“Struggling churches need by-right: can this mountain be moved?”

28 Jan

Why is it so essential? What does it mean?

Fifty churches throughout So CA have approached us, asking for advisement on how to go about using a portion of their underutilized land for affordable housing. Market rate developers eye church land all the time, approaching them to buy their land to build luxury homes and apartments. Financially strapped churches sadly too often take their bait and sell to the higher bidder, ending up with little in return for years of hard-earned tithes and offerings that they have invested in land and buildings. Without fully realizing, they add to the housing crisis by providing expensive homes, and little if any homes that people in their church or city workers can afford. 

Few churches realize they can partner with an affordable housing developer, keep their land (by the use of a ground lease), and still get a fair return—only if the zoning allows his use!  Zoning often allows for market rate (high end) homes, but not the number of units needed to make an affordable project pencil out financially. Rarely affordable housing can be built without additional funds—subsidies—needed to make housing truly affordable. But here’s the hitch: subsidies don’t kick in unless there is a benchmark of at least 50-70 units in the project. That is the rub.  Of the 50 churches that have approached us, only a handful have the proper zoning that allows this kind of density.

This is why we have conducted a local campaign to rezone religious properties for the past two years. In the meantime, with our support, nine other cities have jumped onto the band wagon, and are in the process now of approving the citywide re-zoning policies. And…the  Faiths United state coalition of 30+ organizations (in which we play a significant role) are seeking a statewide provision for all religious properties in California. But local and state policy must be by-right as Sarah Lett’s so beautifully outlined at the Planning Commission on Wed and in this newsletter:

  • Churches or developers rarely have $100,000 -1.4 million to spend on getting the zoning fixed with no certainly that they will even get it approved.
  • Developers rarely if ever have the staffing for a 3–4-year campaign to change the zoning. And churches don’t have the expertise. There are many interested churches and other 100-year-old cavernous steeple churches with a handful of members left struggling to know what to do to stay alive…not knowing they could partner with an affordable housing developer if the zoning allowed for it and without a clue how to go about re-zoning their property.

So what on earth does by-right mean? Most cities have Master Plans and Specific Plans whereby design standards for each site are well thought-out in advance giving guidance to development over a 20 years’ time frame. By-right is the same concept, but citywide. It’s like the rules that govern credit unions or the safety of any product that has specific agreed upon standard in advance that govern consistent outcomes and community trust. By-right means that a property owner has a right or permission to build on their land within guidelines. In this case, a citywide religious zoning amendment would give congregations the right to build housing that is at least 50-80% affordable at a contextually appropriate height and density. It means that the onerous and expensive process of seeking a zone change would not be required to go through the Planning Commission and City Council process. Almost all affordable housing is required to go through these hoops, rarely market rate developments require this, unless they are asking for a variance or concessions. We are asking to by-pass this process, which often kills the project or prevents an affordable housing developer from ever considering it in the first place.  

But this is key: We still want the requirement of public engagement to improve the design, and if the community is opposed to the design, the Design Commission could require that the design be modified to address community concerns. But the congregation’s right to have affordable housing built would not be challenged, just as it is not challenged in the Master plans, Specific Plans, etc.   

Consider joining our worthy efforts, with your time or contributions and especially your prayers. This week in our monthly Quaker Bible study on Mark 11, I was again struck by Jesus’ words that we can move mountains. I believe that this is a mountain the God can move.


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