In the Raphaels' home base of California, for example, “You have to verify with the Secretary of State in southern California that the church is capable of holding a title, is a legal entity, and is incorporated as a nonprofit. Otherwise, you can’t get a title insurance, and you can’t do the transaction by the laws and articles of incorporation. Then you have to adopt a resolution.”
And finances are a difficult subject for churches, too, as many rely on tithings, fundraising, and private donations to keep their places of worship afloat. Money becomes even more of an hurdle for religious organizations seeking to either start anew or re-establish themselves in a brand new space. “Some of these groups have their own financials,” Raphael said. “Some are ready with a 30 to 40 percent down payment, but it’s hard for groups to have that in cash. Different religious groups also have credit unions.”
The recession fundamentally changed the way the Raphaels engage in business with churches.
“The first 32 years or so, we never thought about asking if your loan is current or in default,” Raphael said. “Now if a church calls, that’s the first thing we ask.”
Though sales of churches has picked up during the recent recession, it's not a new phenomenon. Look to synagogues, says Ellen Levitt, author of The Lost Synagogues, a series of books and tours exploring the changing of hands of the Jewish place of worship to churches, community centers, and schools.
Levitt pinpoints the trend of selling houses of worship to other groups to the late 1800s, when Jews were restricted to tenements and built congregations as a way to stimulate community in a foreign land.
“After World War II, certain neighborhoods became less desirable for Jews,” Levitt explained, pointing to Queens, a classically Jewish borough, that had become more Latino, black, and Asian over the years. “They [Jews] would move [to the suburbs]. ‘I want a house, I don’t want to live in a tiny apartment in the city anymore.’ In the early 1950s, it escalated. Some synagogues in Brooklyn held out 'til the ‘80s, but most of them moved to neighborhoods. You know Flatbush? It’s all trendy now, but there aren’t many Jews left in Flatbush anymore.”
Today, old synagogues in former Jewish neighborhoods have second lives as many other things, mostly churches—Baptist, Adventist, Pentecostal, nondenominational—though in Queens, for example, they often host non-Christian congregations, too.
“There is a former synagogue that is now a mosque,” Levitt said. “At least two former synagogues are now Asian churches, and at least one former synagogue is now a Hindu temple.” Also common: synagogues not becoming a religious establishment at all, instead reinventing themselves as “private residences, non-profit organizations, schools, medical facilities, restaurants or bars… even a museum (the Bronx) and an art gallery (Manhattan)," said Levitt.