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‘Stable housing is the foundation for a successful life’

Church joins with the Presbytery of Denver, Habitat for Humanity and an interfaith alliance to dedicate land for affordable housing and help change exclusive zoning laws

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

DENVER — In a recent study, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado found the greatest need in the Denver metro area was affordable housing.

“They said the median house was going to be a million dollars,” said the Rev. Olivia Hudson Smith, Stated Clerk for the Presbytery of Denver.

To help solve the affordable housing crisis in Metro Denver, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado sought the help of churches through a congregation land campaign. The alliance’s pitch: In the Metro area there are 5,000 acres of unused land owned by faith communities that could be leveraged for housing. When Mountain View United Church in Aurora heard about the land campaign, it decided, in its lead pastor’s words, “to run with it.”

“OK, they need land. We have two acres,” said the Rev. Dr. Tracy Hughes. “We understand that as not ours, but a gift from God to be shared for the common good.”

As the Rev. Wayne Laws, Mountain View’s minister of social justice and mission, began working on an affordable housing plan for the church, he quickly realized that Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver would be a great partner to have on the project.

“Their vision and mission aligned with ours,” he said. “They weren’t coming in to make a quick dollar, which has been part of the problem with some affordable housing in the metro area.”

Mountain View United Church in Aurora, Colorado, has membership in the PC(USA), the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church. (Photo by Mike Fitzer/Film 180)

 Initially there was lots of push back from Mountain View neighbors for the project, which the church began to work on in 2018.  While many neighbors supported Habitat and affordable housing, they didn’t want it in their neighborhood. But then, the Presbytery of Denver, which has adopted the PC(USA) Matthew 25 vision to engage in building congregation vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty, got involved.

“They were able to support us in getting a vote from the city council to rezone our land from R1 to R2,” Hughes said. “And that’s systemic change.  Because if you look in our neighborhood, we’re R1 zoning, which is lots of big houses and big lots, and that’s exclusionary zoning, right?”

 According to the Rev. Fernando Rodríquez, the Presbytery of Denver’s associate presbyter for mission, when the presbytery’s Matthew 25 group became involved, it put even more people working toward the finalization for the project. For group member Jean Demmler, the Matthew 25 vision provided an opportunity for the presbytery to really address structural change. One of the first things they did was write a letter to the Aurora City Council. When Laws told them they needed neighbors to provide testimonies, several ministers and ruling elders from churches in Aurora got involved, writing emails and testifying in front of the city council.

“I’ve got to give credit to the church and also to Habitat for the amazing amount of community outreach that they actually engaged in,” said Juan Marcano of the Aurora City Council. “My wife and I make above the median income, and we cannot afford a single-family home in the City of Aurora.

Marcano says that in most cities it’s illegal to build the duplex housing that will be constructed on the Mountain View property. Also forbidden by zoning ordinances in many communities are triplexes, quadplexes and cottage homes.

“It’s basically single-family home zoning in any city suburb,” he said. “And as time goes on, land gets more expensive, the cost of construction gets higher, and when housing gets built, it’s too expensive for people. But having stable housing is the foundation for a successful life.”

Mountain View United Church pastors Wayne Laws and Tracy Hughes are looking forward to seeing how affordable housing transforms the lives of families living on land next to the church. (Photo by Mike Fitzer/Film 180)

Laws has been thinking about the ripple effect of this affordable housing project, which by year’s end should see 10 duplexes going up on the two acres next to the church.

 We start with 20 families getting the stability of home ownership and the security that comes with that,” he said.  “This is going to have impact generations from now.”

For Rodríquez, Matthew 7:16-20 speaks to what he saw happen in this affordable housing project, thanks to multiple partnerships and the Matthew 25 vision.

The Rev. Fernando Rodríquez of the Presbytery of Denver walks on the land where affordable housing will soon be constructed. (Photo by Mike Fitzer/Film 180)

“I know it in Spanish,” he says, “‘Por sus frutos los conoceréis, by their fruits you will know them.’ Being able to assist families that need affordable housing, that is fruit.”

 As Hughes imagines the community on church property that new homeowners will call home, she said she gets goosebumps. She recognizes these homes could transform not only the lives of families living there, but also the next generation and their grandchildren.

Knowing Mountain View United couldn’t have done it without the support of the Matthew 25 initiative of the Presbytery of Denver, the Interfaith of Alliance of Colorado, and Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver, Hughes has a message for other congregations looking to create structural change for the common good.

“If you can look at the resources that you have and you can partner that with the needs of your community, then you can together, through a Matthew 25 initiative, partake in changing the structures and systems of oppression and injustice that perpetuate poverty or perpetuate racism,” she said.

 Mountain View United Church is a member of Ecumenical Ministries Inc., which holds in trust the two acres that the affordable housing will be built on. There is a renewable 99-year land lease with Habit for Humanity of Metro Denver.

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