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Lee Hardy on Housing, Justice, and Worship

Completing a grant project on faith communities and affordable housing convinced Lee Hardy that justice and worship are internally linked. That’s why he says worship services should include housing justice, and Christians and congregations should advocate to change unjust systems.

Lee Hardy is a Calvin University professor emeritus of philosophy and urban studies. Hardy, who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a long-time member of Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and is the affordable housing contact for CNU’s Christian Caucus. His most recent book is The Embrace of Buildings: A Second Look at Walkable City Neighborhoods. In this edited conversation, Hardy discusses what he learned while completing a 2019 Teacher-Scholar Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

What was the goal of your Teacher-Scholar Grant?

I explored how congregations and faith-based nonprofits in North America and the Netherlands are tackling homelessness and housing insecurity. The primary result is a website to help churches identify and use their resources to support affordable housing. My website organizes faith-sponsored affordable-housing case studies by category, such as land, money, parking, time, building, and partners. It has information on key affordable-housing concepts and advocacy tips on how public transportation and zoning laws affect affordable housing. The website’s extensive worship resources—prayers, songs and hymns, preaching texts, and liturgies—help faith communities engage or become aware of housing ministries in worship services.

What new insights did you gain while completing your grant project on faith communities and affordable housing?

Both insights spring from noticing that the affordable housing developments I visited were largely attempts to patch serious effects of many societal faults, such as homelessness, inequity, racism, and neglect. I now think we must complement these immediate fixes with long-range solutions focused on public policy. I also learned that worship and justice are internally linked. No true worship is acceptable to God without a commitment to justice.

Unhoused people need shelter, and people experiencing housing insecurity need affordable dwellings. So why do you describe them as attempts to patch societal faults?

Imagine a person arrives at a hospital emergency room with terrible stomach pains. The doctor in attendance gives him a pain killer and sends him on his way without diagnosing or treating the cause of the malady. That might strike us as a case of malpractice, patching the symptoms without offering a cure.

Providing emergency shelter for the homeless or subsidized housing for the poor is like patching symptoms of a deeper disease. These charitable responses are important and necessary. But charity must be wedded to a long-term pursuit of justice. And justice may require that we let go of some privileges so all people can gain equal access to quality education, employment, health care, food, transportation, and, yes, adequate housing.

What examples of injustice did you discover while exploring faith-based affordable-housing projects?

Two examples involve tax credits and zoning regulations. Both work to keep people with lower incomes segregated from those with higher incomes.

In the US, developers need federal low-income housing tax credits to finance truly affordable housing. These tax credits are awarded based on a point system. Projects in an area of concentrated poverty get more points. When you put new affordable housing in an area where 30 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line, then you keep it out of neighborhoods like mine. Yet research shows that growing up in concentrated poverty often creates a culture of despair and limits life prospects. Low-income residents in mixed-income and mixed-use neighborhoods have more social mobility.

And what have you learned about housing injustice and zoning?

My website’s Advocate section explains how zoning laws work against affordable housing. In neighborhoods zoned for single-family residential (R-1) only, developers must get special permission to build smaller, less expensive residential types. Often called “the missing middle,” these dwelling types include townhouses, duplexes, and triplexes. Cities in California’s Bay Area changed zoning regulations to allow owners to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) by right (rather than needing special permission). Research shows that ADUs often cost less to rent than other housing types. Perhaps it’s because renters and landlords develop a personal relationship. Rental income also helps owners afford to stay in their homes.

Exclusionary zoning has its roots back in the 1910s, when Baltimore, Maryland; Louisville, Kentucky; and St. Louis, Missouri made it against the law for a household on a majority white block to sell to a black family. In 1917, the US Supreme Court struck down government-instituted racial segregation in residential areas because it violated “freedom of contract” rights. Harland Bartholomew, St. Louis’s planning director, accomplished the same ends by outlawing rental-property construction in mostly single-family neighborhoods—because most households of color were renters, and most homeowners were white. That zoning ordinance passed legal muster and, since it didn’t mention race, is very common today. Bartholomew, however, admitted that his zoning ordinance was designed to keep “colored people” out of our “finer residential districts.” 

Why do you see affordable housing as a justice issue?

I move mostly in circles of white, middle-class people and experience white privilege, meaning that existing policies benefit us but disadvantage other groups. Yet if we read the law, the prophets, and the gospels of the Christian scriptures, we find a God of justice, a God firmly committed to defending the rights of our society’s most vulnerable members.

The Son of God inaugurated his ministry (Luke 4:18–21) by reading a passage from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” When that same Spirit was poured out on the believing community at Pentecost, the first thing the Spirit-baptized members of that community did was share all they owned so that the needs of all were met. Adequate housing is one of our society’s most pressing needs. And it will only get worse as the pandemic’s economic consequences roll out in waves of unemployment, evictions, and foreclosures.

How does the Bible link justice and worship?

We may say all the right words, perform all the rituals correctly, have an aesthetically wonderful and emotionally uplifting service of divine worship, but if that service is not the authentic expression of a faith community actively attuned to neighbors’ needs, it doesn’t count. In fact, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets called injustice an “abomination” that made God reject Israel’s worship. Jesus also decried religious hypocrisy. The worship of the Christian church and its social mission are not separable.

How did you gather your website’s worship resources, and how has your congregation used them?

I don’t consider myself a worship expert, so I hired Sue A. Rozeboom, who teaches liturgical theology at Western Theological Seminary (WTS); Linnea Scobey, a WTS grad; and John Terpstra, a Canadian poet, to compile and write calls to worship; prayers of lament, confession, and intercession; sample liturgies; suggested songs and scriptures; and more. Our pastor, Thea Leunk, used this prayer when Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church dedicated the new Steepleview Apartments across from our church building. We used this house blessing liturgy for a nearby house that our church adopted through ICCF’s Community Homes Initiative.

I’m afraid that many of us who are in a position to help those in need have become very adept at “passing by on the other side,” perhaps even convincing ourselves that if our neighbors are in trouble, it’s their own fault and are therefore worthy only of our moral condemnation. The worship resources may help us to see our neighbors for the first time and to see Christ in them. As we treat them, so treat we our Lord. 

You also wrote a Pentecost liturgy that weaves in affordable housing.

Yes, Linnea Scobey and I wrote that for Reformed Worship (RW 139, March 2021). I can think of no better way to live out the Spirit of Pentecost than to pursue justice, including housing justice. Our Pentecost liturgy includes these words in the congregational prayer of confession: ”Forgive us for the ways we participate in larger systems that value certain lives more than others: white lives over black and brown lives, housed lives over those lives experiencing homelessness.”

For the prayers of the people, we use “A Landed Prayer,” by Canadian poet John Terpstra. The prayer begins: “Loving God, in whom is housing, shelter, room and board, a place to raise children . . .”. The poetic prayer thanks God for blessings of lawns, neighbors, pipes, and wires. It acknowledges the plight of people who can’t afford safe housing, and it ends with this request: “We ask for hammer and saw. Accept us journey-folk in your carpentry of compassion.”


Explore Lee Hardy’s affordable housing website for faith community stories, worship resources, and a nuanced view of gentrification’s positive and negative effects.. Read his book The Embrace of Buildings: A Second Look at Walkable City Neighborhoods and his American Conservative article on how zoning laws functionally separate people by race and income. Be sure to scroll down here to see fascinating photos related to that book. Learn about the Steepleview Apartments project.