Caring for the welfare of people is at the heart of religious institutions of all faiths. Examples both large and small abound throughout the Valley. The quilts on the beds at Interfaith Sanctuary came from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A community garden frequented by refugees thrives on the grounds of Ahavath Beth Israel. The Cathedral of the Rockies feeds people in need through its Friendship Feasts.
For all the tangible and intangible supports religious institutions provide, it’s unusual for them to provide housing. But that’s what’s happening in one Nampa neighborhood.
Twenty years ago, Trinity Lutheran Church forged a partnership with Mercy Housing Inc., a nonprofit provider of affordable housing. Trinity leased land adjacent to the church grounds on the corner of Midland and Lone Star roads to Mercy for $1 a year. The nonprofit built 16 homes for low-income renters on the land. The deal was that after 50 years, ownership of the houses would transfer to Trinity.
Mercy’s decision in 2014 to sell its Nampa housing projects and leave the area opened an opportunity for Trinity to acquire the houses sooner than planned.
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The church membership voted to buy the houses from Mercy with financing from the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. Trinity assumed ownership of the houses, now called Trinity New Hope, at the end of April. The families who had been living in the houses during the transfer will stay in their homes, said Trinity Pastor Meggan Manlove.
IN LINE WITH THE MISSION
The need for affordable housing continues to grow across the state, especially in areas such as Canyon County, where wages don’t keep pace with housing costs, said Julie Williams, executive vice president of the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. The agency wanted to support this somewhat unusual collaboration between a faith community and its neighbors, she said.
Providing housing for low-income renters is in line with the character of Trinity. The church has an active and long history of social outreach through projects with the Salvation Army, hunger walks and community gardens, including a gleaning group that has saved tons of produce from the landfill and given it to local food pantries. The gleaners even published a gardening guide this year.
“I often talk about Trinity’s DNA. We take the mandate to feed and house people to heart,” Manlove said.
But the new purchase means a role for the church that it hasn’t had before: landlord. Fortunately, the congregation includes people with expertise in rentals, affordable housing and finances.
“We’ve learned a lot about a lot of things,” said Manlove, who attended landlord training to learn what she called “a new language.”
“There were obviously no courses in seminary about affordable housing.”
Contracting with an outside company to manage the 16 houses would have jeopardized Trinity’s property tax exemption on the land where the houses sit. The church is keeping the management in-house by hiring two part-time property managers and a maintenance person to handle daily operations.
Idaho Housing and Finance Association is the lender for the project. It’s providing a 30-year mortgage for $742,900 with a 1 percent interest rate. Trinity also received a $10,000 grant from its synod, or regional church council, to help pay for appraisals, inspections and legal fees.
Trinity’s congregation includes 75 active households. Members voted unanimously to approve the purchase of the houses, said board president Tami McHugh, a Nampa real estate broker.
The members weren’t always so unified. In 1994, Trinity’s arrangement with Mercy to build the 16 houses on church land was controversial, Manlove said. Neighbors were concerned about the effect of low-income housing on the area. “There was a NIMBY (not in my back yard) sentiment,” Manlove said. Dramatic hearings took place at City Hall. Some families left the congregation because they were opposed to the project.
When Manlove came to Nampa to interview for her position four years ago, the controversy was still a conversation topic. But renters, along with Mercy Housing, have kept the three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes in good shape. The houses have attracted stable, long-term occupants.
When vacancies do come up in the future, Trinity will advertise them online, said McHugh. Potential residents will have to meet income requirements and undergo credit and background checks.
Monthly rent per house is $645. Cash flow from the rentals will help repay the loan from Idaho Housing. Anything beyond the mortgage payment will go back to the church to support its missions, McHugh said.
“Our congregation was not afraid to stand up and say we’re continuing what we started. We believe we can do this and can make this happen. We’re proud to be able to provide good-quality housing to low-income neighbors,” she said.
FAITH TO STRENGTHEN COMMUNITIES
CATCH Inc., a nonprofit “rehousing” agency with offices in Boise, Meridian and Nampa, enlists faith organizations and others to help homeless families find housing, pay their bills and stay in their homes through case management and employment services.
“I see lots of congregations of faith called to help people find housing. We get a lot of rental assistance and donation support, or churches will make quilts, donate couches, or sponsor a family,” said Executive Director Wyatt Schroeder.
In some cases, he said, landlords agree to rent to homeless families almost as though it’s a personal mission to help people in need, Schroeder said, being willing to overlook applicants’ unpaid back rent or bad credit.
“The landlord must be moved by some kind of faith to help people out, to trust them, to trust us,” Schroeder said.
But he hasn’t seen many churches get into the rental business in the way Trinity Lutheran has chosen to do. Coincidentally, the church Schoeder attends has formed a task force to decide what to do with a parcel of church-owned land and houses adjacent to its own property. Affordable housing is one of the options the task force is discussing.
With so many families across the Treasure Valley struggling to find affordable housing in an area where vacancy rates are around 1 percent, Schroeder isn’t surprised to see Trinity “taking up the charge” to support families in a direct way.
“With more families experiencing homelessness, it will take all kinds of people to find creative solutions,” Schroeder said.