Methodists approve $40 million affordable housing project in Denton
The project has attracted the partnership of national partners, including Dallas’ Omni Hotel developer
When Debra Hobbs Mason, a high-ranking United Methodist official in North Texas, read out the result of the vote on Sunday afternoon, more than 200 members of First United Methodist Church of Denton got on their feet. A standing ovation was the order of the day.
The downtown church had just cast an astonishing vision to benefit the city’s working poor: The church approved a plan to use 2 acres of church property, located in downtown Denton, to build a 185-unit apartment complex on the acreage. The development will be expressly for families who can’t afford soaring housing prices.
Officials said renters eligible for a unit are part of a club no one wants to join: people who are asset-limited, income-constrained and employed. That is, people who are working part-time or full-time jobs, but whose paycheck won’t cover rent in the city where they work.
The final count showed 205 voted in favor of the massive project. Just 12 cast votes against it.
“I do want to say a word of grace and love to the ones who are not ready to say yes,” said Mason, who is the North Central District superintendent of the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.
“You are members of this congregation. You voted your hearts. And you keep them accountable for every moment in these days ahead. Please don’t feel that because of the overwhelming ‘yes’ and all the clapping that you weren’t heard. You are all church family.”
The cost of the apartment complex project is estimated at $40 million, said Jeff Springer, the chair of the study committee leading the initiative.
“We don’t expect a capital campaign to fund it,” Springer told a member during a Q&A on Sunday. “We don’t expect the funding would come from the church. If there is an exception to that, it would be a very, very small portion of what we call gap funding. But even most of the gap funding is likely to come from grant applications that we plan on sending to organizations that fund these kinds of projects.”
The study committee reported that the project is expected to pay for itself. The church will apply for state funding for the project, and has recruited national partners in Volunteers of America, a faith-based nonprofit that works in affordable housing, skilled nursing and veteran services, and Matthews Southwest, a Lewisville-based real estate developer best known regionally for the Omni Dallas Hotel and the New Orleans convention center hotel project. Officials said they expect the Denton project to be designed and built in an aesthetic that complements surrounding downtown buildings. The initial plan is for the first floor of the complex to be devoted to retail space.
Study committee members said they consider the project “workforce housing.” The leadership was guided by an alarming data set: Forty percent of Denton County residents can’t afford housing costs. It’s a reality that forces teachers, social workers, service industry employees and others to make longer and longer commutes to local jobs.
Over the last several months, church leaders have discussed the project during worship, assuring members that renters, whose applications will be vetted for financial eligibility, will be able to have housing affordable enough so that they’ll still be able to buy groceries, gas and other essentials.
Over the past several weeks, the church has seen an unusually high number of people join the congregation — many of whom have been worshipping with the church for a long time, but committed to the congregation so they could cast a secret ballot in the church conference.
Members gathered after worship, and senior pastor the Rev. Don Lee said he was surprised to see the sanctuary filling with members. Lee opened the meeting with the history of the denomination’s first entry into establishing hospitals.
Methodists, Lee said, have been defined by the audacity of their faith in mustard seeds. The first Methodist hospital got its start in 1899 by teenage Christians with a lot of belief — and $4,750 of seed money for that first hospital.
“The Methodist Hospital is now the Indiana University Methodist Hospital, which celebrated its centennial anniversary in 1999, was the site of the largest neurocritical care unit in the country,” Lee said. “It was a hospital where the first heart transplant in a private hospital took place. It was one of only two Level I trauma centers in the area. And today, as Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, it is the largest health care provider in the state of Indiana and it was founded by teenagers.”
Springer said the project will feed the church, financially.
“The other thing we haven’t talked about very much, but frankly is crucial to the survival of our church, is that eventually the project will become a revenue source,” he said. “It may be a revenue source from the very beginning, but it will certainly be a revenue source for the future. In fact, over the first 40 years that the project exists is likely to provide the church with $30 million of income on the church’s missions and ministries right here in Denton.”
Mason said the vote was a bright moment in a troubled time for the denomination, which has been riven by a growing cultural chasm between the United Methodist Church, which has slowly moved toward full inclusion of LGBTQ members and ordination of gay clergy, and the more fundamentalist Global Methodist Church, which includes adherents and clergy who are hostile to LGBTQ equality. The Texas Annual Conference reported 294 of the conference’s 598 churches have begun disaffiliation. The conference represents churches in Galveston, Houston, College Station, Beaumont Texarkana, Longview and Tyler. The Northwest Texas Conference, based in Lubbock, approved the departure of 145 churches from the roughly 200 it serves.
The COVID-19 pandemic was another blow to the once-sprawling denomination, with many congregations cut in half by quarantine — and at least one local congregation closing its doors.
“It is so fun to be in a church conference that is talking about the future,” Mason said. “I hope you’re as excited as I am. My soul needs to just bask in what you’re dreaming. This is a God-sized dream that you’re talking about.”
LUCINDA BREEDING-GONZALES can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.