The Congregational Land Committee of the Greater Pasadena Affordable Housing group is requesting your support.

26 May

One of the biggest obstacles to building affordable housing is a lack of sites. A significant number of churches in Pasadena desire to have affordable housing on their excess land. In fact, one church is ready to pitch a proposal for 48 units on their excess land to an affordable housing development partner and another is looking at around 100 units. Yet, most church land is not properly zoned to allow this use. To make it possible for any church in Pasadena that feels led to provide affordable housing on their property we are asking the city to make what is called an “overlay” zone.  This would apply to any church when 50% of the units to be build would be affordable. The overlay zone would allow:

  1. A density increase (i.e. a property zoned at 16 units per acre would increase to 32 units per acre).
  2. Church property that is zoned “commercial” to also become residential
  3. Church property that is zoned “public” to also become residential.

The following talking points show why this overlay zone is essential. Our request to the City for this overlay zone will not happen without the backing of Pasadena churches by demonstrating their support for such a zoning change.

Talking point #1  The use of excess church land for affordable housing meets a huge need. Los Angeles County is in a severe affordable housing and homelessness crisis, with nearly 60,000 homeless persons and over 500,000 affordable housing units needed to meet demand. Half a million people in LA County spend 90% of their income on rent. There has been a 65% increase in seniors becoming homeless in the past 3 years. There is also a severe lack of available, reasonably priced and permissively zoned sites to build affordable housing in Pasadena as well as in most of Los Angeles County.  The MHCH Congregational Land Committee addresses this problem by supporting religious organizations interested in leveraging their land for affordable housing development. Yet, none of the many churches we have worked with have the proper zoning needed to build affordable housing. It can cost thousands of dollars for one church to make the needed zoning changes. We are asking for an overlay zone allows for this “by right”, meaning that it is permitted without this onerous process and expense.  “By right” will enable affordable housing developers to shorten the time to develop the housing and remove much of the risk involved for an affordable housing developer.

Talking point #2: Churches have a successful track record of partnering with affordable housing developers to provide affordable dwellings on their excess land. Some churches have taken advantage of large parking lots that go empty during the week, buildings constructed for congregations much larger than is needed today, or other property that can be re-purposed.  In building affordable housing, there can be economic benefit for the church as well as to those needing to be housed. In some cases, affordable housing developers have provided additional parking for the church. For example, Garden Grove United Methodist Church entered into a long-term ground lease with Jamboree Housing Corporation, using 2.2 acres of the church’s former parking lots and vacant land to develop 47 units of family housing, 16 units of senior housing, a community center, the Orange County Head Start Learning Center and offices for multiple local non-profits. While there are many successful examples of churches utilizing their excess land for affordable housing, most churches are wary of trying because they lack expertise or knowledge. Our team has the experience and know how to walk a church through an idea, discernment, feasibility and to a concept and then a proposal that would be pitched to potential affordable housing development partners.  To shore up this process to make it attractive to a development partner, an over-lay zone would expedite the process and save thousands of by making the zoning “by right”, meaning that it is permitted without the onerous process and expense of a zone change.

Talking point #3: Our approach empowers churches to be successful. Helping the church to discern its vision and find a suitable and trustworthy developer is highly complex and technical work, for which most congregations lack expertise. Efforts to incentivize congregational land have often failed because they either promote one-size-fits-all solutions or imagine that congregations themselves can become developers. Our team of professional city planners, architects and affordable housing project managers listens to congregations individually and applies our extensive knowledge of affordable housing, zoning and community engagement to craft site plans that mix the congregation’s needs with new affordable housing buildings, with corresponding funding strategies. We facilitate dialogues with religious leaders, congregations, City staff and elected officials and communities and modify the plans until a consensus solution is identified, then help congregations choose an experienced developer to build the project. Because of our solid relationship and the respect, we have earned with the city elected officials and staff, we believe that with the support of Pasadena churches an overlay zone can be passed. This would put Pasadena churches on the map for progressive policy that other cities can emulate.

​Talking point #4: The opportunity for churches to create affordable housing on their excess land is huge. In Pasadena, for example, we estimate that there is capacity to build 2,000-5,000 units of affordable housing on excess congregational land. The Mayor of Pasadena and the County of Los Angeles support our efforts, recognizing the power of congregations as allies with their excess land, missional orientation and base of support in the community. Church land can be zoned in any number of ways: public, commercial, residential and then if residential, it may have 16 units per acre which is too limiting to create a feasible project.  Making it possible churches to have affordable housing built on their excess land, we are asking that this over-lay zone would go into effect when 50% of the units to be build would be affordable. The overlay zone would allow:

  1. A density increase (i.e. a property zoned at 16 units per acre would increase to 32 units per acre).
  2. Church property that is zoned “commercial” to also become residential
  3. Church property that is zoned “public” to also become residential.

Talking point #5: The advantages. Using church land is a huge opportunity for developers to have feasible and successful projects. Developers don’t have to buy land in advance or carry the insurance cost. They can be more confident of community support since they have the support of a church which is part of a neighborhood. The adverse effects of NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) are minimized. Yet, if churches wish to supply 50% or more of their units as affordable, the onerous cost and time needed to create a zoning change can significantly lowered if there is an overlay zone in place that would allow for: 

  1. A reasonable density increase (i.e. a property zoned at 16 units per acre would increase to 32 units per acre).
  2. Church property that is zoned “commercial” to also become residential
  3. Church property that is zoned “public” to also become residential.

Talking Point #6. The opportunity. Church attendance is declining, Gallop says that 69% of U.S. adults were members of a church in 1998-2000, compared with 52% in 2016-2018. This is particularly the case within land-rich older and mainline churches. Some Churches are looking to off-load parking lots, high-maintenance buildings, and extra space. Patrick Scriven’s compares deferred maintenance at a church “to an onion because it has layers and it stinks.” With shrinking congregations, many churches are unable to keep up. Affordable housing on church land has enabled churches to bless their communities, stay within mission and help to prevent the displacement due to the cost of housing, the very thing that is hurting many Pasadena churches.  Should a church feel called to consider affordable housing on their property, to facilitate this goal an overlay zone enabling all churches in the city to build on their property would provide a huge leap forward in addressing the housing crisis, especially now with the acute need for affordable housing. We are asking that this over-lay zone would go into effect when 50% of the units to be build would be affordable. The overlay zone would allow:

  1. A density increase (i.e. a property zoned at 16 units per acre would increase to 32 units per acre).
  2. Church property that is zoned “commercial” to also become residential
  3. Church property that is zoned “public” to also become residential.

Talking point #7.  We are asking for this zone change to be applied “By Right” which means the zone change would be applied automatically without discretionary approval if a church wishes to provide 50% of the units on their property to be affordable.

A good model for churches to follow is when Councilwoman Margaret McAustin initially met with her constituents in District 2, she made is clear that the decision has been made to build permanent supportive housing for 19 homeless families, but she asked neighbors to provide their input on the design, ingress, egress and more. She had a series of community meetings and this project built by National Core turned out stunning and is used as a model for permanent supporting housing for communities across the US.  

If neighbors who are fearful want to weigh in on projects, there are plenty of opportunities still do so, even if the project is “discretionary” as opposed to “by right” All affordable housing projects must go through design reviews and other public processes where the public can weigh in. It is part of the DNA of the Church Land Committee and any affordable housing developer to do extensive public engagement during pre-development phase. Typically concerns from disgruntled neighbors are addressed during this time. After many required public engagement meetings with neighborhood stake holders, they come to embrace projects. To access funding for such projects, public engagement is necessary.

This overlay zone could cut the cost of development by $100,000 and shave a year off its pre-development phase. This will attract quality developers and provide more certainty that the projects will be completed. All this is very good news.

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