The First Book of Kings (1 Kings 7) describes the opulent palace that King Solomon spent 7 years having built. It is described as having been massive: over one hundred cubits (150 feet) long, 50 cubits (75 feet) wide, and nearly 30 cubits (40 feet high), constructed from cedar columns and beams and adorned with stones, brass and other metals. We are only given the name and background of one craftsman – a man named Huram, who was said to be highly skilled in working with bronze. The remaining builders and craftsmen of Solomon’s palace and the temple were unnamed.
Solomon followed Saul and David as the third king of Israel. While neighboring lands may have been accustomed to the wealth and opulence of their kings, the monarchy was still relatively new for Israel. We wonder today what the builders and craftsmen thought during the seven years that Solomon’s palace was taking shape. As some of them labored, perhaps having little to sustain them, did they wonder how it came to be that this king had so very much, while the people who labored around him in most capacities had so much less?
The challenge of rising income inequality
Over the course of time, not much seems to have changed. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the income gap between higher-paid workers and lower-paid workers continues to increase. An analysis offered by Inequality.org finds that compensation for chief executive officers of large U.S. corporations has increased by 642% since 1991. The federal minimum wage has not been increased since 2009 when it rose to $7.25/hour from $6.55/hour. And, while 23 states increased their state minimum wage rates on January 1, 2023, to help address cost-of-living disparities, other states continue at the federal minimum wage level – which, even for a full-time employee is insufficient to provide basic housing and living needs.
A few months ago, I wrote a piece about affordable housing needs. I offered that providing safe, affordable housing for workers – especially in our urban centers – should be a public policy priority that brings together our elected leaders, businesses, schools/education centers, nonprofits and faith communities to find solutions. Out-of-Reach 2022, published by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, reported full-time (40 hours/week) market wages required to make fair market rent affordable for a two-bedroom rental. Per-hour wages required in Tennessee are $18.30, with Georgia requiring $20.97, $34.33 in D.C., and $37.72 in New York. Yet, advertised wages for service jobs in those states were well below those thresholds. Rents consume unsustainably large percentages of renters’ income, and as rents and other costs of living continue to increase beyond what workers can afford, housing in our cities becomes increasingly unattainable.
Initiatives taking place around the country can provide us with some inspiration about ways that employers, faith communities and healthcare systems can unite in substantial ways to provide affordable housing and stability for the persons who need it most.
Corporate and faith-based organizations making a difference
Amazon, reported to have more than 1.5 million employees worldwide as of December 31, 2022 – and the second-largest employer in the U.S. – has recognized the struggle of finding affordable housing for its employees in some of the cities in which it operates and has created a housing equity fund. Through its housing equity fund, and offering competitive mortgage loans and partnerships within communities, Amazon is committing support to workers in three specific locations where its employees are concentrated: Puget Sound (Washington State), Arlington, Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee. Amazon reports that it will commit $2 billion to create affordable housing for more than 20,000 employee households. To fund this initiative, Amazon shuttered the AmazonSmile program through which consumers had been able to designate nonprofits to receive up to 0.5% on eligible purchases. Amazon is focusing on the development of housing near public transit to help employees have meaningful access not only to the place of their employment but also to amenities within their community.
When the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) held its annual convocation in Memphis, Tennessee last fall, its presiding bishop called on the denomination’s clergy to identify church-owned properties which could be used for affordable housing in local communities. COGIC plans to secure funding for the development of these properties as the church looks for ways to provide more affordable housing across the country. In Memphis, where COGIC is headquartered, COGIC has already opened a building with affordable housing units and is looking to expand its footprint.
In New York, the Housing for Health Initiative plans to develop housing on hospital property to provide recuperative care and social services for persons who are ill and experiencing homelessness. Recognizing the “true nexus between health and housing,” the NYC Health + Hospitals initiative has already introduced 1,600 apartments in 10 buildings on its properties allowing persons experiencing homelessness the ability to recover in stable housing. The initiative reported having provided care for more than 43,500 adults experiencing homelessness last year – roughly 6% of the patients served by that hospital system. It is hoped that repurposing publicly-owned real estate as affordable and supportive housing will reduce the reliance on hospital emergency room treatment that is created when persons lack true access to health care.
These three initiatives affirm the creative ways that employers, faith communities and health systems can create strong partnerships to address the need for affordable housing through existing and newly developed properties. Our neighbors who are left feeling nameless in the search for affordable housing are not nameless to our God. Our communities should not be places in which only the wealthiest among us live. Working together, we can create opportunities for all of God’s people to live well in the communities we all serve.
Image credit: © 2023 Pamela Reynoso