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WASHINGTON — Helen McIlvaine gets excited when she sees a church.

Driving around her hometown of Alexandria, Va., last week, McIlvaine slowed the car at white spire after white spire. She turned her head and scrutinized each square on its grassy plot.

"I sort of go past everything and say, 'That could be affordable housing,' " McIlvaine said. "I go past a Scottish rite temple and say, 'Do they really need all that land?' Once you start looking, you can't stop. There are opportunities everywhere."

Over the past five years, McIlvaine has proved her own maxim. In her work for the city of Alexandria, where she serves as director of housing, she has shepherded four churches through selling or leasing all or part of their land and converting it to space for affordable housing. At least two more churches are "in the pipeline," she said.

And it's not just Alexandria. Churches across the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia are turning their properties into living space for low-income residents. David Bowers, vice president of the nonprofit group Enterprise Community Partners, said his organization helped seven houses of worship in the Baltimore-Washington corridor do this in the last 12 years. Enterprise is working with roughly two dozen more.

Bowers said the mid-Atlantic region has become a national leader in this arena, pioneering a faith-based solution to the dearth of affordable housing that advocates around the country are beginning to imitate. He and others at Enterprise, which formed its Faith-Based Development Initiative specifically to encourage this tactic in 2006, hope to bring the strategy to major cities across the nation.

Proponents say churches are ideally suited to build affordable housing. Houses of worship often sit on valuable land but are less concerned with cutting the best deal possible, thus minimizing costs borne by nonprofit developers. And, for churches faced with shrinking congregations and underused buildings, installing affordable units offers a fresh infusion of cash and a better way to serve the community.

While faith-based groups have long developed and funded affordable housing in Minnesota, they typically don't involve converting a church into apartments or constructing on its property, said Warren Hanson, president of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund. It's often more costly to convert a church into apartment units than to just build from ground up, he said.

Mayflower Community Congregational United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, however, took the leap in 2007, when it converted its vacant lot next door into 30 affordable housing units. Working with Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, it developed an apartment building for working families in what church leaders now describe as a success.

No one was thinking about churches when McIlvaine walked through the door of Alexandria's Office of Housing in 2006. She felt churches were the future. The faith groups "just have a natural heart for it," she said.

Initially, though, the idea drew skepticism.

"There were a number of folks who were dubious, who would say, 'These are not developers. Why would we work with a house of worship?' " Bowers said.

He heard these comments from bankers, government officials and affordable housing experts. Over time, though, the wind changed.

The area's affordable housing crisis deepened. At the same time, churches were facing a crisis of their own. Over the past 60 years, church attendance in the northeast sector of the country has declined.

"A lot of these faith communities are in crisis," he said.

The intersection of these two trends did a lot to quell doubt and make religious leaders and housing advocates more willing to risk a new scheme, Bowers said.

"They had their peak attendance in the 1960s, so they have these overbuilt facilities and yet they want to be good stewards of these places they've inherited," said Nina Janopaul, the president of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing. "So they see this as a win-win — they can right-size their facilities to the size of their congregation and serve their mission at the same time."

Star Tribune reporter Jean Hopfensperger contributed to this report.