It doesn't take long working in low-income contexts to realize that housing is a major piece of the poverty puzzle. If you are reading this post, you are one of those people! We have a veteran practitioner, Jim Wehner, former Executive Director of Charis Community Housing, on Charity Detox today to share some hard-won wisdom on how to begin housing ministry in healthy and effective ways.
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Over the past 35 years, FCS Urban Ministries has completed well over 300 houses for families in our partner neighborhoods. In fact, we have done so much of this that we developed a partner non-profit to focus specifically on housing. Charis Community Housing has a staff and board focused on providing housing through four separate programs and will complete more than 12 single-family houses in 2015. So we get the questions often, "Our church (or organization) is thinking about doing some housing, how should we begin?" Here are a few pieces of advice on how to do this responsibly.
START BY PUTTING THE RIGHT TEAM TOGETHER
The people that are experts at transforming Real Estate are those that do it every day as part of their work. Gather a vision team, advisory board or group of friends that is made up of Real Estate agents, contractors, residential/commercial developers, Real Estate attorneys and property managers. Share your vision and this group of people will help you develop a business model that will keep you from developing a toxic housing ministry.
NEXT, ANSWER TWO RELATED QUESTIONS
"Who are we trying to serve?" and "What is the type of housing they need?" Do not let yourself off the hook on these questions - especially in the beginning. Preparing homes for rentals is very different than completing homes for sale. Different finishes, different expense categories, different end goals. As you can see from the questions (and the book Toxic Charity), it is important to include those who you hope to serve in the conversation. They may know best what kind of housing they need.
FINALLY, DO YOUR HOMEWORK!
Put some good acquisition and construction budgets together. Put your lease together now, before you have a renter. Let good business drive your thinking. It is very easy to overspend in the beginning and not be able to complete a house because you have run through your cash reserves. It is painful to be caught in a landlord situation and not have a clear lease that guides how ministry should look. Banks are reluctant to loan to someone that cannot show good credit, and investors will want to see a program that can combine healthy charity with savvy business decisions.
One bonus piece of advice:
HOUSING MINISTRY IS NOT HGTV
Housing ministry that is wholesome, viable and sustainable is not like what you see on HGTV. Very rarely do real life ministry situations look and feel like made-for-TV moments. Housing ministry is a long-term commitment to the person you are serving. You will need to navigate sales contracts, lease contracts, and construction budget if you want to minister Christ in a healthy way. You will have to deal with residents that sometimes fail to pay their lease or mortgage. It is not for the faint of heart. Test out your calling. Let others around you speak into it so that when it gets tough you can stay the course!
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Jim Wehner is the former Executive Director of Charis Community Housing and the current President of FCS Urban Ministries in Atlanta.