Bay Area’s affordability crisis looks to a higher power

State advancing legislation for religious institutions to develop affordable housing

State Senator Scott Wiener and L.J. Jennings with 7954 McArthur Boulevard (Getty LinkedIn, Google Maps)
State Senator Scott Wiener and L.J. Jennings with 7954 McArthur Boulevard (Getty LinkedIn, Google Maps)

Divine invention may be needed to address the affordable housing crisis in California.

And faith-based organizations may provide such a miracle with more than 700 prime development parcels, according to an analysis by the Tener Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley. This would open up around 1,000 acres for development, and more than half the parcels are within a half mile of transit locations.

Alameda County listed a number of sites for development and singled out Hayward as being an ideal location. Sites include a half an acre adjacent to The Chinese Church of Christ Church on Smalley Avenue and nearly a full acre at Shiloh Baptist Church on Garden Avenue.

The rub, however, is that churches and other religious institutions face headwinds in converting their property for housing, including limited financing options, regulatory barriers and limited real estate knowledge, according to the report.

The two primary hurdles faith-based institutions face are parking requirements and zoning restrictions. For example, some municipality’s existing zoning codes could require a minimum number of spaces for religious purposes, in addition to designated spaces for residents in the affordable housing unit. This could be particularly problematic for smaller congregations that are located in areas with zoning requirements that limit development to single family or low-density development.

It took three years, for instance, for Friendship Christian Center in West Oakland to develop a 50-unit affordable housing building for seniors due to rezoning issues.

California lawmakers see an opportunity to ease affordable housing shortages and have responded by proposing a policy to cut down on some of the red tape.

State Senator Scott Wiener (D-District 11) reintroduced SB 1336 in June to remove local zoning restrictions that limit how some of these 700-plus parcels can be developed. This legislation would guarantee by-right approval of projects that qualify for development and allow speedy development on the more than 1,000 acres of land that is ready for development.

By-right approvals are given to developers that conform to zoning and building codes and do not require discretionary approval, thus it would enable faith based institutions to bypass review boards and conditional use permits. This would be contingent on the units being designated for affordable housing, which is defined by individuals earning 80 percent or less than the area’s median income.

Wiener first introduced the bill in 2020, but shelved it after it hit a wall of opposition from construction worker unions. He believes that it is the right time to reintroduce the bill because of the greater attention being paid to the ongoing affordable housing crisis in the state.

According to former State Senator John Moorlach (R-District 37), SB 1336 is moving forward, but still faces headwinds.

The main opposition comes from the California Association of Realtors. But local nonprofits see the benefits of the bill and are advocating for its passage.

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“Faith-based organizations have long served as community anchors, living out their faith by supporting their neighbors,” said Amie Fishman of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California.

Another law — AB 2244 — that easily passed recently addresses the limitations that faith-based institutions face with parking restrictions. Introduced by California Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-District 15), it allows new houses of worship to forego the former requirement of having to keep 50 percent of the site’s parking, which could open up more room for development.

“We have a big need for affordable housing, and yet it wasn’t happening because the cities were putting these parking requirements on these churches.” Wick said in a statement when the bill passed.

Moorlach does have some concerns with SB 1336. He suggested that it opens up the possibility for abuse if entities incorporate as a religious institution to skirt zoning authorities.

Further, despite fewer hurdles and greater expedience, local leaders are recommending that religious organizations and nonprofits proceed with caution.

“This activity is governed by zoning and nonprofit status,” Kathy Kimberlin from Alameda Supervisor’s David Haubert’s office, said. “Organizations need to seek advice if their actions put their status at risk, with guidance from the County Assessor’s office.”

If an entity decides to sell these designated parcels for someone else to develop housing, it could jeopardize its nonprofit status. However, they are allowed to donate their land, like Crosswinds Church in Livermore did.

These moves by the state are a call to action for religious leaders. Pastor L.J. Jennings, from Kingdom Builders Christian Fellowship Church in Oakland, is in the process of developing 40-units housing next to his church on 7954 McArthur Boulevard. His parish is acting as the developer so its nonprofit status isn’t at risk.

Jennings couldn’t do it alone though, and there are a handful of lenders in the Bay Area that partner with nonprofits to develop affordable housing. San Jose-based Housing Trust provided Jennings’ church with $660,000 in financing.

“Many minorities are displaced from the communities we have lived, worked and worshiped in for many, many years,” said Jennings. “It has changed the makeup of these communities and they’re no longer represented by the folks that built them. If not for Housing Trust and entities that are mission minded, our communities will not look the way they do five years from now.”

Smaller developers can’t usually get their projects fully funded through traditional lenders, according to Nazmin Bishop from Housing Trust. In fact, they usually can only secure up to 70 percent of the necessary funding, so the need for organizations like hers is apparent.

“One thing we’ve learned throughout the years is that financing is not available to all groups of people,” she said. “We’re able to provide access to capital for groups that are traditionally underserved.”

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