Monday, April 19

Church-based transit oriented development deemed legal

An Arlington, Virginia church, First Baptist Church of Clarendon, may have just paved the way for religious organizations to become more active players in affordable transit-oriented development. Last week, a U.S. District Court judge threw out a First Amendment lawsuit against the church's subsidized housing development, which claimed that their partnership with the county violated separation of church and state. This was only the latest in a series of attacks lodged against the development by affluent nearby residents, who claim the eight floors of apartments above the remodeled sanctuary ruin the character of their neighborhood. The proposed 116-unit addition (70 subsidized units) happens to sit one block from the Clarendon metro station.

My intention here is not to get into the legal details of the case, but just to point to the clear green light the church was given. The basic allegation was that Arlington County's support for the project was a veiled attempted to prop up a struggling church with public money. Barry Lynn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called it "secular salvation." The judge, however, disagreed. He determined that providing highly accessible affordable housing is, in fact, a public purpose and there is nothing unconstitutional about the government partnering with a religious organization to meet these goals. It is relevant that all funds for the sanctuary remodel and preservation of the steeple did come from the church itself.

The NIMBY vs. TOD story is all too familiar, but the involvement of a religious organization in the process adds an interesting twist. If this development does come to fruition, and it is expected to by 2011, it will represent a win-win-win situation for housing advocates, the county government, environmentalists, and the church itself. The church gets to leverage it's valuable property assets to reinvigorate itself, while contributing toward it's mission for social justice at the same time. A number of families get a decent home right in the thick of everything they'll need. The rest of the community gets more density near transit and all of the attendant social and environmental benefits.

Church's have a long history of incorporating subsidized housing on site, going back to the ubiquitous parish house that was built to allow staff to live right on premises. The cooperative strategy modeled in Clarendon can be a wonderful opportunity to renew this tradition, especially for older congregations who occupy important urban sites but currently don't have the parishioners to fully utilize them. Adapting church preservation with new construction can breath new life into the building and mix uses that are quite compatible. I'm looking for this kind of partnership to spread to communities around the country.


Neil S Williamson said...

Could the project survive without the government subsidy?

If not, then Arlington County's real estate taxes (and if federal dollars are involved) all taxpayers are funding the project.

I tend to agree with the Judge that affordable housing (especially located near critical public transportation and jobs) is a public purpose but I question if the goal would not be even more laudable, and likely have more control, if it was funded entirely by the church.

My guess is that if left to the church without government subsidy, the rent on these units would be outside the bounds of affordability.

I do believe the church's involvement will help keep these units affordable. In addition, the church's proximity may, in time, help move some renters up the ladder of homeownership.

Some of the opposition to this project is larger than simple NIMBYism, there is a question of whether Government should be in the housing subsidy business.

That question is for the voters not the courts.

Daniel Nairn said...

Fair enough, Neil. I agree that there are two separate questions going on here: the constitutionality of the church-based arrangement and the use of county funds for affordable housing in general. It's certainly possible to agree with one and not the other.

LH said...

Delicious! I will have to keep my eye out for this one.