[The Episcopal News] After a multi-year process of visioning, fundraising, and engaging the support of multiple agencies, civic groups and neighbors, St. Michael’s Apartments, the first fruits of the Diocese of Los Angeles’ affordable housing initiative, officially opened in Riverside on July 24 with a festive program featuring Native American dance, song and blessing.
Bishop John Harvey Taylor offered a prayer consecrating the 50-unit building of affordable housing units, all of which now are occupied by single men and women and families with children.
Taylor lauded the work of the Rev. Canon Mary Crist, who answered Bishop J. Jon Bruno’s call 12 years ago to develop a new ministry at St. Michael’s Ministry Center, which no longer sustained a regular congregation, but had a large property located in an area experiencing high rates of poverty and homelessness. Crist built up a community by helping to meet immediate needs, starting with a place for homeless people to congregate without fear of being chased away by residents or police. As the St. Michael’s community grew, it also became a gathering place for local Native Americans, who found a champion in Crist, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet tribe and indigenous education minister on the staff of The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
The new apartments were built with help from a wide range of private and government organizations. Kyle Paine, president and co-founder of Newport Beach-based Community Development Partners, which oversaw the project, was master of ceremonies for the opening program.
Other participants who took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony represented Mercy House, which provides case management services for St. Michael’s Apartment residents; the Los Angeles Office of Public Housing (HUD), which subsidizes rent for low-income residents; and the state of California and city and county of Riverside, which provided partial funding for the project. The Rev. Canon Kelli-Grace Kurtz, rector of All Saints Church, Riverside, represented local Episcopal clergy — many of whom were also present – and congregations, which have been enthusiastic supporters of the housing project.
The program also included Johnny Chacon (Apache), who came from Arizona to perform Native American dances. Singing Byrd (Mescalero Apache) and members of St. Michael’s indigenous community offered a native song of blessing.
Crist said that the community at St. Michael’s continues to develop and grow now that the apartments are open and occupied.
“Some people have the idea that it’s free housing, and it’s a temporary shelter,” she said. “But this is permanent supportive housing with case management.” The residents, she said, are already involved in the food giveaway services on Thursday mornings, helping to serve others who have faced the challenges of being poor and unhoused.
“Our people have only been here about a month or two and so we’re getting to know one another and find out what the needs are and find out how we can work together to fill those needs,” Crist told The Episcopal News after the ceremony. An expanded play area for children, a community garden, and activities for families are among the future plans for the complex.
“The way we’ll know if we’re doing it right,” she said, “is if Jesus were to walk in the door and see what we’re doing, would he recognize us as His people?”
Bishop Taylor noted the importance of housing as a new kind of mutually beneficial ministry for The Episcopal Church. “St. Michael’s apartments have essentially become the pioneer flagship project for our diocesan housing justice initiative,” he told The News. “We’ve pledged to build affordable housing on 25% of our ministry centers, missions, and parishes; that’ll be 30 or 33 projects. The first is St. Michael’s; more are underway in Orange County, at least 10 more on the drawing board, having come through the Corporation of the Diocese, and 20 more are coming behind that. This dedication day for St. Michael’s is a signal event for an initiative which we hope will provide places for 4,000 to 5,000 of our neighbors around Southern California and the Central Coast to lay their heads.”
To congregations in the diocese that might consider building housing on their underused property, Taylor said, “The decision about whether to take a leap of faith and provide affordable housing on a church campus is a complex and very holy process that has to do first of all with available real estate, and second with a congregation’s sense of call to actually do this ministry and to invite neighbors to come on campus and be part of the life of the community.” Such a project, he said, will irrevocably change the church’s culture and ministry.
Congregations interested in exploring a housing ministry or other on-site services to the community, he said, should contact the Rev. Michael Bell (firstname.lastname@example.org), who on Aug. 1 became vice president for affordable housing and business development for Episcopal Communities and Services, an institution of the diocese.
“A church is making an existential decision to have a housing project,” he said. “But if the real estate is there, if the partners are in place, if we can do the financing in such a way that we can get ground lease revenue [from apartment rentals] to help run the church, … then affordable housing may be for your church community.”
A video from the grand opening is here.