The church is not the building. It is our faith and our people. – The Washington Post – December 16, 2015
The church members asked themselves, “For whom are our hearts breaking?” They set out to find the answer by quizzing the waitresses, teachers and store clerks who bought from the food truck in the church parking lot or shopped at the nearby farmers market in Arlington’s fast-gentrifying Columbia Pike neighborhood.
Again and again, they heard the same worries from working-class residents, many of them immigrants: “I work here, but I can’t afford to live here anymore.” Eventually, said elder Susan Etherton, she and other members of the Arlington Presbyterian Church‘s vision committee came to believe God was calling them to action.
The century-old congregation decided to sell its building, parking lot and grounds to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, which will tear down the stone structure and replace it with 173 affordable apartments.
It was not an easy or speedy choice. Church membership, which was 150 when the Rev. Sharon Core arrived 17 years ago, has shrunk to about 65. But Core said that wasn’t the main reason the congregation decided to sell. The process started in 2012, she said, when the church began seeking to renew its mission and build better ties to its neighbors along Columbia Pike. It took months of prayer and reflection, and then years of work.
The church members had to be persuaded, and some were not. Church leaders needed approval from the National Capital Presbytery to sell the property, and their first proposal was turned down. They had to find a developer willing to work with them and secure the permits required to turn the expansive site into a multi-family building.
“People have been married here, had their children baptized here and held memorial services for loved ones,” Core said. “We had serious, serious discussions, and it’s not something we did lightly. But we know in our heart of hearts the church is not the building. It is our faith and our people.”
This church is not the first to sell or reduce its worship space to facilitate the building of homes for those in need. About a decade ago, the First Baptist Church of Clarendon decided to build a 10-story affordable apartment house around a new and smaller sanctuary, triggering years of conflicts with neighbors. This fall in Alexandria, St. James United Methodist Church agreed to sell its three-acre site in the Beauregard neighborhood to the nonprofit developer AHC, which plans to create 93 affordable apartments and sell the rest of the property to a market-rate developer. AHC is in talks with another Alexandria church that is considering a similar project.
The churches’ goals are twofold: to ensure their own financial viability while easing a growing crisis for low-earning people in a region where the cost of housing keeps going up. As land becomes more valuable and rents increase, fewer privately owned apartments are affordable to those earning less than half of the area’s median income, which is $107,000 for a family of four.
Two years ago, 3,600 people applied for a chance to rent one of the 122 apartments at the then-new Arlington Mill Residences affordable housing building. Three months ago, the Arlington County Board said that nearly 1 in 5 residences build in the county in the next quarter-century must be affordable for low-to-moderate income households.
Arlington Presbyterian Church members have understood the problem intellectually for years. But it wasn’t until they began speaking to their neighbors that the crisis made an emotional impact. Etherton, one of seven church members who did the outreach, said when the group reported back to the congregation, she could almost see people’s perspectives shift.
“When they heard those stories of heartbreak, there was head-nodding and agreement,” she said. “When you tell personal stories, they have a resonance.”