Calif. Church at Forefront of Housing-Rights Battle Faces Foreclosure

Calif. Church at Forefront of Housing-Rights Battle Faces Foreclosure

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ANTIOCH, Calif. – A church that has been at the forefront of efforts to address the foreclosure crisis could be the latest victim in the housing crunch.

Located in one of the state’s epicenters for foreclosures, Antioch Church Family has felt the ripple effects of the housing crisis through its congregation.

When one church member lost her home, Dr. Mario Howell, the church’s pastor, gave her a job as a receptionist. When another lost her house to foreclosure shortly after the deaths of her son and husband, the pastor offered her a place to live in one of the buildings the church owns. When Bank of America was slow to modify home loans, Howell joined an interfaith network to pressure the City of Antioch to switch banks.

Now the church could face the same fate it has helped members of its community stave off.

Membership has declined by half to 200 in the last few years. In tough times, church offerings are also down.

But that’s not why the church is in trouble.

“We never missed a payment,” said Howell, adding that the church was able to make up for the slump in contributions through income from rental property it owns.

Instead, the church’s woes stem from sagging property values that will make refinancing its loan “impossible,” according to Howell. Four years ago, the church bought its spacious building at its current site for $3.2 million. Now the property is worth half that.

Howell says the church is currently hoping to strike a deal with its lender Evangelical Christian Credit Union (ECCU) to modify the loan.

ECCU spokesperson Jac La Tour said he could not comment on the church’s specific case, adding, “Our goal in cases like this is to work to the point that foreclosure doesn’t take place.”

La Tour says many churches are on shakier financial ground these days, noting that the religious credit union had never had a church foreclosure until 2007. Since then, there have been about 40, he said. ECCU lends to about 1,000 ministries across the nation.

In evaluating the church’s loan, La Tour says the credit union will take into account not only economic factors, but also “impact in their community.”

“That’s a high priority for us,” he said.

Rev. Eugene Jackson of Grace Bible Church in Antioch says the loss of the church would impact hundreds of families, because Antioch Church Family hosts three other congregations, including a Latino one. He says churches have played an important role in helping the community cope with the current housing crisis.

“People are suffering in solitude. They don’t know how to get help,” he said.

Community organizer Nancy Marquez, with Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, says clergy also bear the emotional toll of the foreclosure crisis, as they come into contact with many “grieving families, displaced families.”

Churches have stepped up to provide relief to homeowners through food pantries and job training, she says. And they’re helping to break the silence around foreclosures.

Howell says he regularly talks about the foreclosure crisis during Sunday service in the church sanctuary.

“I talk about it more than I talk about Jesus,” he said, adding that he’s tried to get homeowners to organize around foreclosure prevention policies.

Last month, Howell was one of half a dozen people arrested at the Wells Fargo shareholder meeting in San Francisco, where he joined hundreds of homeowners and supporters to demand the bank halt foreclosures.

“There’s not another issue that has brought together as many clergy as the foreclosure crisis,” said Marquez, noting that Howell has been central to efforts to build bridges between black and Latino homeowners who have been the hardest hit by foreclosures.

Poring over a stack of papers strewn across his desk, and with a look of worry on his somber face, Howell says he hasn’t yet told his congregation about the church’s problems.

To many church members, like 70-year-old Joann Hall, the news would be a big blow.

Hall currently lives in an apartment in a six-unit complex owned by and adjacent to Antioch Church Family. She lost her son, husband and then their house within a span of a few years. Getting over a bout of depression after her personal losses, disabled and living on a fixed income, Hall says she never would have been able to “qualify for a place.”

“If I had to move,” she says. “I don’t know what I would do.”