Housing

Churches United for Fair Housing

Centering Community, Fighting Displacement, and Achieving Shared Liberation
CUFFH members dressed in blue and holding signs, protest in front of NYC City Hall

Growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Rob Solano found safety and belonging in the church.

“Church was this incredible space that we could go to for birthday parties, plays, and programming,” Rob says. “[Church] was a place where I felt a lot of kinship and love and support to be a kid and to find community. I always had a deep respect for the church and for the community.”

While working at St. Peter and Paul Church in Williamsburg, he learned that many of his constituents were consistently facing similar issues: disputes with landlords, harassment, and displacement in one of the city’s fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods. Rob spoke to other faith leaders in Williamsburg and realized that their members were facing the same challenges.

Photo of Rob Solano, CUFFH Co-Founder and Executive Director
Rob Solano, CUFFH Co-Founder and Executive Director

So along with these leaders, Rob co-founded Churches United for Fair Housing (CUFFH) – a nonprofit that organizes working-class communities of color around issues of housing, immigration, social, and economic justice to generate power and harness true liberation.

Addressing both immediate and systemic housing challenges

One of the most impactful moments in CUFFH’s origin story is their defeat of the Broadway Triangle Rezoning.

CUFFH knew that this particular rezoning would divide the neighborhood in a way that would further segregate the area’s predominantly Black and Latino community from the rest of Brooklyn. Through people power and community resistance, CUFFH finally blocked the Broadway Triangle Rezoning by taking their appeal to the New York Supreme Court.

“Of the 100 rezonings, only one of them did not go through, which was the one that we were involved with,” says Rob. “All 99 happened except the one that we formed ourselves to resist."

Another challenge that CUFFH constituents face is the lottery system that allocates housing to many of New York City’s renters. This lottery is notoriously difficult to navigate. Factor in the barriers many immigrants experience – including speaking languages other than English, not having the chance to build high credit scores, or being undocumented – and an already-difficult system becomes nearly impossible.

To address this, CUFFH is leveraging the power of its membership. CUFFH connects new members to others who have already been through the lottery system and can guide those who are unfamiliar with the process. They also hire staff members from the communities they serve as a critical part of their model. “Most of the make-up of our staff is from this community,” says Rob. “Who better to speak to this?”

“Our staff, people who are from this community, said ... there are other ways to show you can qualify for affordable housing."

As simple as that seemed, it took CUFFH’s advocacy efforts to make those changes – the lottery system is more accessible now, and the process has greatly improved.

In addition to helping individual people navigate New York's housing challenges, CUFFH also advocates for systemic change. CUFFH staff regularly travel to Albany and Washington D.C. to advocate for housing policies that would improve the lives of their members. Frequently, members who are personally affected by these policies join them.

Says Rob, these trips are far from easy. But they're worth it. “Some members work two jobs, and they have one day off, and they choose to take it and go with us from 6 am to 9 pm. They bring their kids with them. It’s this hope that change will happen if they show up.”

How access to financing expands this nonprofit's impact

For much of its history, CUFFH was able to achieve incredible results with minimal resources.

During their first campaign, Rob says, "We probably had less than $50,000 … and somehow we got a lawyer and somehow he took someone to the New York State Supreme Court. So we did all of that with one organizer and a few thousand church members.”

CUFFH had long sought to purchase a facility to make their permanent home, which would shield them from rapidly rising New York City rents and ensure that they could maintain a community presence in the neighborhoods they serve. In December 2022, the organization received a $500,000 acquisition loan that they're using to purchase a building in the Bushwick neighborhood of North Brooklyn. And with additional financing from NFF in January 2024 – including a $4 million bridge loan and $2.8 million mini-permanent loan – CUFFH is moving even closer to their goal of property ownership.

Says Rob, “We wanted ... a real institution, a place for us to build our programming, gather people together, a safe place to bring all of our membership.”

Most importantly, he continues, buying a building will allow CUFFH to create a home with its community members, instead of for them. “We had a specific vision about what we wanted to do,” he says, “and we felt like that was important to do together.”

CUFFH Constituent Services Specialist helps community member with application for affordable housing. The CUFFH staff member is pointing to a screen.
CUFFH Constituent Services Specialist helps community member with application for affordable housing

A community-centered approach to fair housing

Safe, stable, and affordable housing is a human right. But today, that right is a dream for many renters – especially in New York, where the median one-bedroom apartment costs $3,700 per month and one in three New Yorkers spends approximately half of their income on rent. And due to a long history of racist policies that blocked people of color from living in certain neighborhoods or earning wealth on their homes, a disproportionate amount of New York’s rent-burdened tenants are people of color.

Rob and CUFFH’s other leaders have long known that they would need to prioritize communities of color in their work. They also knew that these communities held within themselves resources they could leverage to achieve true liberation. So from the beginning, they centered these communities in their approach through collective power building by campaigns, group retreats, and community organizing.

For CUFFH, every zoning battle won and each person connected to stable housing is a victory. But they aren’t afraid to dream bigger.

Acquiring a building of their own will help CUFFH realize those big dreams. “We will continue to have a space in our community,” Rob says. “We get to dictate what we want to do in our land, not just in policy and legislation, but in real space.”

But as his organization grows, Rob is determined not to lose sight of where it came from: from churches like those he grew up in and the communities those churches serve.

“We’re bringing it back to a place that people can go like when I was a kid,” says Rob, “Where I went to be seen, and to feel heard, and to feel safe.”

“The work that we do today emphasizes community building, community organizing,” he continues. “We have a voice in our communities and we had something to say when people were dictating how the land use of our communities would be.”


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