Pastors in Bedford-Stuyvesant are grappling with an incoming affordable housing proposal that forces them to consider what affordable housing really means to the church community – who needs it most and how it will affect their membership.
Three neighborhood pastors approve of the housing proposal, which caters to middle class incomes. They say that this plan may ease economic strains and keep some of their congregation from leaving the neighborhood. This view corresponds to the role many Bed-Stuy churches play as advisers on matters of economic security, offering classes on economics and property management and facilitating real estate sales between congregants.
“In my parish, in my boundaries, I see with my own eyes that many middle-class families are struggling with rent or trying to keep their homes,” said Father Alonzo Cox, of Our Lady of Victory Church.
The affordable housing plan in question, proposed by Jobe Development, will offer homeownership to residents with incomes between $68,720 to $111,670 for a household of three. Jobe Development picked these income tiers from based on parameters set by the Housing Preservation Department’s New Infill Homeownership Opportunities Program, a subsidy the developer will use to pay for construction of the housing.
According to 2015 census data, about 67 percent of Bed-Stuy has an income of under $50,000 per year. Another 26 percent has an income of $50,000 to $100,000. Though there are more low- than middle-income residents in the area, Olga Jobe, a representative of the plan’s developer, says she was encouraged to accommodate middle class residents based on a conversation with the Rev. David Kelley at Christ Fellowship Baptist Church.
Jobe said that he told her that many middle-class members of his congregation were moving. Kelley, who says his congregation is at least 40 percent low income, says that both low- and middle-income housing are needed in the area.
“First-time homebuyers who grew up in the community want to stay close to their house of worship. But it’s just not possible for me to help them find a house that’s in their range,” said Bed-Stuy-based real estate agent Charlene Gayle. Father Cox said that over about three years he had “10 to 15 young couples who moved to New Jersey. We also have one couple in Connecticut and another Pennsylvania.”
Christ Fellowship church congregant Delores Gerald said that when young members move to other states, it “weakens the church.” “They need middle- and low-income proposals simultaneously because some are going to qualify for one and some are going to qualify for another. Either way you look at it someone is going to get knocked out,” she said.
Elderly homeowners are another group in danger of leaving because they’re likely to take advantage of the market to sell their brownstones, most often for millions of dollars. “I wouldn’t be a good pastor if I didn’t encourage them,” said Kelley.
Kelley described many low-income congregants, on the other hand, as being “stuck in public housing” that they pass down between family members. In opposition to the mobility of the middle class, they have no option but to stay in the neighborhood–that is–unless they are displaced.
“One single mother in our congregation was displaced because a developer bought the building to demolish it and build a skyrise. Another single mother had her rent raised over what she could afford even though she had been living there for many years. She had to move out of state,” said the Rev. David Watts, of Epiphany Church.
Though Kelley, Watts and Cox all believe that low-income housing is needed to help protect these congregants, they were hesitant to describe it as more urgent than middle-income housing.
“In terms of priority it’s hard to say because when I look at the neighborhood, it’s not just lower class,” said Watts. “We also have middle class congregants, and they need housing too.”