(RNS) — Some view America as the land of opportunity, but those who peer beyond the publicity know that for certain communities, opportunity is lacking, and triumphs are hard-won. Slavery, Jim Crow, the New Deal and redlining continue to cast a long shadow over Black Americans — these ugly parts of our collective history have created stark and persistent structural disparities in every area we use to measure economic well-being in the United States.
Legislation has indeed helped address these inequities, but it simply hasn’t done enough, especially when we consider new and promising real estate development in underserved Black communities. Examples of such developments abound, and increasingly, so do examples of Black churches taking the lead to design and build new, viable and exciting mixed-use real estate projects, all with an eye to increasing economic development.
As the son and grandson of Black pastors, I’m keenly aware that Black churches are rooted in care. For centuries, these institutions have worked to nurture and serve their congregants and communities, providing resources where societal safety nets fail and fighting to right historic wrongs they had no part in creating. And as a longtime real estate developer who’s been in the industry for more than 30 years, who also happens to have significant knowledge of the role Black churches have played in the welfare of their communities, I know developments helmed by churches can flourish.
Black churches offer far more than pastoral care
Black churches have played a significant role in Black community development for ages. History shows that ever since enslaved Black people set foot in America, they organized religious congregations in secret; these meetings served as a rare outlet where enslaved people could worship, sing and freely express their feelings and beliefs in a way they saw fit. This was, in a sense, an early form of community development. But as the needs of the Black community have evolved over time, the church has shifted its efforts to answer the call.
Later, in the years preceding the Civil War, Black ministers and churches fiercely — and bravely — condemned slavery and, in the North, partnered with white abolitionists to establish the underground railroad. Fast-forward to the late 19th and early 20th century: Between 1890 to 1930, more than 2 million working-class Black people left the South and migrated north in search of better lives during the Great Migration. Black churches stepped up their social service efforts to meet new congregants’ needs.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Black churches were pivotal players in the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister and the child and grandchild of ministers. He joined hands with other faith leaders to create the influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
But governmental action to erode structural disparities and invest in Black and brown communities hasn’t been fast or effective enough. Take, for instance, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977; it has only partially achieved the core goal of increasing bank lending in low-income neighborhoods. One study done by researchers from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the Federal Reserve Board and the University of Southern California found the “CRA’s effect on loan volumes and profitability appeared to be small.” For this reason, churches are taking charge.
Today, more than ever before in light of the events of the past few years, Black churches are primed and prepared to lead a new kind of movement, one centered on economic development and closing the staggering racial wealth gap. Often among the few institutions that remain in underserved Black communities, churches are tapped into the community’s history, potential and needs and uniquely equipped to spur neighborhood development.
Community investment that drives generational change
Faith-based development is nothing new. Most church-led development has focused on affordable housing and community assets for neighborhood residents, even as neighborhoods have changed and wealthier members have moved to more affluent areas. Without question, affordable housing is necessary, especially given the surging costs to rent or own a home and limited housing availability.
But development must focus on more than affordable housing to be effective and create true change. Demographic diversity is crucial for economic development. Research shows concentrated poverty imperils individuals and communities. In neighborhoods where at least 30% of residents live in poor households, children born in the area are projected to die nearly six years earlier than those in other communities, according to a study from Brookings. The study also found that adults living in areas with concentrated poverty earn less income in their lifetimes and face more frequent incarceration.
Economic diversity is essential to create healthy, viable communities. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, where despite stunning natural assets such as Washington and Jackson Parks and easy access to public transit, progress is slow to create real estate development that could prompt advances in the area’s economic well-being.
Woodlawn Central, a project in the works that will convert eight acres of parking lots encircling the Apostolic Church of God into a mixed-use development — including housing, office and commercial space, a hotel and a theater — represents a sea change. The residential aspect of the development will consist of 870 units, including affordable housing alongside market rate, luxury, senior and workforce housing. A large-scale development of this type is rarely seen on Chicago’s South Side broadly or in Woodlawn specifically, where more than 80% of the population is Black and its residents have a median net worth of $4,439 — the lowest of all 77 Chicago community areas.
One of the most powerful and productive ways to support the Black community is to invest in purposeful, Black-owned projects and businesses. This means more than frequenting Black-owned shops for occasional purchases — as consumers, we must learn how to invest dollars directly and meaningfully to drive more momentous economic change. Woodlawn Central has been created for the Black community with extensive input from the Black community. The Apostolic Church, which has pledged to build Black wealth without displacement, has been a fixture on Chicago’s South Side since the 1930s. Like many Black churches, Apostolic has spent decades defending and uplifting the community.
Black churches have long supported Black people in the face of severe structural disparities. It’s time that all of us — religious or not, people of color or not — aid churches in this laudable duty. Eradicating inequity is about more than correcting historic injustices; opening the floodgates of opportunity for those who’ve been systematically deprived helps our country live up to its potential and improves possibilities and potential for all who live in this nation.
(Quintin E. Primo III is the founder and executive chairman of Capri Investment Group. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)