The Promise of “House of Worship Districts”

14 12 19 Lakemba Prayer Vigil Rabbi Zalman Kastel Sheikh Wesam Charkawi Fr Patrick McInerney

More and more cities are confronted with large, underused, or vacant houses of worship clustered in center cities or neighborhoods.

In cities with low real-estate demand, struggling houses of worship present a problem. No one wants problematic properties dominating their urban landscape.

In cities with high real-estate demand, the properties offer opportunities. When there is a market, developers relish repurposing properties like houses of worship into market-based uses. Municipalities like adding them to the tax rolls. Still, even such “successful” redevelopment projects can be problematic, as they can result in foregone opportunities to provide community facilities, arts centers, or low-income or affordable housing to neighborhoods desperately in need.

Like universities, hospitals, and museums, houses of worship can be anchor institutions, defined by Harvard economist Michael Porter as “large institutions, typically educational, medical or cultural, that are deeply rooted in their local geographies, and play an integral role in the local economy.” The importance to the community of some houses of worship has faded over time. Collectively, however, their presence—and the presence of their real estate—can continue to have an integral role, albeit perhaps in different form than in decades and centuries past.

To achieve the best communities possible, universities, hospitals, and arts institutions in many cities have coalesced in districts to identify areas around anchor institutions as assets, and to form district organizations to guide them to full potential. Some district organizations include: 

  • Medical-campus district organizations, e.g., Houston’s Texas Medical Center, Cleveland Clinic, Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

  • University-area district organizations, e.g., Philadelphia’s University City District, Maryland’s College Park-City University Partnership, Syracuse’s University Hill Corp.

  • Museum and arts district organizations, e.g., Dallas Arts District, Houston Museum District, St. Louis’s Zoo Museum District.

 The work program of each district organization is tailored to the area and evolves, maturing as the area matures, usually according to not only a physical plan but also a strategic plan. Normally the district organization has a broad mandate to improve the area according to the “triple bottom line” of profit (economy), people (equity), and planet (environment).

Houses of worship, in some cities, have formed interfaith coalitions. They can play a valuable role in the life of a city. However, they usually focus on issues of social justice—feeding programs, homeless services, social advocacy—not, as medical, university, or museum district organizations do, on issues of economics and place. Organizing a place-based district ups the ante of an interfaith coalition, and includes neighboring property owners, tenants, and residents in the district organization.

Let’s call these districts “House of Worship (HOW) Districts.”

New Life for Underused Houses of Worship

As church membership in particular declines across America, mobility of worshipers improves, real-estate expenses increase, and the COVID-19 pandemic dampens in-person attendance and contributions (and generates new forms of congregational worship), underused and empty houses of worship are becoming more commonplace.

The usual means of dealing with struggling houses of worship is one at a time and over an extended period. A house of worship enters a downward spiral: attendee numbers dwindle, contributions decline, reserves erode, the building deteriorates, staff cannot be afforded, the house of worship becomes less attractive to attend. Congregations find themselves spending half or more of their budgets on real estate, leaving few resources for much else. It is common to hear congregational trustees say that they are “one new roof (or boiler or steeple repair) away from closing.” By the time a house of worship closes, it often features a deteriorated building, empty coffers, and a small (and demoralized) congregation. It is not unusual that a realtor—sometimes one unfamiliar with religious buildings—is retained, who sells the property to the highest bidder, if at all.

Meanwhile, houses of worship often serve as the locus of critical social services within the community. Food pantries and feeding programs, clothing closets, health clinics, child-care centers, and self-help programs often find affordable space with a faith community, which considers its support a critical part of its mission. A closing church often causes a community to launch an urgent search for new space for these critical human services. Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based not-for-profit organization, has identified a “halo effect,” a subsidy the average congregation provides to human-services programs it houses in its building. The findings: The average subsidy for programs housed in sacred places—including the value of the space itself, the time of volunteers, and in-kind support—was almost $150,000 per congregation per year. This research, bolstered by Cardus’ Halo Project research in Toronto, indicates that “every dollar a congregation spends could create $4.77 worth of services a city does not have to provide.”

In a community area with several houses of worship—some ailing, some healthy—focusing on only one building at a time can produce less than optimal results. A better way is to think of the area as a district, with a common mission, goals, and objective. Certainly, individual properties need to be analyzed, but a better approach, for both the individual houses of worship and the community, is to look at the properties and neighboring properties in context. The whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.

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