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San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg joined more than a dozen religious leaders Friday in signing a proclamation reaffirming the Interfaith San Antonio Alliance’s mission to improve the availability of affordable housing to combat homelessness and housing displacement.
“My invitation to the faith community is to get back to our roots,” said Imam Omar Shakir of the Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabah of San Antonio. “Let us leave our comfortable houses of worship and get out into the society and make a difference among the people.”
The ISAA is the largest, most diverse coalition of its kind in San Antonio history with more than 35 congregations represented, said Rabbi Samuel Stahl of Temple Beth-El, and the nonprofit’s membership decided to tackle affordable housing after years of preliminary organizing.
Since the ISAA’s public launch last year, it has grown its membership and fine-tuned its focus on affordable housing, Stahl said. The proclamation event was held to renew awareness of the alliance and its mission.
“There are people that live in this city that are completely unaware of life in low-income neighborhoods and [on the streets],” he told the Rivard Report. “We hope to goad, [and be a] gadfly, to prompt people to action.”
Membership leaders are expected to raise the issue of affordable housing and homelessness to their congregations on a regular basis and establish volunteer opportunities or projects to help.
Independent of the alliance, City Council established San Antonio’s first-ever comprehensive affordable housing strategy in 2018 and started allocating more toward affordable housing production, housing rehabilitation, and displacement mitigation.
A new City pilot program is looking into partnering with area churches that have underutilized property on which affordable housing could be built. The City’s Faith-Based Initiative estimated that churches own more than 3,000 acres of underutilized real estate
“It is money well spent,” Nirenberg said. “I am glad to be [the alliance’s] partner in the quest for affordable housing.”
San Antonio is one of four cities – also including Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Miami – that are working on similar alliances inspired by New York University’s Religious Leadership and Civic Engagement Project. Co-director of the project Rabbi Steve Gutow, who attended the proclamation signing, said the hope is that these cities produce organizations that last for decades and continue to rally around social ills.
“I hope they lead very strong statements that say … this is not acceptable,” Gutow said. “There’s always going to be poor people, but you’ve always got to work on it.”
ISAA considered tackling prison recidivism and human trafficking, he said, so those issues may be ones the alliance unites around next.
Rev. Anne Helmke, the city’s first faith-based liaison, said that interfaith leaders have a long history of taking on difficult issues. They rejected racially segregated dining facilities in the 1960s. Helmke co-founded the peaceCENTER that took aim at increased gang violence in the city in the 1990s.
“How people [in the faith community] partner together now is different than it was 25 years ago in San Antonio,” Helmke said. “[There was] a competition in terms of funding. There’s still some.”
Helmke expects that the alliance will be more than just an awareness effort once member congregations find specific projects to work on.
“I foresee that this will converge … with the action that is happening in terms of affordable housing,” she said. “There are enough of us, if we can say it out loud, to [branch off] and do meaningful work.”