Will California Churches Build Affordable Housing ‘In God’s Backyard’? | Sojourners

Will California Churches Build Affordable Housing ‘In God’s Backyard’?

In April of 2021, the median home price in California topped $800,000 for the first time, second highest in the nation behind Hawaii.

As home prices have risen, so has the number of people moving into the state. 2020 census data showed that California added 3.2 times more people than housing units between 2010 and 2020, catapulting the state into an ever-worsening housing crisis.

For many Christians in California who feel that God calls them to care for the poor, the housing crisis is a theological crisis too.

Dominic Dutra has worked in central California real estate for more than 30 years, watching values climb ever higher. Now, Dutra advises churches on how they can best use their physical space in service of their community. He views building more homes as a moral imperative informed by his faith.

“This should not be a revelation for Christians, unless our focus is on power, control of resources, and entitlement,” he told Sojourners. “That is so counter to what Jesus did.”

State Sen. Scott Wiener’s bill, which he recently introduced in the California Senate, could provide a creative solution to the pressing problem.

The San Francisco Democrat’s SB 1336 would classify affordable housing built on religious or private college land as “use by right,” a term for developments that are exempt from local zoning requirements. The bill would make it simpler for religious institutions and private universities to build affordable housing on their property.

Faith leaders told Sojourners that the bill, affectionately coined “Yes In God’s Backyard” by some supporters, is an exciting opportunity for congregations to put their land to new use as church attendance and religious affiliation shrink.

Pastor John Oh told Sojourners he can list 65 congregations in the Los Angeles area alone that want to erect affordable units on their land.

As the project manager for faith and housing at LA Voice, a multi-faith organizing group in Southern California, he sees the need for affordable housing on a daily basis — both from faith groups who want to make better use of their property, and from community members priced out of renting.

“Churches have been so amazing, helping people who are distressed,” Oh said. “This is an opportunity for congregations to think about, ‘How can we help with some of the root causes of the problem and not address it at the very end?’”

How hard is it to build affordable housing?

California low-income developments currently take six to eight years from proposal to move-in date. That period is the longest in the country, according to Muhammad Alameldin, policy associate at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley.

If passed, the center estimates the bill would shave one to two years off that timeline by streamlining the approvals process.

In addition to smoothing the zoning process, the center estimates the bill would free up 38,000 acres for potential development — just smaller than the the size of Stockton, Calif., which has a population of 311,000.

Alameldin estimates that if even 25 percent of the land is actually developable, the bill could add an additional 300,000 affordable units to housing-starved California.

Wiener told Sojourners he knows the bill won’t singlehandedly solve California’s lack of housing, but it could make a sizable dent.

“There’s no silver bullet, but this will really help. It will open up quite a bit of land that will be earmarked for 100 percent affordable housing,” he said. “Of course, you have to have funding [to build housing], but not dealing with the zoning and approval process is a big deal.”

With church attendance in a steady decline — Gallup reported a 13 percent drop from 2008 to 2020 — many churches are looking for alternate ways of using their space and paying their bills. Proponents say the bill offers a win-win option: Churches earn rent from the developers, who usually manage the property, and simultaneously serve a tangible need in the community.

John Oh estimates that currently, two-thirds of the congregations interested in affordable housing can’t build on their land due to zoning laws; Wiener’s bill would fix that.

One church on Oh’s list of interested congregations is Inglewood First United Methodist Church in Inglewood, Calif.

Sandwiched between Los Angeles International Airport and SoFi stadium, home to both of the National Football League’s Los Angeles teams, the church sits in a rapidly gentrifying area whose long-term and low-income residents — many of whom are Black or Latino — can’t afford to live there for much longer.

Inglewood UMC’s lead pastor, Victor Cyrus-Franklin, knew housing security needed to be part of his church’s mission soon after he was appointed five years ago.

He met Oh while organizing for a rent control ordinance in the neighborhood several years ago, and the two then teamed up to turn an empty charter school on First UMC’s property into 60 low-income studio apartments. When the project is complete, half of the units will go to unhoused seniors, and the other half to workers at the nearby stadium.

While the bill won’t directly affect the project since the First UMC is converting a space, rather than building a new complex, Cyrus-Franklin sees the same spiritual mandate covering all affordable housing projects.

“Theologically, this is about a congregation becoming incarnational,” he told Sojourners. “Not just God for us, but God with us. This is not something we’re doing for the community as something paternalistic, but with the community.”

Getting his congregation on board took a paradigm shift in how they viewed the church’s mission, Cyrus-Franklin said, and congregants have brought their concerns. Members want to make sure the project will be successful, and that the developers they’ll work with for the next several decades are trustworthy.

But Cyrus-Franklin said hope has emerged from those concerns and worries.

“It’s exciting. We see it as an example of what a lot of congregations can be in the 21st century,” Cyrus-Franklin said. “We don’t have to look at the mid-20th century as the peak of church life; We can build into new possibilities of what we can be and do.”

Housing on church property is still a challenge

Not every church is quite as willing to part with control over their property.

Dominic Dutra agrees that the new bill will make it much easier to develop affordable housing from a logistical perspective. But he said that doesn’t solve for internal reluctance, especially among affluent white congregations.

“That’s the biggest challenge. It’s similar to the challenge we as a country are experiencing,” Dutra said. “We have a country that’s racially, demographically changing. That gets scary for white populations that have been in control of resources.”

He’s working on a business plan to convince religious congregations in his area of central California to see housing on church property not as a death, but as a chance to invest in a revitalized community.

“We have to rethink and not accept the world’s perspective that because our church is failing, we are a failure. No, we embrace that and empower others. By empowering others, we realize true fulfillment and meaning.”

Cyrus-Franklin is leaning hard into this death-into-life framing. Inglewood UMC has nearly closed several times in its 117 years, but he’s determined to keep it going with a renewed vision — and new neighbors.

“The language we’re using is ‘a hub of hope and healing in the heart of Inglewood,’” he said. “This has become an opportunity for the congregation to reimagine who it can be and what it can do for and with the neighborhood.”

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