I applaud City Council’s recent decision to assist in funding the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection’s all-affordable housing project. Yet I worry about the public narrative that might form around this decision. The church’s project itself is laudable. But it’s a symptom of a deeper societal disorder, which we shouldn’t paper over.
All of secular society — the state, the market, civil institutions and associations — is accountable for ensuring the wellbeing of its entire people. Religious institutions’ unique role is not to care for those who fall through the cracks, if that’s understood, explicitly or implicitly, as absolving society-as-a-whole from fixing the cracks. It’s especially not religious institutions’ special role to dispose of their property at sub-market prices, as Resurrection is effectively doing, so that lower-income families can live in this city.
I’m not opposed per se to religious institutions serving in this fashion. I’m awed that Resurrection would do this gracious thing; but they’re shrinking their operation as a result. By contrast, Alfred Street Baptist Church, which is growing, plans to displace affordable housing from its property in order to build a larger facility, for which they’ve taken some flak. But why shouldn’t a church grow? Part of its explicit mission, as with many religions, is to seek to provide spiritual nourishment to more people by bringing them into the fold.
Religious institutions also provide myriad benefits that are comprehensible in non-religious terms. Their ministries include material and financial assistances; programs for youths; daycares and schools; marriage and parenting resources; counseling; space for AA, Scouting, and the like. They’re also a training ground for democracy; serving in voluntary ministries, planning committees, etc., helps people practice working together and reaching compromises. (Political scientists have statistically correlated religious involvement with several forms of community and political engagement.) Religious institutions also often serve as intermediating communities for immigrants; carriers of ethnic heritages; and, as notably in the case of black churches, incubators and conduits of otherwise marginalized political voices.
So when I see Alexandria congregations — Resurrection, St. James, Alfred Street, Fairlington Presbyterian — lining up to do affordable housing, I have mixed feelings. If they feel called to do that, then great. But as a posture, a trend, a model of approaching equitable housing in this city? That’s concerning. It’s not religious institutions’ job to constrain the other spiritual and social goods that they provide in order to make up for society-as-a-whole’s systemic inability — or unwillingness — to effect the common good.
I’m not lambasting council. They did right by Resurrection. But they could and should do more. If affordable housing is truly a high political priority, then they need to find more, and more consistent, money for it. They should earmark funds in the city’s long-term planning framework, as they do for other high priority investments. They can’t depend, as they did with Resurrection in the FY18 budget, on their ability to find the money in the 11th hour.
The author, an Alexandria resident, writes on faith issues for the Gazette Packet.