Addressing the housing shortage
A California law could make it easier for churches to build low-income housing
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church—San Diego’s oldest African American church—is built in the old Spanish style typical to Southern California, with white stucco walls and a red tile roof. The 136-year-old church is joining in a new approach to the state’s housing shortage. It partnered with an organization called YIGBY, Yes in God’s Backyard, to replace a worn-out duplex with 26 housing units on unused land that belongs to Bethel AME.
The movement’s name is a response to the acronym NIMBY, or “Not In My Backyard,” a term describing people who oppose developments in their area. Though not an explicitly Christian organization, YIGBY believes churches and other religious institutions can play a key role in creating more housing. “We have abdicated our rights and our responsibility for caring for the vulnerable to Caesar,” said Monica Ball, YIGBY’s faith community outreach lead. “We do not need the government to fix this.”
The organization is closely watching legislation known as the YIGBY bill, introduced by Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco. It streamlines the zoning process for religious institutions building low-income housing on unused property they own. Gov. Gavin Newsom has until Oct. 14 to sign or veto the bill. Critics of the measure argue it undercuts the authority of local communities, while others argue it doesn’t go far enough to cut through the red tape strangling new development. Proponents see it as a step in the right direction that allows churches to take a more prominent role in addressing the housing shortage.
For decades, the Golden State has not met the increasing demand for more housing, leading to skyrocketing rents and preventing many residents from owning their own homes. Between 1980 and 2010, major California cities added an estimated 120,000 homes each year—well short of meeting the need. Median home prices climbed to more than twice the national average. Today, some estimates claim the state is short by 3.5 million units.
In highly regulated California, approval for multifamily housing projects can take up to four years. The wait for an environmental impact report can delay construction a few more years. Altogether, a project can take five to seven years to complete. San Francisco issued less than a third of the housing permits per 100,000 people that similarly-sized Austin, Texas, and Seattle approved between 2015 and 2021.
The housing shortage has contributed to an exploding homeless population, exacerbated by a new form of methamphetamine and the opioid epidemic. Thirty percent of the nation’s homeless reside in the Golden State, including half of the U.S. population that lives on the streets. The state’s wholehearted embrace of Housing First policies aggravated the problem by providing housing without requiring individuals to address the root causes of their lack of housing.
Now, some advocates are turning to churches for help. Researchers at the University of California Berkeley estimate that California religious institutions possess about 38,800 unused acres—roughly the size of the city of Stockton, population 321,819. But, as the researchers point out, land ownership of this acreage is fragmented, and “there are no uniform land use rules governing the development of religious lands,” complicating any attempts at development.
That’s where YIGBY comes in. “Most churches are very agreeable to having their surplus land used for housing and they just don’t want to deal with being a property manager collecting rent,” YIGBY’s Ball said. The churches supply the land and YIGBY connects them with the funding and manages the construction.
Low-income government housing projects are typically funded through low-income housing tax credits sold to developers. It’s a complicated and expensive process, and developers often won’t bid on a project unless it is 50 units or greater. YIGBY doesn’t take government funding. They’re budgeting about $280,000 per unit—compared to the usual $400,000—and are accountable to their donors to keep costs low.
YIGBY Housing Director Evan Gerber manages the architects and consultants for the proof project at Bethel AME. He said one of the biggest challenges is getting approval from the city to use land zoned for religious purposes for residential development. “All that takes time, and money, and there’s an element of risk because you don’t know what the decision maker will say,” said Gerber. “And that turns away development.”
If Newsom signs the YIGBY bill into law, churches wouldn’t have to go through this drawn-out process. The law gives churches the right to build low-income housing as long as they meet labor union requirements once they hit 50 units. “It clears a pathway for churches to know, with certainty, that they can build housing on their property,” said Gerber. Some advocates have raised questions about whether the bill’s concessions to labor unions could raise construction costs.
The League of California Cities, one of the groups critical of the housing bill, argues the measure would undermine local communities. Last year, the organization said it would support the YIGBY bill if lawmakers amended it to require developers to abide by local regulations concerning maximum building heights and parking regulations. The amendments were not adopted, so “we no longer have a position on this bill,” Karina Gonzalez, the group’s acting media relations manager, told me in an email.
Kevin Corinth, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who researches housing policy and poverty, called YIGBY a “very partial measure” to address the housing shortage. Churches don’t own enough land to solve the problem, he said, nor does the state need an abundance of low-income housing. “The only way to really close the gap is to allow more market-rate housing development,” he said.
Changing environmental regulations, units-per-lot restrictions, and other zoning rules takes time. For now, Corinth said cities should focus on marginal changes like allowing duplexes and triplexes in a neighborhood instead of only single-family homes.
YIGBY is gaining traction in other states and has come to refer to a broader movement of churches and religious institutions interested in turning their extra acreage into housing. Joseph Bankard is a professor at Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho and the former pastor of Collister United Methodist Church in Boise—a 110-year-old church about two miles from downtown. Two years ago, his church partnered with LEAP Housing to turn one-third of an acre into two low-income homes. “Boise is growing fast. The cost of living is crazy. Rent is out of control,” said Bankard.
The church leases their land for $1 per year to LEAP, which built and manages the units. To qualify, a family must make no more than 30 percent of the area’s median income. But LEAP won’t kick the tenants out if they start making more. “When housing works that way, think about how that undercuts the motive for them to find work,” Bankard said. “The goal will be, now they pay so little rent that they can get that buffer to get a downpayment to do something else.”
Two single moms and their families moved in. The families started attending church, and Bankard dedicated one of their grandchildren. “That’s been a beautiful, beautiful story for the church,” he said.
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