Religious Congregations, Nonprofits Voice Struggles to Afford Space in New York City

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer hosted a city hall meeting as part of her ongoing efforts to help religious congregations that cannot afford meeting space in the extremely expensive area.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer held a public hearing last Monday night to discuss the best way to religious buildings to share spaces for non-profit organizations. (Photo by Alexandria Johnson)

Last week, what started as a City Hall meeting addressing building repurposing in New York City turned into a forum for nonprofits and religious leaders on the inaccessibility of religious institutions in the city.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer hosted the meeting which featured 18 New Yorkers who volunteered to speak, many of whom spoke about the difficulty of finding affordable spaces for Christian congregations. The event comes two months after Brewer announced a religious facilities task force, which is the first of two meant to provide Manhattan residents an opportunity to voice their opinions on the matter. 

Brewer’s task force was first started because religious congregations expressed that, due to an inability to afford rent, they are in danger of losing the spaces where they practice their faith. The task force seeks to alleviate this by creating relationships between churches and nonprofits by which nonprofits — which also struggle to find space — can rent churches from religious congregations, supplementing their revenue.

Manhattan Borough Urban Planner Tara Duvivier and Vice President of External Affairs at Habitat for Humanity Matthew Dunbar sat alongside Brewer on a panel at the meeting to address her constituents.

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Danny Best, a community pastor for Liberty Church on the Upper West Side, was the first to speak at the meeting. Best said his church has only been able to rent out space in the AMC Movie Theater on Broadway, but finds it is not accessible for some members of his congregation.

“I know pastors and church-planters in the faith community who love our neighborhoods and want to invest in our neighborhoods, but find it challenging sometimes to find space, even to rent,” Best said to the 30-person crowd.

The average cost of renting out a small chapel for 100 people for 3-5 hours ranges from $200-$400, while large churches for 300 people can incur approximately $3,000 for the same duration. For many of those in attendance, these costs have been too high to maintain their not-for-profit community services.

Hillsong Church currently uses the Hammerstein Ballroom for their religious services. Brendan MacDevette, a member of the church, said the contract with the famous ballroom has led to several logistical hurdles.

“With the contract we have, they have forced our congregation out of the space without notice,” MacDevette said. “We have had to turn away 1,000 people for overcrowding.”

MacDevette works as a location scout, finding the best places to shoot television shows or movies. Given his current experience, he brought up the idea of churches working with production companies to film their buildings and gain revenue that way.

A member of Brewer’s task force, Project Director of Bricks and Mortals Kate Toth also spoke at the event. Bricks and Mortals is an organization at Judson Memorial Church that educates and advises faith leaders on creative solutions to keep religious congregations in their existing buildings.

“We want to give information for them to make the best decisions,” Toth said. “We’re trying to give communities that option to be able to bring revenue into their buildings, so they can make these changes and sustain their buildings in the way they need.”

Nonprofits also face difficulties finding affordable spaces to rent, according to attendees. Tenet NYC is an arts organization for a music ensemble that presents vocal performances of songs from the Middle Ages to the modern era. 

Artistic Director of Tenet NYC Jolle Greenleaf said she has been looking to purchase a venue or partner with a church that would share their space in order to lower the cost.

“We are struggling to find spaces to perform,” Greenleaf said. “When we try to reserve churches, they usually cost $10,000 per day, which we aren’t able to afford.”

Executive Director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing Marc Greenberg suggested a way for churches and non-profit buildings to collaborate with each other.

“We could have a bulletin board, where churches and other organizations can put up their needs and times of availability,” Greenberg said.

Email Alexandria Johnson at [email protected]

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