Pierce School near the H Street corridor in DC, which has now been converted into lofts that sport classroom blackboards on living room walls. Image created with Google Maps.

A combination of rising property values and changing demographics has helped put many of DC’s churches and schools up for sale in recent years. These architecturally distinctive buildings, many of them part of the city’s fabric for decades, have fed creative redevelopment projects ranging from housing to art museums.

Last year, the Way of The Cross Church of Christ reopened as a suite of apartments called The Sanctuary, with two-bedroom listings that advertise stained-glass windows. Downtown, the historic Franklin School is under construction to become a new Museum of Language Arts, while the Pierce School was converted into lofts that sport classroom blackboards on living room walls.

What should become of community institutions that can no longer sustain their original intent? Increasingly, it seems church and school properties are finding futures separate from their religious and educational foundations.

Way of the Cross Church of Christ has reopened as an apartment building called The Sanctuary. Image by Farragutful licensed under Creative Commons.

A phenomenon unique to Washington?

While not the only city feeling squeezed for housing, DC faces certain challenges that make it poised to convert churches and schools. From the start, Washington faces constraints on space: the city’s square footage is fixed within the boundaries of the District of Columbia, just as its growth is hampered from above by the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which mandates that residential buildings not exceed 130 feet. Coastal cities like Brooklyn and San Francisco have found housing opportunities in their vacant warehouses and factories, but as the nation’s capital, DC lacks the industrial infrastructure that might otherwise boost development.

Church properties and closed public schools have helped fill that void. Many church communities have seen shrinking attendance as their congregations grow older or move away from downtown to the suburbs. What might once have been an easy walk through the neighborhood to service has for many become a longer commute by car. The trend may also be connected to a national retreat from organized religion: the Pew Research Center reports that a growing share of Americans describe themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” a portion now estimated at 23 percent of the adult population. And while churches can pose tricky projects for developers, they have also proved to be attractive properties because of their ample parking spots and central locations.

DC’s public school system has faced similar pressures to retain students. The Urban Institute reports that DCPS enrollment fell from 65,748 students to 46,393 between 2002 and 2014, and more than 35 public schools have been closed since 2008. Many of these recently-closed DCPS schools remain vacant, with recent school conversions turning their focus to more historic school properties — those built under segregation and long since closed.

Property governance

Although churches and schools have faced similar fates in redevelopment, the process by which the properties are converted are distinct. Church properties, for example, are generally exempt from paying property taxes on their places of worship and are further protected by laws like the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which relaxes zoning restrictions. Yet church properties are ultimately held privately, and their redevelopment for housing or otherwise is the full right of the owner.

Schools, meanwhile, are owned by the DC Government and constitute public property. The adaptation of school buildings for housing or commercial purpose begs a collective response to the question of how we should best use public land. As Laura McSorley wrote in the wake of the 2013 school closures, DCPS faces a few options: (1) lease the property to charter schools; (2) keep the shuttered properties as publicly-held lands; or (3) sell the valuable real estate for housing or commercial endeavors.

With the city’s child population on the rise, there’s perhaps an argument to be made that schools should be kept as schools, period, and not pursue redevelopment at all.

Unfolding questions

Rules and regulations aside, the swift conversion of a school or church into housing can feel at odds with the mission of the former institution — especially when the resulting units far outprice the neighborhood’s median income.

Recent projects have gone to great lengths to preserve the public-minded nature of the original building. In 2014, the Gales School became the new home of Central Union Mission, a faith-based nonprofit serving the homeless population, and Alexandria’s Episcopal Church of the Resurrection is finalizing plans to become an affordable housing complex with more than 100 multifamily units.

Redeveloped properties have found ways to serve the community outside of housing as well: along with the forthcoming Museum of Language Arts, the former Friendship Baptist Church reopened as the art gallery Blind Whino in 2013.

Blind Whino, a church-turned-arts space in Southwest DC. Image by Joe Flood licensed under Creative Commons.

These examples illustrate the varied ways DC can put its aging buildings to use. Even when a school or church is set to become luxury housing, the project can prove beneficial to owners old and new. Real estate companies like The Rubin Group, which has turned a number of DC’s churches into condominiums, have taken care to restore the facade of the acquired institution and preserve the character of both the building and surrounding neighborhood. The sale of religious property can similarly benefit churches themselves, affording congregations like Southern Bethany Baptist to relocate closer to their constituents. 

The trend weaves a complex narrative about housing and redevelopment in DC. When churches and schools become private residences, the community gains housing options but loses space that was once open to all. Luxury apartments that cater to affluent populations may accelerate the pace of gentrification by pricing out longtime residents. We should applaud projects that aim to repurpose closed churches and schools for the benefit of the larger community, and recognize that such efforts can take many forms.