LISC’s New York Land Opportunity Program is helping churches and other mission-driven groups build capacity and scale the steep learning curve that leads to developing affordable housing on their land. Three years in, the effort is making promising inroads into the city’s affordable housing crisis, and inspiring similar initiatives in communities across the country.
St. John’s Global Ministries of the Kingdom, a 95-year-old Baptist church in Jamaica, Queens, ministers to 50 souls in an unassuming white rectangle of a building that has seen better days. More than a decade ago, St. John’s pastor, Apostle Lawrence Dorsey, and his mother Minnie Dorsey, began to imagine what it would be like if they could build a new, sturdier building for their congregation, and offer the community good, affordable housing and a daycare on the three small, adjoined plots the church owned. “God began to transform our vision,” says Dorsey. “We began to think about housing. We didn’t know anything in the beginning, but by trial and error, we learned a little. We heard about tax credits. Then, somehow, we found out about LISC and we started to learn a whole lot more.”
In fact, the Dorseys found LISC's New York City office through its New York Land Opportunity Program (NYLOP), an initiative that helps property-owning churches and other mission-driven groups develop the expertise and partnerships they need to build affordable housing on their underutilized land. Through NYLOP, St. John’s is taking concrete steps toward creating a new church building, an affordable housing complex with 87 apartments and a daycare on its land.
Since the program’s inception in 2016, dozens of groups have been trained to work with developers through a model that has potential to yield thousands of new affordable housing units. The beauty of the strategy is that it creates desperately needed below-market housing and helps long-standing institutions remain in their neighborhoods and continue serving their communities. It also puts those organizations in the driver’s seat: rather than being forced to sell to developers, churches and other groups, with LISC's help, they are able to partner with developers willing to realize their vision.
Building on the early success of the pilot cohort, NYLOP is expanding, in both depth and scope. LISC NYC has begun working with the nonprofit owners of HUD 202 buildings—housing for very low-income seniors—to help them preserve existing units and build new ones on the property they own. (HUD recently made it possible for those owners to apply for new sources of financing to address deferred maintenance through the Rental Assistance Demonstration or RAD program). LISC NYC is also exploring similar work with veterans service organizations like American Legions and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFWs), which own their own buildings and serve a population grappling with trauma and housing insecurity—but which receive no government funding.
At the same time, NYLOP-like initiatives are now up and running in other LISC markets, including the Bay Area, San Antonio and Buffalo, NY. In the Bay Area, LISC has launched the Alameda County Housing Development Capacity Building Program, with a first cohort of 10 churches in Berkeley and Oakland, several of which are already drawing up development plans. In San Antonio, LISC has partnered with the city to form the Mission-Oriented Development Pilot, a $300,000 initial test which will support up to 10 churches to begin the affordable housing journey. (Read a story in Curbed about the Bay Area and San Antonio initiatives.)
NYLOP, a partnership with New York City, first launched just over three years ago with a series of informational workshops for mission-driven groups who were interested in developing housing on their land. LISC NYC then chose five organizations, all churches, to receive intensive technical assistance—a crash course in what it takes to get from the seed of an idea to building affordable homes in one of the world’s most expensive and competitive real estate markets. Three of these groups, including St. John’s and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, a congregation of 1,000 in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx, have since partnered with developers. Taken together, these first projects are poised to create more than 300 units of affordable housing. This past fall, JPMorgan Chase injected $500,000 into the program to help additional mission-driven organizations, including HUD 202 owners.
“NYLOP was conceived to address the steep decline in available land for affordable housing at a time when New York City is in the throes of a housing crisis,” said Eva Neubauer Alligood, interim executive director of LISC NYC. “It also addressing the fact that the city’s limited affordable housing stock is at risk of converting to market. We needed a strategy for helping mission-driven organizations to preserve the housing they may already have.”
As important as tackling the affordable housing shortage, shoring up the stability of faith, veterans' and other nonprofit groups in their communities is equally critical, in part because of the indispensable social role they play. As local food assistance programs have shut down, the pressure on St. Luke’s soup kitchen and pantry has increased, explains Dr. Christine Greenidge, a church warden who is overseeing the development project. “Currently, we feed 175 people a day, 3,500 a month,” she says. “You have to study the needs of the neighborhood. As a nurse, I saw the need for better healthcare access.” So in addition to the church and chapel and 135 units of affordable and supportive housing, St. Luke’s project will include a health clinic and more room for their food programs in addition to other community spaces.
At a recent meeting to introduce veterans service organizations to the NYLOP program, veteran leaders in the audience described the many services they provide piecemeal, because they don’t have the facilities or funding to formalize them. “It’s heartbreaking to turn away a vet who needs a bed, it’s not right,” said the director of a VSO in Queens. “I’ve had vets sleeping in my home ‘til they could get on their feet.” The possibility of being able to offer affordable housing to formerly homeless vets was what brought many to the meeting.
It’s hard to understate the learning curve that faces church, veterans’ group and other nonprofit leaders who decide to step into the byzantine world of affordable housing development. “These are groups with limited expertise in real estate,” says Grace Chung, who manages NYLOP for LISC NYC (she is pictured above with leaders of St. John's in Jamaica, Queens). “Our job is to help them learn how to talk to an architect, how to understand financing, how to find the right lawyer. All of those players need to be talking to each other, too. That’s the intermediary role we play.”
LISC assists groups in understanding the development potential of their land, financing options, and ultimately, writing requests for proposals. LISC also provides groups with the option to apply for a grant to negotiate an agreement with their chosen developer partner. At that point, LISC’s role as technical assistance provider ends and the group move forwards with their new developer partner.
For the Dorseys, part of that learning curve has meant boning up on New York City’s arcane zoning laws. St. John’s property is located in an area zoned for low-density, detached houses, but the taller, multi-family building they plan would require a change in zoning of the lot. With the help of a trusted law firm, they are filing the papers, meeting with the community board and pursuing the various steps required to get the city’s approval for the zoning change.
As St. Luke’s Dr. Greenidge puts it, “This experience has taught us so much. You have to build a team that is highly motivated and can articulate your plans and get people excited. You have to learn to meet timelines, how to communicate with the developer’s team, to keep accurate meeting minutes and keep the community informed. There’s no end to what you need to know.”
For Apostle Dorsey, connecting with NYLOP was nothing short of divine intervention. “Originally, we tried to go the bank way. You see, banks will give people and businesses millions of dollars, but they won’t lend to a church—because nobody wants to foreclose on a church if they don’t make it!” he jokes. “But God held us back so we could go with LISC and truly serve our community.”