(RNS) — As Miami-Dade County in Florida grapples with a housing affordability crisis, houses of worship are being recruited to build affordable homes on vacant or underutilized church land.
The national nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners on Thursday (April 21) announced $1.3 million in grant funding from the Wells Fargo Foundation that would go toward helping 15 South Florida congregations convert underused church property.
The nonprofit will assist clergy, who may lack the resources or knowledge to cut housing deals, in navigating the development process, negotiating long-term ground lease agreements and vetting development partners, such as architects and designers.
This effort is part of the nonprofit’s Faith-Based Development Initiative that launched in 2006 in the Mid-Atlantic region, where it has helped faith-based organizations create or preserve more than 1,500 affordable homes and one community-based health clinic.
So far, $8.5 million has been committed in a new push to help congregations in Atlanta, New York, Baltimore, Miami and Seattle build affordable housing on their properties.
In South Florida, this money is being made available just as Mayor Daniella Levine Cava in early April declared a state of emergency over housing affordability.
Faith leaders, along with county and housing officials, on Thursday (April 21) gathered at Koinonia Worship Center to talk about the steps congregations could take to build housing on their church land. The gathering was held in partnership with the Collective Empowerment Group of South Florida, a group of local churches that aims to provide homebuyer training and credit counseling services in the area.
David Bowers, vice president at Enterprise Community Partners, said this effort makes “radical common sense,” allowing congregations that are “sitting on a resource” to “be good and faithful stewards.”
“We will share lessons from you with others in cities around the country who are at work as we expand this movement,” Bowers, who is also an ordained minister, said Thursday.
Over the last few years the county has partnered with faith-based organizations to build seven affordable rental developments, said Jorge Damian de la Paz, a representative of the mayor, at the Thursday gathering. These projects stretch across Miami-Dade County, from Miami Gardens down to Richmond Heights.
Citing property records, de la Paz said there are more than 1,220 parcels in Miami-Dade County currently being used exclusively for religious purposes. This includes churches, synagogues and mosques. In total, houses of worship sit on at least 95 million square feet of land in Miami-Dade County, he said.
“Religious organizations, in aggregate, are some of the largest owners of land in Miami-Dade County,” de la Paz said.
“Some of these lots could potentially be used to build affordable housing or … some type of community facility to serve congregants in a new way and generate additional revenue to the organization,” he said.
One example is Second Baptist Church of Richmond Heights. In 2016, the church opened the Reverend John & Anita Ferguson Residence Apartments, which provides 79 units of affordable housing for seniors.
The Rev. Alphonso Jackson, pastor of Second Baptist Church, helped oversee the project, which was a vision of the former pastor, the Rev. John Ferguson, who secured the land adjacent to the church.
“It was our desire to complete the vision he had,” Jackson said on Thursday.
Jackson said they sought to secure the necessary funds to build the project in a way that “wouldn’t be a burden to the church.” They formed a community development corporation and dealt with housing bonds, tax credits and grant funding.
Although it was years in the making, “it ended up being a wonderful project,” Jackson said.
“It adds to the community. It increased the property value of the community. It is not an eye sore. It is something very nice … We are very proud of it,” he said.
President Donald Trump’s loyalists here at Florida’s premier retirement community fear Andrew Gillum.
It has nothing to do with his race, they insist, when asked about the 39-year-old Democrat who could become the state’s first African-American governor. Instead, The Villages’ deeply conservative residents are convinced a Gillum victory would trigger an era of high crime, higher taxes and moral failing.
“He’ll kill everything that’s good about Florida,” says Talmadge Strickland, a 66-year-old retired firefighter wearing a “Trump 2020” baseball cap at a rally for Gillum’s opponent. “He will hurt us; he will physically hurt us with his socialist mentality.”
In an era defined by deep political partisanship, there’s perhaps no state where the divide runs deeper than Florida, which is in the grip of a fierce culture clash over guns, race, climate change and the president. Gillum sits at the center of the melee, his campaign a proxy for the larger fight between Democrats and President Donald Trump’s GOP.
Gillum’s fate is inexorably linked to fellow Democrats whose success could determine control of Congress. That’s especially true for three-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who could benefit from Gillum’s appeal among young voters and minorities.
As early voting begins in Florida this week, that link is tenuous.
“New voters and infrequent voters are everything to us winning,” Gillum told The Associated Press when asked about his impact on Nelson’s race. “I think they will vote for both of us, and that will be to his benefit.”
Young people and minorities are traditionally among the least reliable voters, particularly in midterm elections. Meanwhile, white voters in place like The Villages are lining up behind his opponent, former Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis.
The electorate in Florida this year is especially unpredictable due to an unusual collision of events: a massive hurricane, the nation’s deadliest high school shooting and Gillum’s historic candidacy.
DeSantis has benefited from Trump’s occasional backing on social media, including after the debate. And Gillum is scheduled to campaign this week alongside former Vice President Joe Biden and 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In the interview, he noted he’s been in touch with former President Barack Obama, who may campaign on his behalf.
Gillum acknowledged some Florida voters might oppose him because of his race, but insisted “that voter is not the majority of the people in our state.”
During Sunday night’s CNN debate, he accused his Republican opponent of fanning racial animus ever since DeSantis first warned Florida voters not to “monkey this up” by electing Gillum.
“The ‘monkey up’ comment said it all,” Gillum charged. “He has only continued in the course of his campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin. The truth is, you know what, I’m black. I’ve been black all my life. So far as I know, I will die black.”
Meanwhile, a small, but significant portion of the state’s Republican base remains consumed by recovery efforts almost two weeks after Hurricane Michael devastated the Panhandle. The secretary of state extended early voting hours, but both sides expect a drop in turnout across the heavily-Republican region as residents struggle without electricity and lodging in many cases.
Nelson’s challenger, Gov. Rick Scott, has yet to resume any campaign activities since the storm made landfall.
The state’s other trauma — a school shooting earlier this year that left 17 students and staff dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland — looms over the races. Backed by the fortune of Democratic billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, Florida’s young people are fighting to be heard.
Those rallying behind Gillum in recent days include 16-year-old Sari Kaufman, a Parkland survivor who spent Sunday canvassing for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
In an interview, Kaufman suggested young people are more excited about Gillum than Nelson, particularly because of Gillum’s status as a younger candidate running statewide for the first time.
“If he is successful and other candidates are successful, it will mean that my fellow classmates didn’t die in vain,” Kaufman said.
African-American leaders are also working to reverse their community’s typical drop-off in midterm elections. NAACP President Derrick Johnson said his organization is “microfocused” on boosting black turnout this fall. A statewide canvassing effort is underway across Florida, where organizers hope to bump black turnout by at least 5 percent from four years ago.
It was easy to find evidence of Gillum’s influence among so-called low-propensity voters in recent days, as activists from more than a half dozen competing groups scoured the state to ensure they cast ballots.
Anne Fazio, a 19-year-old Jacksonville student, was among thousands of people contacted at home over the weekend by the Koch-backed Americans For Prosperity’s massive door-knocking push. Standing at her front door, she didn’t hesitate when a conservative volunteer asked whether she was going to vote.
“I’m voting for Andrew Gillum,” Fazio said, praising his support for gun control and expanding Medicaid coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income residents.
Asked by the AP whether she would support Nelson, she said: “I think I’ll probably vote for him — he’s a Democrat, right?”
The Republican DeSantis is making little effort to expand his coalition as he embraces Trump and his policies in a state the president carried by 1 point.
DeSantis vowed during Sunday’s debate to work closely with the Trump administration, while noting that Gillum has called for Trump’s impeachment. “You’ve got to be able to work with the administration,” DeSantis declared.
He also dismissed Parkland students’ calls for stronger efforts to reduce gun violence when asked about his opposition to modest gun control measures passed by Florida’s Republican-led legislature in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
DeSantis said local law enforcement and school officials “let them down” by not acting sooner to detain the shooter and address his mental health issues sooner.
Meanwhile, a flood of money is shaping the Florida elections.
Since the beginning of September alone, each side has dumped more than $44 million into television advertising for the governor’s race. While that may be the most in the country, it’s a fraction of the spending in Florida’s Senate contest, according to political operatives tracking media spending.
Paced by the Scott campaign’s $50 million, the Republican side has invested nearly $79 million in television spending since April compared to Democrats’ $49 million behind Nelson.
Back at The Villages, the attack ads against Gillum appeared to be resonating with retirees gathered for a Saturday DeSantis appearance that drew about 400.
“He scares me, I’m sorry,” 75-year-old retiree Suzanne Zimmerman, a member of Villagers for Trump, said of Gillum.
His race has nothing to do with her fear, she said.
“Although Gillum does say that there are too many white men in government,” Zimmerman added. “So that’s unfortunate that he is actually a racist.”
WALKING BY FAITH TO THE POLLS: Dozens af marchers from various churches leave the New Hope Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Sunday Oct. 28, 2012, en route to the African American Cultural Library to vote. (Photo: Joe Cavaretta, South Florida Sun Sentinel)
On a day punctuated by echoes of the civil rights movement, hundreds of people poured out of churches after services in South Florida’s historic black neighborhoods Sunday to march to the voting booth, intent on honoring a right for which ancestors shed their blood.
“People have died so I could do this,” said James Gadsen, 74, a deacon at New Hope Baptist Church, the rallying point for the mile-long walk down Sistrunk Boulevard to the polls in the African-American Research Library in Fort Lauderdale. “Too many people have given up too much for me not to go vote.”
In Boynton Beach, scores of parishioners gathered at St. John Missionary Baptist Church and other houses or worship and were bused to various polling sites.
“We do not make an endorsement, but we urge people to consider a candidate who would do what Jesus would require,” said the Rev. Nathaniel Robinson, pastor of Greater St. Paul AME Church, who led his parishioners to the polls in Delray Beach.
Dubbed “Souls to the Polls,” the get-out-the-vote effort on the second day of statewide early voting was sponsored by several churches, local NAACP chapters and several public service sororities and fraternities, including Delta Sigma Theta.
The march reflected the tradition of many black voters casting their ballots after church on the Sunday before Election Day.
This year, however, the eight-day period set aside for early voting — cut from 14 days in the last presidential election — does not include the Sunday before Nov. 6. Early voting ends Saturday.
Many Democrats charged that Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature scaled back on early voting for 2012 to suppress the minority vote. Republicans deny that charge.
But those marching Sunday said they did not want to take any chances.
“We need to make sure our voices are heard,” said march organizer and attorney Alfreda Coward of Delta Sigma Theta. “And we need to make sure we elect people who are passionate about the issues that we are passionate about.”
The march and the rally outside the polls were nonpartisan. Both Democratic and Republican candidates were introduced before most marchers got in line to vote.
But there was little doubt which of the presidential nominees most of the marchers backed.
“Four more years,” the crowd chanted as the marchers streamed past Ray’s Meat Market, BG’s Home Cooking, under Interstate 95 and over the New River Bridge on a breezy, sunny day.
Not everyone marching was eligible to vote. Among the many youngsters joining family groups was Isaiah Blackwell, 15, a student at Northeast High School. Walking beside his grandmother, Blackwell said he could sense the historical precedents he had only read about.
“This makes me think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the battle against segregation,” he said. “We have to vote to succeed as a country.”
Inside the library, Broward County supervisor of elections Brenda Snipes said at mid-afternoon that waiting time to get into one of the 50 voting booths ran from 20 to 60 minutes.
That wait time was down from Saturday, when Broward set a record for a single day of presidential early voting.
“We had 28,000 people vote Saturday,” said Snipes. “That is an exceptional number, shocking. I did not realize that people would turn out the way they did.”
By 4 p.m. Sunday, more than 19,000 had cast ballots in Broward County, according to county election officials.
The count of first-day early voters in Palm Beach County on Saturday was more than 13,200, according to elections office spokeswoman Erin Lewandowski. Numbers from Sunday were unavailable.
Whether Sunday’s effort will make up for the loss of early-voting days remains to be seen. But this campaign in South Florida, along with other faith-based efforts in cities like Pensacola, Tampa, Orlando, Kissimmee, and Gainesville, will give Florida residents a chance to try.
ON THE ATTACK; President Barack Obama charged GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney with being mostly “wrong” in his past opinions about foreign policy. The president and Romney tangled during the election season’s final debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Monday. (Photo: Robert Duyos/Newscom)
BOCA RATON, Fla. — An assertive President Barack Obama accused Mitt Romney Monday night of taking an unclear and vacillating approach to foreign policy, saying such confusing signals would embolden the nation’s enemies in a time of continued threats.
Romney responded by brushing aside the attacks, saying they failed to address the serious challenges — and opportunities — the country faces as the Middle East convulses in widespread upheaval.
The two men wasted no time tangling in the opening moments of their third and final presidential debate, a session devoted to national security and foreign policy.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, consistent with the earlier debates, took a more moderate stance than he has in much of the campaign.
He praised Obama for the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, but said the country “can’t kill our way” to a solution in the Middle East. He said the answer is greater economic opportunities and the spread of freedom.
Obama immediately went on the attack, citing Romney’s earlier Cold War-style rhetoric and suggesting Romney wanted to institute a 1980s foreign policy to go along with a social policy from the 1950s and economic policies from the 1920s.
“Every time you’ve offered an opinion,” the president said bluntly, “you’ve been wrong.”
Seated side-by-side at a wooden tabletop and facing the moderator, CBS’ Bob Schieffer, each candidate hoped for a breakthrough while avoiding any misstep that could assume outsized import in the campaign’s final, crucial stretch.
The 90-minute session on the campus of Lynn University in South Florida was seen as favoring Obama, at least starting out. He is the nation’s commander in chief, with the gravitas that confers. Moreover, he can boast, as he has throughout the campaign, of several major accomplishments, including the killing of bin Laden, keeping his pledge to end the war in Iraq and laying out plans to end America’s increasingly unpopular engagement in Afghanistan.
Just ahead of the debate, the Obama campaign broadcast a new TV spot highlighting the withdrawal from Iraq and plans to bring troops home from Afghanistan. “It’s time to stop fighting over there and start rebuilding over here,” the ad stated, tying an economic argument to the president’s foreign policy message.
In the past few weeks, however, Obama has been thrown on the defensive on foreign policy, once considered his strongest suit, as the administration offered an evolving series of explanations for the attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans died in the assault, details of which are still hazy.
Despite that opening, Romney has not been terribly sure-footed when he strays from his campaign’s central focus on the economy. He staged a poorly reviewed summer trip to Europe and Israel, puzzled even some Republicans by calling Russia the nation’s top strategic foe, and has been burned by attempts to capitalize on the controversy over Benghazi, including a factual misstatement in last week’s debate.
The debate followed a pair of outings that saw vastly different performances by Obama, who faltered in his first face-to-face meeting with Romney, then came back aggressively in the second.
Romney’s commanding Oct. 3 performance in Denver rallied Republicans and forestalled a possible Obama runaway; the president’s comeback on Long Island last week reassured Democrats and averted panic in his party, though it failed to recoup the momentum Obama lost after his poor initial showing.
HUMAN MOMENT: After the debate, President Obama greeted two of Mitt Romney’s grandsons as their grandmother, Ann Romney, watched with a smile. (Photo: Jewel Samad/Newscom)
With just 14 full days of campaigning left, the two men are running neck-and-neck in national polls, even as the president continues to hold a small edge in the state-by-state electoral vote contest.
The topic of Monday night’s debate was a break from the campaign’s recent focus on abortion, birth control and other issues aimed primarily at women voters, who are seen as potentially the decisive bloc on Election Day.
The differences between the two candidates on foreign policy, however, have been marginal, with both sides magnifying them to suggest a greater separation than exists. Throughout the campaign, for instance, Romney has criticized Obama’s timeline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan but, at the same time, indicated he would adhere to the plan to bring them home by 2014.
He has repeatedly criticized Obama for not doing more to secure stability in Syria and Libya, but has not said whether he would consider committing U.S. troops as part of a peacekeeping force in either nation.
Romney has mainly painted his foreign policy vision in broad strokes, saying he would pursue a policy of “peace through strength” — a Republican standby since the days of Ronald Reagan — and seek to preside over “an American century.”
More than 67 million people tuned in to the first debate, and the viewership was nearly as large for last week’s follow-up. The audience for the final session in Florida was expected to be smaller, due in part to the topic — foreign policy is not a top-of-the-mind issue for most Americans — and competition with “Monday Night Football” and the deciding game of baseball’s National League Championship Series.
Regardless, the debate was significant as the last chance for voters to see the two presidential hopefuls side-by-side and engaging in a relatively free-flowing, unscripted exchange. It also represented the last major chance the candidates had to appeal to voters who have yet to make up their minds and, perhaps more importantly, to excite their supporters and motivate them to turn out for the Nov. 6 election.
WELCOME TO TAMPA: Some 200 protesters braved inclement weather from Tropical Storm Isaac today to rally against the presence of the GOP convention in Tampa, Florida. Protesters cried out against Republican policies on immigration, health care, and the economy. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/Newscom)
News that a Republican candidate is getting a low percentage of the black vote typically draws a yawn.
But prominent black Republicans, such as Romney-Ryan adviser Tara Wall, likely gasped at the new NBC-Wall Street Journalpoll that suggests the ticket is currently getting zero percent of the black vote. How do you get zero percent with all those #BlackConservativeForMittRomney tags on Twitter?
Truthfully, the poll’s results aren’t literal, being within the 3.1 percent margin of error. But there’s a link between the poll and Romney’s actions that should cause black Republicans like Wall to do some soul-searching.
Since May, Wall has been Romney’s senior communications adviser emphasizing African American outreach (UrbanFaith news editor Christine Scheller spoke to her back in June). Wall held a similar role with President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign where he gained 11 percent of the black vote. She’s among a group of black advisers who have been schooling (apparently not well) Romney on what black voters need to hear from him. They don’t expect to outpoint the nation’s first African American president, but want Romney to at least hold on to the 4 percent of the black vote that McCain received in his 2008 loss to Obama.
I interviewed Wall last week on my radio show and her comments about the poll were predictable: You can make numbers say anything you want. Obviously, black Republicans weren’t among those polled. Excitement for President Obama has dipped as people continue to struggle economically. Efforts to appeal to black voters are gearing up (at this writing there was no section on Romney’s website under the “communities” geared specifically towards black or Hispanic voters).
However, I was struck by Wall’s response concerning the GOP’s elephant in the room — its race-baiting tactics.
It’s often said that blacks, particularly black Christians, are as socially conservative (pro-life, pro traditional marriage) as the Republican platform claims to be. So why aren’t black voters aligned with Republicans over Democrats? The GOP’s racist bent is what keeps black voters at bay. Wall objected passionately.
“That’s false. I reject that notion,” she said. “… Racism comes in many forms. I think that is a discussion in a broader context that we as a community have to have on an ongoing basis. But to simply blanketly [sic] say that Republicans don’t speak out and are racist, I think that’s patently false. There are racist elements in society everywhere and in every party and in every place.”
TOUGH TASK AHEAD: Tara Wall is charged with shaping the Romney campaign’s communication strategy — including its message to the black community, which is presently showing no love for Mitt.
That last sentence is certainly true. Democrats play race games as well and President Obama has been tepid on addressing racism. However, it’s well documented that much of today’s Republican base is of the Dixiecrat tradition — anti-big government, pro-state’s rights, segregationists. In response to Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson signing civil rights legislation in the 1960s (Northern moderate Republicans urged him to), Southern conservative democrats began fleeing to the GOP. They were lured by the GOP’s “Southern strategy” during the Goldwater and Nixon years. To compete with Democratic gains, the GOP saw white southerners as fertile ground for new voters. Understanding the buttons to push, they stirred fears of big government and black people to win them over. No deep ideological motive, just money + votes = power.
Blue states turned red. The party of Abraham Lincoln took on the spirit of Andrew Johnson. Blacks fled the GOP. The legacy continues today.
Wall and other black Republicans know this history well. She has been among those critical of the GOP’s alienating minorities, especially in light of America’s “browning” as Hispanic populations grow. She has even produced a documentary about this titled, Souled Out that has apparently been tucked away for the moment.
As an independent who votes his interests, I admire black conservatives who are truly sincere in their beliefs to diversify the GOP. Think about it. If Romney beats Obama, who would be at the table of influence in the West Wing fighting for black issues? We need advocates in both political parties. Besides, there are sellouts on both sides who dine and grow fat as the masses of black people suffer from high unemployment, health disparities, incarceration rates, and wealth gaps.
The gentleman in me held my tongue from lashing out at Wall about the race baiting. I didn’t have to. The following day her boss, during a campaign stump in Michigan where he and his wife, Ann, were born, pulled a line from the Southern strategy playbook. Before an overwhelmingly white audience, Romney quipped: “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate; they know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”
It was an obvious wink to the birthers who believe Obama is un-American, unqualified, and should go back to Africa.