Having done almost no promotion aside from a note in church bulletins, Father Jim O'Shea did not expect a large crowd to attend a session offering to help would-be tenants fill out applications for an affordable housing project in Bushwick. But though only 75 apartments were being built, 1,000 people showed up.
"We were overwhelmingly under-prepared," O'Shea said. "The need is so great."
If people want to see for themselves whether there is a crisis in affordable housing in the city - At last month's Rent Guidelines Board hearings, Marvin Markus, the chair of the board, said there was not - they could start by going to churches, synagogues and mosques around the city.
In nearly every neighborhood now, religious communities are getting involved in advocating for affordable housing. It's not that seminaries or theology departments are turning young men and women into advocates; parishioners and congregants are. Pastors, rabbis and imams simply cannot ignore the issue.
"Housing is essential to preserving someone's human dignity," said Rev. Marc Hallinan, an assistant for Social Ministries for Jesuits in New York. "So it's a part of our mission."
The advocacy efforts of religious institutions have grown naturally out of their efforts to provide services to those affected by the lack of affordable housing - mainly, the homeless.
"A lot of people are ready to move beyond the services," said Mark Greenberg, executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, a coalition of dozens of houses of worship across the city and housing advocates. "It's not that they don't want to help. They want to do more. They don't have compassion fatigue, they have compassion frustration," he said. "People are still compassionate, but their compassionate acts are not changing policy."
So, their acts are changing. In addition to offering shelter beds and food, religious leaders are helping their congregants organize meetings to discuss affordable housing among themselves and with political leaders and city officials. In O'Shea's Williamsburg parish, Churches United for Fair Housing, now just eight months old, has already had an impact, he said.
The group is pushing for all housing developments that benefit from tax breaks or other government incentives to have at least 40 percent of the apartments set aside as affordable housing. Inclusionary zoning, which allows for higher density developments that create affordable housing, is also on the group's agenda. One notable victory: A community board turned down a zoning variance because affordable housing was not included in the plan.
"I think the religious community is more ready now than it has been in a long time" to act on affordable housing and homelessness, Greenberg said. "The religious leadership is ready to move on this."
In contacts with political leaders, religious leaders are asking that the city take the issue more seriously, Greenberg said, mainly by putting money into resolving the crisis. They are advocating a holistic approach, seeking action to increase the minimum wage, adopt inclusionary zoning and encourage the use of food stamps, millions of dollars of which go unused because the city does not raise awareness of their availability, Greenberg said.
"If a faith-based institution believes in a particular issue they are not only prepared to commit their financial resources but their voting resources, too," said Don Matthew, general manager and chief executive of Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperative (BEC) New Communities. "That's a force you cannot deny."
Religious leaders have "considerable influence at City Hall," Matthew said. "They pastor to a flock, to people that vote. And they have influence on these people. If pastors are doing what they're supposed to be doing - pointing out where government is falling short - that will have an effect."
The religious institutions' involvement in affordable housing is crucial, said Brooklyn Councilmember Diana Reyna, who has worked with Churches United for Fair Housing. "It gives (the issue) weight and leverage, it gives it a face. It gives the people an opportunity to come to the table."
Religious institutions have a long history of social advocacy in the city and many of the advocacy organizations across the city actually grew out of their efforts, said John Mulhern, executive director of South Side Community Mission in Williamsburg.
"When we were working in the1960s we were trying to stop buildings from being burned down," he said. "That's a big difference from now... It was a lot easier then."
While the religious groups and housing advocacy organizations may differ in what tactics to use, they are "natural allies," many said, because they share the same vision on addressing affordable housing and homelessness.
"Some of the community based organizations have lost their bases" over the years, he said. "They became agencies. That was the missing piece: the mobilization of the masses."
For the congregants to whom Hallinan ministers on the Upper East Side, the religious-secular collaboration was instrumental. A worker at a local community organization, the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, served as a catalyst, he said, and congregants of several churches, once they saw the bigger picture, wanted to get involved.
"We're very pleased that the congregations are interested and willing to work on these issues."
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.
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