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Washington state church donates land for affordable housing

Co-pastor: ‘We had a heart to house people, and we had a vacant lot’

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

In partnership with Housing Opportunities of Southwest Washington, vacant land donated by Longview Presbyterian Church will provide space for 48 affordable housing units. (Rendering provided by Community Frameworks)

LOUISVILLE — With unanimous approval from Olympia Presbytery, Longview Presbyterian Church in Longview, Washington, is donating a 2-acre vacant lot adjacent to the church property to Housing Opportunities of Southwest Washington (HOSWWA). The land will provide space for 48 affordable housing units, about half of which will be reserved for people transitioning from homelessness.

“Our city is going through a housing crisis,” said the Rev. Dexter Kearny, co-pastor of Longview Presbyterian Church along with his wife, the Rev. Liz Kearny. “There is not enough housing for the number of people who live here, and we have a very high homeless population in town. Our session put together a task force with the blessing of the congregation to pursue different options.

“We looked at everything,” Kearny said. “We looked at tiny homes. We looked at selling the land and purchasing a duplex. We looked at trying to build housing ourselves. None of the ideas quite worked.

“What we had was … We had a heart to house people, and we had a vacant lot,” Kearny said. “We did not have the money. We did not have the expertise in running housing. We didn’t want to be landlords, kicking people out or anything like that.”

After years of discernment, in 2018 the affordable housing task force at Longview Presbyterian connected with HOSWWA through a member of the congregation who previously served on the organization’s Board of Commissioners.

Over the past two years, the shared vision and partnership between Longview and HOSWWA has developed into a project that will mix 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom units in six to eight two-story buildings, surrounded by a small courtyard and children’s play area. To provide as much greenspace as possible, parking will be on the outer edge of the complex. A community building is planned to provide space for resident gatherings, community meetings, tutoring and possibly an early childhood education center.

Longview Presbyterian is located next door to an elementary school, another church and some apartments. A major goal of the new housing complex will be to provide stability to people who are currently unhoused, especially young families.

“In our school district, there is a large number of children who are unsafely housed and unhoused completely,” Kearny said.

The missional focus of Longview Presbyterian has been clear to the Kearnys since their first day as co-pastors in 2016. They were welcomed into a sanctuary that had been transformed into a food bank. People who needed food were pushing shopping carts while being assisted by members of the congregation. Early on the church supported Vietnamese refugee families and challenged the city council when funds were at risk of being taken away from a neighborhood in need. The congregation has fought for many years to eradicate systemic poverty and to lift up the voices of LGBTQ+ individuals.

The Revs. Dexter and Liz Kearny are co-pastors of Longview Presbyterian Church in Longview, Washington. (Photo courtesy of Longview Presbyterian Church)

“These last few years, I have seen our congregation double down on eradicating systemic poverty, while continuing current missions of the food bank and serving meals at the homeless shelter,” Kearny said. “They have started supporting Family Promise, an organization that uses church buildings to host homeless families and help get them into stable housing.”

Longview also supports Hagar’s Community Church, a new worshiping community inside the Washington Corrections Center for Women, and the Cowlitz County Cold Weather Shelter, an emergency shelter that opens on the coldest nights of the year.

Home & Hope, a statewide initiative of Enterprise Community Partners with grant funding from the state of Washington, assisted the project by providing predevelopment feasibility studies. The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, the City of Longview’s federally funded HOME Investment Partnership Program and others are providing financial support to get the project off and running. Through its Home & Hope initiative, Enterprise works with elected officials, public agencies, educators, nonprofits and developers to turn underutilized tax-exempt sites statewide into developable space for affordable housing and early childhood education centers.

The vacant lot being donated was purchased by Longview Presbyterian Church in the 1970s with the hope of expansion, yet the congregation has remained steady for nearly 50 years. “We sort of felt like now is the time to live into our mission,” Kearny said.

Community Frameworks, a nonprofit organization based in Spokane that provides affordable housing development services throughout Washington state, will begin applying for funding for the housing project in 2021, according to lead developer Adam Lee. “Hopefully, if all goes well, construction could begin in spring 2022,” Lee said.

In addition to helping meet the need for affordable housing, Lee said, one thing he heard going into the feasibility study is that the church has a talent pool of teachers and retired teachers. The new housing development might well be a catalyst for strengthening relationships within the church and community through tutoring and after-school opportunities.

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