In Bowling Alone, political scientist Robert Putnam identified a long-term decline in membership of community institutions such as bowling clubs and service organisations. It wasn’t because people weren’t interested in gathering together, just that the established institutions didn’t seem relevant to them any more.
The same process is happening across many places of worship. The impact of COVID-19, rising secularism and demographic change mean many congregations established a century ago have dwindled to the point of closure. Just as shopping malls have superseded local shopping strips, so too have campus-style worship centres replaced many small, centrally located local churches.
As congregations in old churches have dwindled, their maintenance costs have spiralled. A big proportion of a modest and declining income is spent on deferred maintenance, while a valuable asset is locked in illiquid real estate. Faith-based organisations established to support their local community are instead left managing real estate.
People still gather to share their faith, but how they congregate radically differs from when many places of worship were designed and built. So, as people gather in new home churches, why not turn churches into new homes?
Faith-based organisations originally acquired land and buildings to meet a community need. Declining and changing church attendance has created an opportunity for churches to serve the community in new ways. While there is a surplus of religious buildings, there is a chronic deficit of housing – especially for the people least able to afford homes without community support.
Many faith-based groups are responding to the opportunity to turn a house of God into housing for good. For example, a church in Arlington, Virginia, partnered with a community housing provider, the state government and the local council to redevelop a century-old church into 173 fully accessible one, two and three-bedroom homes dedicated to families earning less than 60 per cent of the median income for the local area, as well as a new church, community cafe and culinary school for local students. In south Los Angeles, a 50-year-old Baptist church was recently demolished to build 150 affordable homes and a community grocery; and a Wesleyan church in California redeveloped a one-hectare carpark into 47 affordable homes, before and after school care, dementia support services and parkland.
Closer to home, just across the ditch in New Zealand, it is estimated that Anglican, Methodist and Catholic churches alone collectively own more than $NZ10 billion ($9.2 billion) in land assets – some of which could be better deployed to help address housing need. Here in NSW, preliminary research by Faith Housing Alliance has identified more than 2500 places of worship – many of which might be able to support social and affordable rental housing for communities in need.
But while converting vacant church land into affordable housing is a great idea – it is hard to achieve in practice.
Religious bodies might be land rich but are generally cash poor, without the resources or expertise to engage in housing development. There’s also the reputational risk of faith-based organisations being perceived as rapacious property developers, especially where local residents might oppose the idea of converting an empty church into housing for people who might have complex needs. Heritage constraints may also stymie efforts to redevelop old religious buildings into affordable housing. It is ironic that heritage laws can protect old structures but destroy traditional uses.
Using church land to provide social and affordable rental housing represents a continuity of community support while saving the building, but turning it into a cafe or a private home destroys the real narrative of the site.
Every time I travel through regional Australia and see quaint old churches converted into houses, Airbnbs or cafes, I’m left wondering how the people who originally bought, built and supported these places would feel about it. I suspect it’s not the sort of community growth and transformation they intended. When I see the stain-glassed memorials to parishioners past, I’m unsure their families would have wanted their sacred spaces divested for a purpose entirely unrelated to the mission of the church.
Faith groups have a long history of supporting communities in need. The need right now is housing – particularly for those unable to afford market prices. Providing social and affordable rental housing is a great way our faith-based organisations are honouring their mission of service.
Already 65 per cent of the homes provided under the NSW Social and Affordable Housing Fund – more than 2200 new homes – were provided by the faith housing sector. A modest government investment will enable faith-based organisations to build thousands more units, together with inclusive support services, to turn housing into homes.
Rob Stokes is chair of Faith Housing Alliance. He served as a minister in the NSW government in a political career spanning over 15 years.