By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
Many Black churches in Seattle are sitting on valuable property, and now, thanks to legislation recently passed by the state, they have a tool to help them convert the land into affordable housing.
According to Donald King, a retired architect, civil rights activist and board member of the Nehemiah Initiative, Black churches in the Central Area of Seattle own approximately $70 million in real estate and it is time for them to use these assets for the betterment of the community by developing affordable housing on these properties.
Based on the book of the bible, Nehemiah, which talks on the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the Nehemiah Initiative is an organization that is focused on helping historically Black churches in the Central District recognize and utilize the collective power they hold as landowning entities to counter the effects of gentrification and losing longtime residents and cultural capital.
“Property is power,” says King. “The Nehemiah Initiative is putting together a plan to develop affordable housing throughout the area based on the properties owned by religious institutions.”
HB 1377, which recently passed in the state legislature, is a plan to increase affordable housing development. Under the legislation, all affordable housing development is to be set aside for and occupied exclusively by low-income family households. This plan will help build up a community that has long been neglected and redlined and will be in effect for at least forty years.
According to King, the land holding of Black churches in Seattle surpasses that of any other Black organizations or businesses as well as any individuals in the area.
“Black churches own more property than any other Black organizations,” says King. “Not only black organizations but more than any other Black business or individual in the area.
The Nehemiah Initiative along with other organizations such as the Church Council of Greater Seattle, Bellwether Housing and the city of Seattle seeks to help members of the community faced with the effects of rising costs and gentrification to combat displacement in Seattle’s rapidly growing Central District.
Bellwether Housing brings its 40 years of experience in housing development to create housing for lower wage workers to have access to safe and affordable housing. HB 1377 has given these entities to what is called “up-zoning” where developers can build taller housing structures, and provide more creative opportunities to build taller complexes that offer more living space.
“We have worked with many faith communities that want to work with organizations like ours to develop affordable housing on their land – which are often located in great neighborhoods where there are few development opportunities left in this City,” says Susan Boyd, Chief Executive Officer of Bellwether Housing. “In a City in which a relatively small portion of our land is actually zoned in a manner that can accommodate a cost-effective affordable housing development, it is common for those Church properties to be “under-zoned” for our purposes. This legislation will be incredibly helpful in allowing those faith communities – with missions so closely aligned with organizations like ours – to become part of our affordable housing solutions.”
The City leaders, including Mayor Jenny Durkan have come on board in support of this endeavor. Durkan believes that addressing the affordability crisis is paramount in creating a just and equitable city and the eagerness of the religious sector to take on the city’s affordable housing and homelessness needs.
“Addressing our housing affordability crisis is paramount to creating a just and equitable City,” says Durkan.
“Seattle’s faith institutions have long demonstrated their eagerness to step up and help address the city’s affordable housing and homelessness needs, and Seattle is creating an opportunity to make a generational impact on housing.”
“Using new authority granted by the state, Seattle will continue to lead the way as one of the first cities in Washington to advance this important affordable housing tool. As we work to implement this bill locally, I’m grateful for the state legislators who worked over a number of years to pass this important bill,” Durkan continues.
Property is power and faith-based organization, developers and legislations are coming together to finally address the need for affordable housing in the Central District of Seattle. These organizations see the importance of fusing their collective resources towards a common end in addressing this need.
E.N. West, the Faith Land Organizer for the Church Council of Greater Seattle, believes that the greater Seattle community will benefit from legislation and the opportunity it creates for churches. “As a representative of the Church Council, we are in solidarity with all projects that are focused on equity and religious land,” says West. “And to this end, we will be continuing our Faith Land Discernment Cohort program and will be doing that in partnership with likeminded and like-spirited programs such the Nehemiah Initiative. We are hoping towards the end of this we can be doing bold and audacious things that serve the community better and create the kind of world that we long to see.”