Is this just a coincidence or part of a trend? I can’t say for sure, but it’s curious nonetheless.
Since the end of February, filings have surfaced in local counties seeking court approval for the sale of more than $3 million in church-owned real estate.
The properties range from a vacant residential lot in the city of Albany to a little-used pastor’s home in rural Greene County to the church of a now-inactive congregation in Washington County.
The petitions also include a couple of eye-poppers: $575,000 for a building in Rotterdam and $1.4 million for almost six acres downstate near White Plains.
Most of the deals were struck last year, but under New York law, real property transactions by religious organizations and nonprofits need state Supreme Court approval or an OK from the attorney general’s office – hence the filings that have turned up of late.
According to Victory Christian Church’s court petition, “it is in the best interest of [the church] to sell them now while the real estate market is very good and prices are high.”
Albany-based Victory Christian, familiar for Pastor Charlie Muller’s efforts against gun violence, has deals in hand for six properties – including the $575,000 sale of a former worship hall on Hamburg Street. Total proceeds are projected at $877,000, which would be put toward tenant renovations at a church-owned office building near Westgate Plaza.
Similarly, Northway Fellowship in Clifton Park says proceeds from the $1.4 million sale of wooded land in Westchester County will funnel back into church purposes.
The land was gifted in the dissolution of another church in 2015, with a “Westchester campus” then contemplated, according to the dissolution papers. But Northway’s March filing says the property “no longer serves the needs of the church.”
A California real estate consultant who advises faith communities recognizes that years of declining church membership, coupled with reexaminations brought on by COVID-19, have many thinking about best uses for their excess space.
“I would never suggest that churches allow the market to dictate their decisions about when to give up space,” says Dominic Dutra, author of “Closing Costs: Reimagining Church Real Estate for Missional Purposes” and principal of 3D Strategies in suburban San Francisco.
“Churches can and should use their properties to serve their communities,” he said by email this week, and if the “painful” decision to close must be made, “that can still be done with an eye towards blessing the most vulnerable in that dying congregation’s immediate community” – such as by exploring affordable housing for the space.
In suburban Dallas, Texas, commercial broker John Muzyka of Church Realty notes the importance of getting professional advice. He said his firm, which represents churches as they buy and sell property, was able to negotiate a significant price for a client’s excess land that will “position them to serve the community better than they have before.”
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].