Bart Cochran used his skills in real estate to help launch a non-profit that helps provide housing for people of meager means. The partnerships he’s built through LEAP Housing include valley churches, some of which have provided land to build housing on. (Photo provided by LEAP Housing)
By Gaye Bunderson
Expensive houses, big sales, large commissions.
The real estate field can be very lucrative, and Bart Cochran did well as a real estate agent. But a large segment of the population was missing from the equation. “I was successful with people who have the means to buy houses but not with people who have barriers,” he said.
As the cost of apartments and homes in the Treasure Valley continues its upward climb, decent housing remains out of reach for many. Couple that with some of the lowest wages in the country and the Gem State presents a problem for affordable housing for a significant portion of its citizens.
In the midst of his real estate career, Cochran did some traveling to other countries when he was able, and some of the things he saw first-hand shook him up and got him thinking.
“I had a crisis of faith,” Cochran said, “and was wrestling with God. It was a combination of two things. In traveling to other places, I got a visual view of poverty; I could see it. But here, it’s tucked away.”
When he saw poverty close up, Cochran’s original thought was, “’Maybe I should be a doctor or a nurse to be able to help people’. But God made it clear that I was supposed to be using my real estate skills in a different direction.”
Thus began the story of what was ultimately to become LEAP Housing. Back in the U.S., in 2008, Cochran started a non-profit. Originally, the organization focused on priorities such as clean water, micro-lending, and a volunteer center to “coach would-be founders of projects,” Cochran said. It was named LEAP, which stood for Love, Empowerment and Partnership.
“It then took a very firm turn to housing,” said its founder and CEO. The former acronym now stands more for the leap of faith Cochran took in undertaking a non-profit using his real estate skills – this time for people who don’t have half a million dollars to plunk down on a residence. God gave him a vision, and it seemed God was saying, “I can use my skills this way. I don’t need to be a nurse or doctor. You underestimate your own skill set when it’s right under your nose.”
LEAP Housing refers to itself as “faith-informed” rather than “faith-based,” because it has no statement of faith on its website and does not limit its services within religious boundaries. It aims to serve whoever it can with affordable housing options.
A statement at leaphousing.org also reads, “We’re building hope, not just homes,” and Cochran explains it is bigger than the four walls of a residence. “We’re very technically good at building housing. But what happens to families and individuals when they are stably housed is they’re healthier, they pursue education, and they increase their income. We do the housing; hope helps the newly housed with all the other attributes that follow.”
LEAP Housing is a non-discriminatory program and also aids in helping newly arriving refugees find homes. Welcome Housing (for refugees) was one of LEAP’s first projects. Also, LEAP looks to two housing avenues for people: rentership and ownership.
One of the main emphases of LEAP is working with church communities to utilize unused land they may have available near the church. YIGBY is the acronym for the program that partners churches with people seeking a place to live. It stands for Yes in God’s Back Yard and centers around putting housing on excess church land, with the church seeing it as, “God’s land, not ours.” The YIGBY philosophy is counter to the Not in My Back Yard, or NIMBY, view of some who don’t want certain kinds of housing in their neighborhoods.
Some of the churches that have participated so far include Collister United Methodist Church in Boise and Lakeview Church of the Nazarene in Nampa.
Collister United Methodist was the first church to work with LEAP, and its pastor, Joseph Bankard, said he and his congregation are thrilled with the outcome. Staff and congregants were searching for a way to use the quarter acre plot in the church’s backlot for something of benefit to everyone in the neighborhood. A parishioner who worked as a fair housing attorney alerted Bankard to LEAP, and Bankard reached out to the non-profit in 2019. The wheels started turning and housing that was eventually named Taft Homes was set in motion. Now, there are two four-bedroom units with garages on the church’s formerly barren land.
“We didn’t pay a dime,” Bankard said. “Some churches donate their land or sell it.”
Collister United Methodist opted to lease its land to LEAP Housing for $1 a year for 50 years. “In 50 years, the future church gets the land back, with the structures. The future church can renew the lease for 40 more years,” Bankard explained.
Not only is vacant land now being utilized, but the church and the residents of Taft Homes are amicable neighbors.
“There is no obligation for the residents to come to church, but the church has a Hospitality Team that greets them and offers help should they need it,” Bankard stated.
In acts of welcoming and friendliness, the team has given residents food on occasion and even Christmas items over the holidays. “We let the families know we love them,” said Bankard.
(To see how one Taft Homes resident feels about this, see the sidebar on Mary Jane Fejeran.)
LEAP is literally thinking outside the box-shape of houses in its construction work. Such things as large shipping containers have been turned into safe, affordable, and even pleasing-looking homes. “We’ll always be experimenting with cost and durability,” Cochran said.
But do the NIMBY folks look down their noses at such innovative housing?
Cochran stated: “The neighbors like how things look and feel – the finished product is not negative. We use new technology, things like solar panels.”
The houses present a picture that church members, residents, and surrounding neighbors feel comfortable with, and no NIMBY backlash has surfaced.
LEAP works with construction companies, and Cochran stated that the organization seeks general contractors that are “mission-motivated and flexible.”
Other entities partnering with LEAP include:
- Federal funding agencies
- Valley financial partners that have helped start, grow, and build housing projects
- State and local housing agencies, as well as health care organizations – because, in Cochran’s words, health care and housing are closely linked
- Funding from well-known area businesses, corporations, and organizations
- The Pacific Northwest-based M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, and more
“We’re very reliant on the community to make our work possible,” Cochran said. “We view our work as puzzle pieces, and we’re just one of the pieces. Community collaboration is essential to our work, both in terms of skills and funding.”
LEAP Housing is accomplishing much with its inventive housing solutions and ground-breaking projects. What does Cochran have in mind for future prospects in home ownership for those of meager means?
“It would make me really happy,” he said, “to see the Church be an actor in solving the affordable housing problem. This is the first time churches are utilizing their extra land for housing. It could be used for thousands of units. The Church could make an amazing effect and join in helping the vulnerable of the community.”
Statistics are cited in articles available to read on LEAP’s website that there is enough excess church land in the area that if it were combined, it would be the size of Boise State University’s entire campus.
Cochran said the churches now have examples of how it has worked for other churches in the valley and can see what partnering with LEAP actually looks like. (Web articles at leaphousing.org also list some of the affordable housing and rentable units that have been built on otherwise vacant church property in the area.)
Church leaders may feel a housing project is too difficult or confusing for them, but seeing it done by other churches with help from LEAP could alleviate that. Church staff and congregants may have thought at one point, “We don’t have the know-how, the technology,” but they can view the original project – Taft Homes in Boise – and see that it worked out well and stands as an example of what other churches could accomplish with LEAP.
Bankard himself does speaking engagements at area churches to help allay concerns they may have. “We had people in our church who were skeptical in the beginning. But not one of them is skeptical now,” said Bankard. “It’s a powerful way that the people of God can break through to help others in the community. It’s showing God’s love in tangible ways.”
Stated Cochran: “I’m excited about the possibilities. Any church can be involved and say, ‘I’m in!’ The more we normalize it, then it’s not such a hard sell. It starts with a conversation. … We’re bringing a niche idea and want to show how faith communities could become involved. Then we can say, ‘Look what the Church did!’”
Cochran wants not only to encourage churches, but everyone. He seeks to impress on people that they can take whatever skills they have and use them for God, just as he used his skills in real estate.
“They can be a dentist or a beautician and can see themselves as an asset. They just need to realize their skills ARE an asset. I didn’t dream of starting a non-profit, but I asked myself, ‘Is there a way I can help?’”
With that question, God helped him find his different direction, and many have benefited.
For more information, go to leaphousing.org.