lobby for by-right use, which would allow someone to put up a manufactured home without pre-approval.

But zoning issues are a matter of state and local policy, not federal policy, so HUD has little power to influence restrictions on manufactured housing. Still, Mandelker believes HUD could play a role in destigmatizing manufactured housing.

“If they start working on a model state [zoning] law and start funding pilot projects, that would bring some attention,” he said. “I think that would be very helpful.”

Two features of manufactured homes are likely to scare off numerous communities from providing space for many units: (1) the property values of the units compared to stand alone single-family homes (since higher housing values are perceived to be signal a better quality of life) and (2) negative perceptions of residents who live in such homes (viewed as lower-class residents). So what could prompt more local governments to allow manufactured homes?

There are various ways that incentives or sanctions could be used. As an incentive, perhaps there could be some extra Federal money given to communities that provide space for such homes? Or, perhaps those constructing new developments could receive extra opportunities if they set aside land for manufactured homes or paid into a fund for purchasing land for manufactured homes. Sanctions would likely provoke resentment but they could also push multiple communities into helpful conversations.

Ultimately, providing the necessary affordable housing needed in the United States will likely require multiple approaches. Manufactured housing could be part of the solution but it will be difficult to destigmatize it.

Three major challenges facing tiny homes and their owners

Given that tiny houses have not exactly taken off, here are three possible reasons why:

The concept is appealing, but in truth, people have found it challenging to locate places where they can permanently park their home on wheels. It has become an issue in many communities, as homeowners worry that the character of the mobile homes will diminish their property value. Locating the perfect site can be easier in rural areas.

Another dose of reality has come in the form of human behavior. It turns out that for some of the people appearing on the various HGTV programs devoted to tiny-house living, the strain of living in such tiny quarters has surfaced. As we see with follow-ups, some couples cannot manage to live in 300 square feet together, and one moves out.

Additionally, when compared with the lifestyle of an urban micro-unit, rural or suburban settings are more restrictive. In the city, for example, people can get to a pub, cafe or coffee house in minutes simply by walking out the building’s front entrance and down the block.

These are three important challenges. The first and third discussed above seem related to me: it may take a significant amount of time before communities develop zoning and planning that allows for tiny houses. Current residents might view them as threats not only because are they mobile but also because the homes are also significantly cheaper than many other kinds of housing units. In the best case for tiny homes, communities would allow them to fill in spaces between existing buildings and units. This would increase density and possibly provide more tax revenue. In the worst case, tiny houses will be excluded from many desirable locations, contributing to the third issue above where the advantages of a tiny home and budget may be combined with needing to drive everywhere.

As for the second issue above, Americans like their (1) personal space and (2) space for lots of stuff. Tiny houses do not have much square footage for either. In a perfect world, the tiny house might be located in a vibrant urban or suburban area where the owner(s) could spend a lot of time outside the unit (taking advantage of third and public spaces like coffee shops, parks, and libraries). Without those nearby amenities, a tiny house might simply not offer enough separation from others. Additionally, a tiny house likely requires an owner to do without many things. This could be overcome through a variety of methods – living near family and friends with whom one could share, storage units, or a barter or sharing economy – but this requires more work and resources.

All of these problems might be solved eventually but it will take time.

Ongoing fights over zoning for religious buildings

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed in 2000 and still there are numerous local battles between local governments and religious groups who want to use or build a structure for religious purposes:

By the time they take on a zoning challenge, many religious groups are already struggling to find and retain members, and to get by on shoestring budgets. Without an adequate place to gather, they miss opportunities to assemble in study, service, and prayer. The stakes are high for towns, too. Churches, synagogues, and mosques influence life well outside their walls: People who belong to religious institutions are more civically engaged than their secular neighbors. They are more likely to serve on school boards, volunteer at charities, and join clubs. In the absence of these institutions, communities can become fractured and isolated. Neighborly infrastructure decays…

Many of the groups that wind up at the center of RLUIPA cases have it worse than North Jersey Vineyard. Cases can stretch on for decades, and the majority of religious organizations end up losing: According to Dalton, who wrote a book on RLUIPA, roughly 80 percent of RLUIPA claims filed in federal court fail. “This is a very hard statute to follow,” he said. “For the inexperienced, it is easy to lose.” An untold number of religious groups never make it to court at all, either because congregations don’t realize they have special protections under the law, don’t know how to file a claim, or don’t have the resources to pursue a case. Many simply walk away from purchasing a property when they discover that it is not zoned for religious use.

North Jersey Vineyard was also spared the ugly bigotry underlying many zoning disputes. Other than a few awkward comments confusing Catholic and Protestant styles of worship, officials in South Hackensack didn’t seem to oppose North Jersey Vineyard’s purchase based on the congregants’ faith. Often, though, zoning books are wielded by intolerant or ignorant officials; about half of RLUIPA disputes involve religious or ethnic minorities, according to Dalton. As a participant in a Department of Justice listening session recently told government officials, “People don’t come into hearings now and say, ‘I hate Muslims.’ They say, ‘The traffic is going to be terrible on [Fridays,]’” when Muslims gather for Jumah prayer…
This is where the practicalities of land-use law shade into something more philosophical: Where is the line between preserving a community’s character and preventing its evolution? While it’s easy to sympathize with a church that can’t find a space in which to pray, it’s also easy to imagine aggrieved residents sitting in Sunday-morning traffic or searching in vain for parking near their house.

My own take on this is similar: it is not as simple as saying that most communities dislike certain religious groups (though some requests certainly gain more attention – I’ve seen more cases in the last ten years or so involving Muslims and orthodox Jews) as many times the concerns raised by local residents and governments are similar to those raised for any development project. The difference is here that religious groups have certain legal options open to them that are not available to non-religious development projects.

Ongoing zoning controversies with mosques in New Jersey

Two recent zoning cases involving proposed mosques in New Jersey have garnered attention. A quick overview of each.

First, a newly filed federal lawsuit in Bayonne, New Jersey:

The mosque is proposed for an old warehouse at the end of a dead-end street on the city’s east side. The structure, built as a factory, previously housed a chapter of the Hired Guns Motorcycle Club, “made up of sworn law enforcement officers,” according to its website

To build the mosque into the existing space, Bayonne Muslims — the nonprofit organization that owns the space — went to the city in August 2015 to request zoning exemptions. It asked for requirements that a buffer between the existing building and adjacent properties be waived, and that it be able to provide less parking than required.
Ultimately, after three tumultuous public hearings, the proposal failed to gain approval at a March 6 meeting. The vote was 4-3 in favor of the project, but a supermajority — greater than the four votes in favor — was required under state law…
During the public hearings, some opponents expressed concern over the traffic and noise a mosque might bring to their dead-end street. Others cited verses from the Koran they asserted supported violence against non-Muslims.

A New Jersey town will pay an Islamic group $3.25 million to settle a lawsuit over its denial of a permit to build a mosque, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday…

The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge sued Bernards Township, an upscale town in central New Jersey, last year, claiming it changed its zoning ordinances in order to deny the group’s plans. The Justice Department also sued the town last year, alleging it treated the group differently than other religious groups…

Central among those was parking: Township planners had concluded that because Friday afternoon was considered peak worship time, congregants would most likely be arriving straight from work and would each need a parking space.

But a federal judge disagreed, and wrote in a ruling Dec. 31 that the town hadn’t conducted similar assessments of worship habits when churches or synagogues had made applications.

The Justice Department lawsuit also alleged the town changed its zoning laws to require houses of worship in residential districts to be at least 6 acres — larger than the lot the Islamic Society had purchased in 2011.

There are multiple issues at play in these cases:
1. Do municipalities apply the same standards to all religious groups? If not, why do particular groups receive more attention? (The two cases above involve Muslim groups. Do orthodox Jewish groups also receive a lot of attention?)
2. Is it legitimate to deny religious land uses for issues like traffic and parking (common complaints in suburban settings regarding many proposed land use changes)? In other words, are these typical NIMBY complaints or is there something unique about religious buildings?
3. Why are a number of these cases popping up in New Jersey? The state has a long history with exclusionary zoning issues – see the Mt. Laurel doctrine which developed out of a lawsuit. Additionally, it is home to a number of white suburbanites living in suburbs that they would like to preserve or protect.
4. Is the only path to resolution a federal lawsuit? Once such cases reach the level of a federal lawsuit, I would argue the communities have already lost. This is not just because RLUIPA cases tend to be settled in favor of the religious groups. I also imagine such lawsuits can bring negative attention to a community; do they really want to be known as the suburb that refused a certain group to worship there?
(These are not issues isolated to New Jersey. Perhaps there are similar conditions in the Chicago area suburbs. See earlier posts about mosque controversies in the Chicago region including here, here, and here.)