What Would Jesus Do? Tackle the Housing Crisis, Say Some Congregations.


Walking past empty pews and stained-glass windows, the Rev. Victor Cyrus-Franklin, pastor of Inglewood First United Methodist Church in Inglewood, Calif., talked about how housing prices were threatening his flock.

Congregants were being priced out of the neighborhood, he said. Many of those who remained were too burdened by rent to give to the church.

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As Mr. Cyrus-Franklin spoke, a 78-year-old man named Bill Dorsey was a few yards away in an outdoor corridor that led to the chapel, amid tarps and piles of clothes. Mr. Dorsey’s makeshift residence, which the church tolerates, is one of several homeless encampments that sit in and around Inglewood First’s property, which is in a neighborhood of modest homes and small apartment buildings near Los Angeles International Airport.

“We know their stories and we know how hard it is to find housing,” Mr. Cyrus-Franklin said.

So the church is trying to help — by building housing.

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Early next year, Inglewood First United Methodist is scheduled to begin construction on 60 studio apartments that will replace three empty buildings behind its chapel that, until a few years ago, were occupied by a school.

Half of the units will be reserved for older adults. All of them will have rents below the market rate.

Inglewood First United Methodist is one of a growing number of churches, mosques and synagogues that have started developing low-cost housing on their properties. In interviews, faith leaders said they hoped to help with the growing housing and homeless problems that were most acute in California but have spread across the country. Virtually every major religious tradition teaches the importance of helping those in need: The idea fits the mission.

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But it can also be lucrative. In Los Angeles and around the country, faith organizations are often on prime urban land that sits smack in the middle of residential neighborhoods or along major corridors.

Today, with Americans of all persuasions worshiping less, these properties are frequently aging and underutilized, pocked by empty parking lots and meeting halls where nobody meets. By redeveloping their property into affordable housing, congregations hope to create a stream of rental revenue that can replace declining income and lower membership numbers.

These initiatives are also helping to bring lower-cost housing to neighborhoods where it is close to nonexistent. Take, for instance, IKAR, a Jewish congregation in Los Angeles whose progressive politics and bohemian feel (think services with rhythmic drums) have given it a national profile and an expanding membership. Later this year, the congregation plans to break ground on a new synagogue that will include a worship space, a preschool and 60 units of affordable housing in the Mid-City neighborhood, where the typical home is valued at $1.8 million.

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Having affordable housing on site “gives us the opportunity to practice what we preach,” said Brooke Wirtschafter, IKAR’s director of community organizing.

In order to encourage these projects, California legislators passed SB 4 last year. The law allows nonprofit colleges and faith-based institutions to build up to 30 units per acre in major cities and urban suburbs regardless of local zoning rules, and also fast-tracks their approval — so long as 100 percent of the units are affordable housing with below market-rate rents.

In effect, the bill rezoned a large swath of the state’s low-slung landscape by forcing cities to allow apartment development near single-family homes. To do that one parcel at a time would take “infinity,” said State Senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco and the author of SB 4.

“The cities would say, ‘No, we’re not rezoning you,’” Mr. Wiener said. “For a lot of this land it would have been impossible to build anything, let alone working class housing.”

Bills that change zoning laws are notoriously divisive, pitting neighborhoods and environmental groups against real-estate developers. But SB 4 skirted many of the usual battles by uniting faith groups with affordable housing developers (which in California are usually nonprofits), which made for an unusually powerful coalition.

California has a total of 120 legislators in its Senate and Assembly. Only three of them voted against SB 4. By the time the law passed and was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the main opponents were city governments that argued that it removed their ability to control zoning on church parcels — a small step that they feared would be a precursor to a further loss of local control over land use.

“Our concern is: What’s next?” said Brian Saeki, the city manager of Whittier, Calif., in an interview.

Mr. Saeki’s city is an example of SB 4’s power. Whittier is home to East Whittier United Methodist Church, which takes up four acres in a neighborhood of single-family homes whose zoning prohibits multifamily housing. For years, the church had been planning to do a housing project, and, on account of local zoning rules, had proposed 31 single units that would be spread across its grounds.

After the statewide bill passed, the congregation said it planned to propose something bigger: a 98-unit apartment project.

“The city no longer has a chokehold on the project,” said Paul Gardiner, who is leading the housing effort for the church.

Led by California, cities and states are increasingly turning to so-called YIGBY bills — short for “Yes in God’s Backyard” — to expand their supply of affordable housing. Over the past few years, local governments in Atlanta, San Antonio and Montgomery County, Md., along with the State Legislature in New York, have all passed or considered new policies or legislation to make it easier for faith groups to develop their land into housing.

In March, Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, introduced a national bill to encourage more affordable housing called the YIGBY Act. Among other things, the bill would use grants to encourage localities to enact policies that make it easier to build housing on faith land.

Thanks to the zoning changes in California, about 80 Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations have already begun looking into developing housing, said John Oh, who heads the housing efforts for L.A. Voice, a cross-faith community organizing group that has become a central clearinghouse for affordable housing projects.

Multiply that story across a state of 40 million, and the potential impact is huge. According to an analysis by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at U.C. Berkeley, California nonprofit colleges and religious institutions own about 171,000 acres of potentially developable land. (That’s about half the size of the city of Los Angeles.)

Inglewood First United Methodist Church was founded in 1905, back when Inglewood was mostly white. As the city desegregated in the 1960s and 1970s, the congregation became more diverse, with many Black, Latino and Pacific Islander worshipers.

The congregation has also spent much of its recent life shrinking. At its peak, the church had more than 3,000 members. Today, it has less than 100, Mr. Cyrus-Franklin said.

To support itself, the church has become what amounts to a leasing business with a ministry attached to it. Most of this revenue came from a charter school that operated in a block of classrooms adjacent to the church’s sanctuary and paid about $20,000 a month in rent. That money represented about three-quarters of the church’s budget, so when the school left in 2019, Mr. Cyrus-Franklin said there was a very real fear that it could be fatal.

The rescue plan was housing. After the school left, the church struck a deal that would allow a developer called BMB Company to build and operate the 60 studio apartments. Instead of selling the land, the church created a ground lease structure in which the developer could operate the housing for 65 years in exchange for a lump sum that Mr. Cyrus-Franklin refused to disclose beyond saying that it was several million dollars.

All of a sudden, a church that has spent much of the past two decades worrying about money is now consumed with how to invest its sudden fortune. Its first big step is a new community center, to be built along with the apartments, that Mr. Cyrus-Franklin said would offer mental health services, music classes and free yoga.

“Once upon a time, the members of the congregation, they were the bankers, they ran the local clinics, they were the managers for the grocery store — the community partnerships were inherent because the leaders of those institutions were also the members of the church,” Mr. Cyrus-Franklin said. “Becoming one of the centers of community life again, but in a new way — that’s what we’re preparing for and creating.”

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