Taylor Batten

We in Charlotte were blind, now we see. Now what?

Covenant Presbyterian Church has committed $2 milion to help the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership build affordable units on Freedom Drive. CMHP built Brightwalk townhomes, shown here.
Covenant Presbyterian Church has committed $2 milion to help the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership build affordable units on Freedom Drive. CMHP built Brightwalk townhomes, shown here. File photo

“I once was blind but now I see.”

Many in Charlotte were like the blind beggar in the gospel of John after the Keith Scott shooting and protests. Our eyes were opened to the structural race-based biases that persist generations after Jim Crow ended. Even if the police shooting of Scott a year ago last week was justifiable, the aftermath heightened our awareness of injustices in education, housing, policing and so many other areas.

Bishop Claude Alexander of the Park Church reminded a multi-racial congregation Thursday night that being granted vision carries with it a responsibility not to look away. You once were blind, but now you see. But do you deny what you see? Do you ignore what you see? Or do you act on what you see, improve what you see?

Covenant Presbyterian Church (of which I am a member) seeks to improve what it sees. The church announced this month that it will invest $2 million with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership to provide affordable housing at a planned 185-unit apartment complex on Freedom Drive. It is the church living into its faith, backing up its talk with action.

I talked with Covenant Senior Minister Bob Henderson from Israel on Thursday to learn more about the church’s decision and how it could be a model for others. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.

How did this come together? What was the seed of the idea that led to this?

Our long-range planning task force was looking at how Covenant could heighten our impact and live into our fullest potential as a congregation in the city. We knew the Economic Opportunity Task Force was coming out with recommendations. One of those things contributing to economic opportunity is family stability. In our opinion, one of the most important dimensions of family stability is having a home, a place they can live.

It was kind of an assumption that everyone in the city needs to do their part and what part was ours?

This is the church really putting its money where its mouth is.

Absolutely. We had 300-500 people coming to talk about the problems. I was getting credit for doing that and I thought, ‘We haven’t actually done anything yet.’ It’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another thing to gather a congregation and invest and try to make a difference in a substantial fashion.

We had our best minds and best hearts on how to do this. Affordable housing is a really tough nut to crack. Market conditions and banking and investment systems do not promote affordable housing.

A main consideration for us is that we hit multiple economic levels. This apartment complex is going to be from 30 percent area median income to 100 percent. Our investment allows us to target multiple levels of income. That was key to this deal. It includes market rate so you have a multi-economic community. That broke down lines of demarcation and stratification. That’s a very important element.

We must focus on the lower-end of that range, where there’s a great need. The City Council vote Monday is mostly for housing above 60 percent AMI.

It’s very difficult to get loans for housing that targets below the 80 percent AMI. Some blame developers, but it’s the whole system of banking and lending that is very difficult to crack. What the church did is say, we’re not going to worry about our returns. We are going to invest in affordable housing for 30-60 percent AMI. That’s the purpose of the investment, not to make a return.

Are you expecting any return or is it a donation?

We’ll be an equity partner. We don’t know exactly what the return will be. Any return that we get will go toward scholarships for early childhood education for kids who can’t afford to come to our new child development center we’re going to do as part of this capital campaign.

Isn’t there a decent chance that your return will be zero?

Yes. There’s a very small chance it will be over 3-4 percent. There’s a chance we’ll lose our initial investment. That’s a very small risk.

What do you say to those who say I don’t like all this talk of investments and returns, and the church shouldn’t be in the real estate development business?

We’re not in it to make money. We’re in it to make affordable housing.

And that’s a perfect fit with the church’s mission.

It’s a perfect fit with our mission, absolutely. We will have invested in exactly what our church’s mission is no matter how much money we do or don’t get back.

Was there a biblical basis for any of this?

Well sure, the prophet Jeremiah. The whole notion of the prophets is, seek the welfare of the city for in its welfare you find your own welfare. The design of Christian life is to love God, love neighbor and as we love neighbor, it of course turns toward our good as well.

Talk about how you see this being a model for other houses of worship.

For one, we brought in very capable lay people who helped us think through this. We had investment bankers and partners in consulting firms and others. We used talent of the congregation to be able to figure out how might we do this. So it’s a way for lay people to use their business skills and wisdom toward good.

There are only a handful of churches with the means to do what Covenant has done.

It doesn’t have to be this big. Other houses of worship could create leveraging partnerships on a $100,000 or $50,000 scale. Any house of worship can do this at whatever level is appropriate for them.

Do you lose any sleep over the fact that as big a commitment as this is for Covenant, it’s really a drop in the bucket of the overall problem?

I don’t lose sleep because it’s a substantial investment for us. I’m just glad to be in the game. I’m glad to have a hand in trying to do our part in solving the problem. This is a first step.

I’m very pleased and honored about the effort. I trust and hope all the other entities – banks, developers, government – will take as substantial steps as they can to address this problem. It’s a priority for our community. I’m pleased to be a part of it and I have confidence others will do their best as well.