Affordable option? Church apartments could be a godsend

Reverend Robert Lewis of the Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church says a decline in membership has left the church with unused space—and the congregation would like to convert it into 15 affordable apartments, with some reserved for people with developmental disabilities. Photo by Eze Amos Reverend Robert Lewis of the Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church says a decline in membership has left the church with unused space—and the congregation would like to convert it into 15 affordable apartments, with some reserved for people with developmental disabilities. Photo by Eze Amos

When a church in the Belmont neighborhood proposed converting underused space into 15 apartments, with a third of them specifically for people with disabilities, some community members were quick to call it a development idea that they could finally get behind.

Others? Eh, not so much.

“Public feedback has not been supportive,” planning commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates wrote on Twitter May 12.

One of those opposed is Raman Pfaff, who lives less than 100 feet away from Hinton Avenue United Methodist, the church in question. “When I moved here almost 20 years ago, I wanted a neighborhood, not an apartment complex,” he says. “The overall concept for having a few units for [disabled] people is great, but the implementation does not match up very well with a residential community.”

Responding to reported complaints about noise, traffic, parking, and other issues, local resident and New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie tweeted, “this is one of those times when I wish people would just be honest with themselves and say they don’t want to live next to people who are different than they are.”

The church’s pastor, Reverend Robert Lewis, says the project is a response to changing needs. Membership has slowly and steadily declined across all Protestant denominations for the past four or five decades, he adds, and his church is no exception.

Sunday school at the Hinton Avenue house of worship is just one example.

“Our youth had all grown up and gone to college, and we didn’t have younger folks come along to fill those classrooms,” Lewis says. Now, there’s empty space in the educational wing, which is currently being leased by the International School. He’s hoping a rezoning will allow for one- to three-bedroom apartments there, priced “as affordable as possible,” according to the application.

The project was scheduled to go before the Planning Commission May 14, but was rescheduled for June 11 because of last-minute changes to the application. City staff has already recommended that rezoning to neighborhood commercial corridor—the only zoning available that would allow for building apartments—be denied because Southern Crescent, a cajun restaurant situated a few buildings down Hinton Avenue, is “an ideal endpoint to commercial activity,” according to the staff report.

Lewis says the update to the church’s proposal would prohibit any commercial use for now and any future tenant, unless another rezoning is granted.

If approved, they want to have the new housing built within five years, and expect it will cost “millions.” The church has already raised $200,000, and is hoping to offset some of the cost with tax credit vouchers.

“The sense of support for the mission itself has been very encouraging,” says Lewis, because most people recognize the city’s housing crisis, and that there are even fewer affordable options for people with disabilities. “The possibility that they could be supported in living the fullest life they can is just a godsend to them.”

With the international decline in church memberships, holy spaces across the globe have resorted to apartment conversions—or closing their doors. In Chicago, for instance, priests forecast that up to 100 of the city’s 350 Catholic churches will shutter by 2030, according to a 2017 report from now-defunct Windy City news source DNAinfo. Some have already been recycled into everything from a dance studio to a school for circus performers.

And at Chicago’s Grace Church, another Methodist congregation, leaders are similarly proposing an addition of 20 on-site apartments, and hoping that the revenue will allow the house of worship to continue operating.

But some in Charlottesville aren’t sympathetic to the congregational crisis.

“Let them go broke,” says Belmont resident Doug Ross, noting that people have argued that because the plan is being proposed by a church, it must be good.

Historically, that hasn’t always been the case, Ross says. “No, they don’t get a pass just because they have a cross and ring bells on Sunday.”

More criticism flooded a post about the project on community forum Nextdoor, which eventually racked up more than 100 comments, including this one from Rosemary Evans: “Do you honestly think these newcomers will obey speed limits? Not on your life!”

The comments prompted a response from planning commissioner Rory Stolzenberg, who called the thread evidence of “anti-renter prejudice and discrimination.”

That anti-renter sentiment, he wrote, is “reflected in the dark, sordid history of our zoning code…and the bad-faith obstructionism aimed at keeping new neighbors out [that] we see exhibited at every public meeting.”

“People like you would like to see people like me barred from this city,” he wrote to another poster. “And for too long, you’ve succeeded, pushing us into a housing crisis that sees families displaced every single day.”