Churches become arts hubs as space-sharing website offers congregations after-hours revenue – Episcopal News Service

Church of the Transfiguration

The Church of the Transfiguration, known as ‘The Little Church’, in Manhattan, New York. Photo: Church of the Transfiguration

[Religion News Service] Just blocks from the Empire State Building, a stunning, mid-19eThis last-century Gothic-style brick church is nestled between steel skyscrapers in New York’s NoMad neighborhood. The Church of the Transfiguration – affectionately known as “the little church” by its faithful – is home to an active Episcopal community and is a national landmark. The parsonage basement was an Underground Railroad stop, and the church provided refuge for several dozen black people attacked during the Civil War riots.

But like many century-old churches, the Church of the Transfiguration is struggling due to the cost of upkeep — plus COVID-19 trials.

“The problem is that, especially in New York, congregations are housed in large historic properties, with large amounts of deferred maintenance,” nonprofit leader Kate Toth told Religion News Service. “At the same time, membership in most religious communities is declining. These are two trends that are difficult to reconcile.

But Toth has a solution to offer. Enter Venuely, a space sharing website launched this month. Interfaith platform borrows from other space-sharing models like Airbnb to match homes of faith in New York who have excess space to short-term tenants looking for a deal. It is also founded by two nonprofits (Bricks and Mortals and Partners for Sacred Places) that aim to build the capacity of faith communities, not line their pockets.

“There is a huge shortage of affordable, below-market rental space,” noted Venuely owner Toth, who is also executive director of Bricks and Mortals. “It really opens up a whole new market of available space, probably thousands of hours of rental space that wouldn’t otherwise be available. And all of these congregations are really interested in providing space specifically for mission-oriented organizations.

Katherine Hutt, a parishioner and vestry clerk at the Church of the Transfiguration, told RNS she was eager to use Venuely to provide affordable rehearsal space. In addition to its historical ties to the fight against slavery, the church has a longstanding relationship with the local theater community; in the 1860s it became one of the first churches in Manhattan to hold funerals for actors. Inspired by his connection to the arts, Hutt became a co-founder of Houghton Hall Arts Community, a new rehearsal space in a modern building adjoining the Church of the Transfiguration that will begin renting to arts groups in the coming months. .

“We’re turning (the space) into an outreach mission for the theater community, and because we’re nonprofit, we can offer the space at a great price,” Hutt said. “Churches have a lot of unused capacity. It makes a lot of sense that this space would be available for other organizations, especially when you have a mission match like we do with the theater community.

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When it opens, Houghton Hall plans to complete a profile on the Venuely website that will allow potential tenants to see available space, pricing and all space rules, including whether guests can consume energy. ‘alcohol. Places of worship can register on Venuely for free.

Toth told RNS she expects at least 50 host sites to join Venuely initially, with hopes for many more – including in other locations – eventually. Venuely charges a 5% processing fee which is used to operate the site, but the organization is largely funded by a grant from the New York Community Trust. Venuely is currently only open to hospitality sites and will begin welcoming tenants in September.

Christ Church Cobble Hill in Brooklyn also likes to share space with artists and other religious groups, including a local Buddhist community, but will not be able to rent the church’s historic nave, at least for now. Built in the early 1840s, the nave was forced to close in 2012 when lightning struck the church tower, causing it to collapse and tragically killing a passerby. Once repairs to the tower and roof are complete, the Reverend Mark Genszler told RNS the church will be open for Venuely use.

“I could see Christ Church and other Episcopal churches using something like Venuely for interstitial times, both to get involved in neighborhood services and to market themselves as a nice space to do some short-term work. , and as a way to introduce yourself to a whole community of people,” Genszler said.

The roadblock that prevents many houses of worship from earning additional income via space sharing is the perceived risk to their tax-exempt status, according to Toth. But Samuel Brunson, an associate dean at Loyola University Chicago who studies religion and the tax system, said there were almost no circumstances where renting would jeopardize a place’s tax-exempt status. of worship.

“If a church rents out its property to other people, as a general rule, it won’t affect its federal tax exemption,” Brunson explained in a recent phone call with RNS. “The caveat is that if she suddenly stops holding worship services and a significant part of what she does becomes rental of real estate, she could lose this exemption because she is no longer pursuing her purpose. exemption.”

Additionally, since the IRS does not normally consider rental income from tax-exempt organizations as unrelated business income, places of worship generally will not have to pay federal income tax on rental income. . However, Brunson added, if faith communities begin to provide paid services such as meals or cleaning, they may have to pay taxes on the income earned from those services, but that will not compromise their exempt status. overall tax.

States have different rules when it comes to tax exemptions, Brunson said, but for New York, rental income doesn’t affect tax exemptions as long as the exempt entity is renting to another tax-exempt entity. tax.

“If you rent your property to a non-exempt organization, then you owe property tax on the portion of your property that you rented to that organization,” Brunson said. But even if religious communities rent to a for-profit group, they only have to pay property tax on the space rented – it won’t compromise their tax-exempt status overall.

This is an important distinction for religious communities in New York. Reverend Arden Strasser, pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Hell’s Kitchen, is careful to only rent to other tax-exempt nonprofits to avoid paying taxes on rental income. parts of the 99-year-old building for recitals, rehearsals, lectures and concerts.

Going forward, St. Luke’s plans to use Venuely to rent out its ornate stained-glass sanctuary and multi-purpose hall to members of the arts community. For Strasser, opening the space to nonprofit arts groups is an extension of what the church does on Sundays.

“On Sundays, I preach Christ very clearly. But the rest of the week we preach suffering love through the activities we support,” Strasser told RNS. “I think artists have a deep love for the world, and they want to give something to it and be received. If churches could help artists share their hearts with others, it would be a blessing for the city.

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