Urban congregations are increasingly redeveloping their property for profit, and in the process are forming new partnerships with secular organizations, as well as changing the way they interact with their own members, according to new research.
At the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR) meeting in Boston in August, which RW attended, Nadia Mian of the New School presented a study of congregations in New York City that have become more entrepreneurial by engaging in property development. While churches and other religious organizations have been involved in property and housing development for decades, “presently, more and more churches are selling their air rights and property to developers in various schemes that result in housing, commercial and retail projects, “ according to Mian. In her research, which is published in the September issue of Urban Studies Journal, she counted at least 30 different real estate projects involving congregations in New York.
“The trend continues, as one developer working with a church will seek out more churches to partner with, in order to gain access to scarce property in Manhattan.” Mian added that this trend is also evident in other American cities. Religious institutions involved in real estate tend to move in two directions—towards market-rate condominiums/commercial property or affordable/senior housing. Although religious organizations can act independently, most partner either with other religious or secular groups (such as a corporation or government), implying new forms of cooperation.
These congregations tend to learn from one another, and through sharing “information and even resources, they begin to act in ways that are cooperative as opposed to individualistic. Pastors interact with other churches in the community to share knowledge about the development process, architects, finances and other issues,” Mian writes.
She adds, however, that in such projects “there is a lack of emphasis on and consideration of preservation and historical conservation efforts” (especially since landmarking status tends to make reconstruction difficult). Another pitfall that Mian finds among congregations is that as churches become more entrepreneurial (and take on additional real estate projects), they drive away the people they are trying to help, losing congregants as the community becomes gentrified and too expensive.