We Have to Buy a House: Church raises funds to house the homeless through LMM’s Breaking New Ground

In 2019, Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry (LMM) launched its $3.5 million Breaking New Ground Affordable Housing Initiative to buy and renovate 20 family units, made up of single-family homes and duplexes, in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood by 2024.

Under Breaking New Ground, families exiting homelessness will be eligible to apply for a new housing program with affordable rents in these homes.

While LMM has steadily moved ahead with its fundraising—exceeding 90% of its $3.5 million goal, with $288,000 left to raise—the congregation at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights last year learned of the initiative, and the entire congregation came together to raise money for a Breaking New Ground home.

On Sunday, Jan. 30, Fairmount Presbyterian members ceremoniously presented LMM with more than $126,000 to purchase and renovate a 2,250-square-foot duplex on Norwood Avenue in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood. The money raised is the largest contribution by a single church in the entire Breaking New Ground Campaign.

The duplex is two units with a total of five bedrooms and one full bath on each side. The donation will also help residents get established in their newly renovated homes, find suitable jobs that will enable them to pay modest rent, and address other services such as childcare that would support their families.

The congregation’s support of the LMM affordable housing project offers a tangible beginning to their Matthew 25 commitment, which focuses on dismantling structural racism, eradicating systemic poverty and building congregational vitality.

Fairmount Presbyterian’s “We Have a House to Buy” campaign began a year ago, when the church realized it had excess endowment income to make significant gifts to five organizations making a difference in Cleveland. The largest of the five gifts, $50,000, was given to the Breaking New Ground campaign.

Other gifts made by Fairmount Presbyterian with the excess endowment money included $20,000 to the Cleveland Heights Schools Foundation and $26,000 to the Greater Cleveland Foodbank.

“We try very hard not to touch the endowment because it creates this financial stability for us as a congregation,” explains Rev. Lindsay Harren-Lewis. “This helps create stability for the Metropolitan Ministry and the work that they do. It helps create stability for the families who live in this house in the years to come. And it helps create stability for the whole neighborhood that benefits from these houses that are being renovated.”

After deciding to give $50,000 to LMM, the congregation then took things a step further and launched a matching campaign to raise an additional $50,000. Even a Sunday school preschool student got involved in the campaign and broke open her piggy bank to donate $3.81, while the entire church school class contributed $65. By the end of 2021, the campaign exceeded its goal, with 72 donors contributing $76,523.84.

“Fairmount Presbyterian really took on this project and went all-in,” says Michael Sering, LMM's vice president of housing and shelter. “It just really caught fire.”

The house on Norwood Avenue makes the fourth structure (three duplexes and one single-family home) LMM has purchased through Breaking New Ground, which amount to seven units. Sering says the first three families moved into their new homes right before Christmas last year.

“We had gotten some $500 Target gift cards donated, so we gave each family $500 right before Christmas so they could buy [presents for] the kids and have nice Christmas meals,” says Sering. “They had just moved from the family shelter two weeks before. And they were at home. They said, ‘we have this amazing house. We can have Christmas together.’ They were in tears.”

Sering says the next duplex should be ready this spring, noting it’s the first duplex LMM acquired on Bonna Avenue in 2019 at the launch of Breaking New Ground. “Bonna is a full-gut rehab, so that’s why it’s taking longer,” Sering explains. “The other houses we got from the private market.”

Sering says LMM is just getting the specs on the Norwood house, so work has not yet started. LMM plans to secure 13 more units to meet its goal of 20 homes by 2024.

“We'd like to at least acquire and start the process on half of the houses this year, and then those would be finished next year, and next year acquire the other half,” says Sering. “The fundraising is going really well and has, thankfully, outpaced our house acquisition. So the funds are there to do it.”

Once LMM secures and renovates a property, Sering says they work with Solon-based Humble Design, which specializes in designing and furnishing homes for families emerging from homelessness.

“Humble Design is very aware that that is a huge unmet need that some people move out of the shelter, and they've got sleeping bags and are sitting on crates,” says Sering. “Not only do they provide the furniture, they also have interior designers they make the homes beautiful. It's like some of those [remodeling] shows where they have a reveal—where the entire house is beautiful and laid out. The have this really high standard for how fantastic the house needs to be.”

LMM works with partners like the Cuyahoga Land Bank to identify potential houses in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood and Progressive Urban Real Estate provides a list of houses for sale on the private market in the neighborhood. The organization then partners with the various Cleveland shelters, ministries, and with Eden housing solutions on identifying and placing the families.

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.