For Dallas Adams, owning her own home gave her a long-awaited opportunity to put down roots.
Adams moved around a lot as a child, never staying long enough to feel fully part of a community, she said. When she relocated to the Dutchtown neighborhood of south St. Louis in 2020, she decided she wanted to stay.
Adams was able to purchase a home last year through the St. Joseph Housing Initiative, a nonprofit that turns vacant homes into quality housing for low- and moderate-income families in the St. Louis area.
“I remember walking into the house and feeling this sense of, ‘you’re home.’ I could hear God’s voice just say, ‘Welcome home,’” she said. “It gave me chills…I have never felt that way before.”
St. Joseph Housing Initiative is one of six organizations that will receive funding from a new ecumenical housing initiative established by the Oikos Group
. The Oikos Group is a partnership of nine area Christian faith leaders, formed in fall 2021 to build trust and address needs in the St. Louis area.
Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski is joined by eight other Christian leaders: Rev. Darren Casper of the St. Louis Metro Baptist Association; Rev. Jeff Cloeter of Christ Memorial Lutheran Church; Pastor Greg Holder of The Crossing Church; Bishop Michael Jones of Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church; Pastor Brent Roam of One Family Church; Pastor Clay Smith of Central Presbyterian Church; Rev. Dr. Thurman Williams of Covenant Seminary and New City Fellowship; and Bishop Lawrence Wooten of Williams Temple Church of God in Christ, second assistant presiding bishop of The Church of God in Christ.
The Oikos Group, which draws its name from the Greek word for “house” as well as the root of “ecumenical” (oikou-menikos), started when Archbishop Rozanksi invited the other leaders to his residence for dinner, prayer and frank conversation. As the leaders met regularly over the following months, they honed in on affordable housing as a way to address racial and economic inequities in St. Louis, said James Fowlkes-Comninellis, coordinator of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the archdiocese and part of the Oikos Group’s facilitation team.
“This group made it very clear that they recognized the issues of division and of racial inequity in St. Louis, and they wanted to do something about it. But as leaders with shared faith, they wanted to do it prayerfully and do it together as a united community,” Fowlkes-Comninellis said.
On April 19, the nine leaders announced the launch of their Hearts, Hands & Homes initiative, which aims to raise $3-$6 million by the end of 2023 to be divided evenly among six organizations who provide housing and support services to disenfranchised families in the region. In total, the six organizations have set a goal of serving 834 families, providing 135 affordable homes and assisting 100 new homeowners in 2023 and 2024.
The organizations and their individual goals are:
As of April 19, $1.785 million has been raised.
“Our hearts are not just knit together as a group of leaders. Our hearts are burdened for our community, for St. Louis, for the burdens of the people who we serve, who we love, who are harmed in our community,” said Pastor Clay Smith. “…And our hands are now joined together to serve something that is broken in our community. We’re going to serve together for the good of our neighbors, in the name of Jesus.”
Bishop Michael Jones shared the guiding Scripture of the initiative, from Isaiah 61:4: “They shall build up the ancient ruins. They shall raise up former devastations. They shall repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations.’”
Through this ecumenical partnership, Archbishop Rozanski, who serves on the U.S. Bishops Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and the other Christian leaders have been able to draw on their common desire to glorify God by serving His people, the archbishop said.
“Ever since the Second Vatican Council, we have been ever more aware of the need to reach out to other faiths in building up the Kingdom of God here on earth,” he said. “In our ecumenical relationships, such as the crucial effort by Oikos, we have seen the critical need for families to have stability in their lives by having a home to call their own, to care for and to raise a family.”
According to the 2021 St. Louis Affordable Housing Report Card, 78% of St. Louis families who made less than $22,400 (just above the federal poverty line for a family of three that year) experienced housing cost burden, which exists when a family’s housing costs are more than 30% of their annual income. According to the report, more than 35,000 additional affordable rental units were needed for families in this income tier.
(To read the full report, including information about the role of racism in the St. Louis housing landscape, visit affordablestl.com.)
Archbishop Rozanski closed the news conference by paraphrasing St. Teresa of Calcutta: I cannot change the whole world, but I can change the life of one person.
“It has been, and will continue to be, a real privilege to work together to show that the Gospel changes hearts and minds, that the Gospel, 2,000 years after Jesus Christ died and rose, still makes a difference in our world because of God’s love for us,” he said.
Thriving families and neighborhoods
Working together with the other Hearts, Hands & Homes agencies is “an incredible opportunity for collaboration,” said Maureen McCuen, executive director of St. Joseph Housing Initiative.
“Each organization in the Hearts, Hands & Homes group has a slightly different approach to addressing affordable housing,” McCuen said. “And we can each do what we do best and work together. We can all collaborate to offer a different piece of the puzzle of affordable housing.”
SJHI is getting ready to sell its 10th renovated home in the next few weeks, with three more currently under construction. With the funding from Hearts, Hands & Homes, SJHI will be able to greatly expand the number of vacant homes converted and homebuyer assistance offered.
The Pathways to Progress team is looking forward to partnering closely with SJHI and the other agencies, said Brian Thouvenot, chief development officer at Catholic Charities of St. Louis. Pathways to Progress, a joint program of Catholic Charities and St. Francis Community Services, provides long-term, wrap-around case management and support services, working with members to empower their families toward stability and sustainable economic independence.
With the initiative’s support, Pathways to Progress plans to hire additional member advisors to work with families who are finding affordable housing through the other agencies. That means expanding services from the program’s current locations in North County and at the Hub in north city to include households in south city, where SJHI and the Lutheran Development Group operate.
“Families who are getting affordable rental homes or owning their own homes might need help with budgeting, or with legal assistance in some fashion, so we can help connect them to those resources,” Thouvenot said. “Because home ownership is never a straight line, where things are always hunky-dory; you might have a major expense or something that can kind of derail you if you don’t have good resources surrounding you.”
As more people secure affordable, safe housing, the hope is that it will create ripple effects benefitting not only those families but also entire neighborhoods. Adams, the SJHI homeowner, now serves on the board of Dutchtown Main Streets, a not-for-profit community development organization that promotes economic development in the neighborhood. Along with her fellow SJHI homeowners, “We’re actively committed partners to making sure the neighborhood grows and thrives,” she said.
That change is generational, Adams said. Every time she walks through her front door, which she chose to paint a bright, bold teal, or waters the plants in her own backyard garden beds, she’s thankful that her 3-year-old daughter, Olivia, will grow up with all the benefits of a stable house in a neighborhood she loves.
“We finally have a place to land and to have roots and to feel safe enough to invest in all of these things. Because we’re not going anywhere,” Adams said. “It feels like a huge blessing from God, how all the pieces lined up. And I’m very proud. I’m very proud to set that legacy for my family.”