A wooden cross in the front yard of a house at 176 S. French Broad Ave. in Asheville holds a small plywood sign whose red letters proclaim:
Zacchaeus House, a Christian ministry and advocacy group for the homeless, is headquartered here. For the past 16 months, it has fed, ministered to and occasionally sheltered the homeless and the poor, and the Rev. Amy Cantrell has led weekly congregational services, in keeping with the venerable Christian tradition of a “house church.”
But under city zoning laws, a house and a church are not the same. And since Feb. 13, when property owner Sid Border was issued a notice of violation for “operating a place of worship,” Cantrell has been searching for a new place to hold services. (Visit mountainx.com/xpressfiles to view the notice.) She remains convinced, however, that the real issue is the population she’s serving. Cantrell and a group of volunteers, some of whom used to be homeless, also operate a food pantry from the house and occasionally take in people overnight.
“January was very frigid many nights; we had lost people to the cold,” she explains. “If there were friends on the streets that would die, we would let them in. If we were any kind of Christians, we had to keep people alive.”
During the most intense weather, as many as 15 people were sleeping in the home, says Cantrell. And on Jan. 21, a police officer visited the house, responding to complaints of “increased noise and foot traffic,” according to an APD spokesperson. The neighborhood is also home to the YWCA.
Churches are allowed in residential areas, explains Shannon Tuch, acting director of the city’s Planning and Zoning Department, which issued the notice of violation. But the property must satisfy a host of special building-safety requirements, such as multiple bathrooms, exit signs and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most of those regulations have to do with a structure’s use as a “place of assembly” where many people are gathering at once, notes Building Safety Director Robert Griffin.
Retrofitting a residence to meet those requirements “is extremely difficult, but not impossible,” says Griffin, “and it can be expensive.” Although a zoning violation can carry a $100-per-day fine, no fines were levied in this case, and Cantrell has been granted an extra 10 days—on top of the usual 30 days’ notice—while she figures out her next move.
Donations enable the ministry to pay its rent. “I think it is very admirable what they do,” says Border. “I am trying to help them all I can, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy.”
A higher law?
The Christian tradition of a “house church” has a long history and is still common practice in many parts of the world, Cantrell reports. And though she plans to remain in the house and continue operating the food pantry and serving dinners there once a new church is found, she remains puzzled by these developments.
A passionate advocate for the homeless, Cantrell has often appeared before City Council speaking on behalf of those she serves. Zacchaeus House, she maintains, is in line with city efforts like the 10-year plan to end homelessness. “What they are talking about, we are doing,” she asserts, noting that the ministry helps people find places to live.
But good works can’t be factored into zoning enforcement, explains Assistant to the City Manager Lauren Bradley. “Although specific use of the property may be considered noble or valued in the community, zoning and building-code regulations are not applied differently according to those subjective standards,” she wrote in an e-mail to Xpress.
Cantrell, however, suspects that the real concern is the type of people coming and going from Zacchaeus House. During a subsequent meeting with the city, Cantrell says she was asked if she planned to continue letting homeless people sleep on her floor. “To me, it was very, very clear that that was the rub,” she notes.
The fierce January temperatures, Cantrell asserts, forced her to take exceptional measures, though she concedes that the food pantry does bring in foot traffic even under less-extreme conditions. But Cantrell makes no apology for inviting those without a home into hers, arguing that even zoning laws should be allowed to bend every now and then.
“Knowing what I know now, would I do it again?” she asks. “Absolutely. There may be a purpose for these laws in day-to-day life, but in an emergency, isn’t there a higher law to save lives?”
The outcome of all this remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the sign still stands in the front yard, declaring, “Homeless Poor Rebel.”
Zacchaeus House welcomes ideas for a new meeting place, and can be contacted at P.O. Box 126, Asheville, NC 28802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.