Leveraging Church Properties to Build Affordable Housing

As owners of valuable urban real estate, some churches are taking up the mandate to serve their community by using their vacant properties to provide housing for people being priced out of their homes.

June 16, 2021, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Redding, California at night

Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Redding, California. | Always dreamin / Wikimedia Commons

A project that will provide 12 units of affordable housing on property owned by the Genesis Worship Center in East Oakland "is an early example of a wave of similar projects breaking ground at faith-based institutions across the country," writes Patrick Sisson in Reasons to be Cheerful. The $2.5 million complex "not only provides the church with another way of serving the community, but helps support the ministry during a trying time for urban churches."

Because they own and control their properties, "often located in the middle of residential areas," churches "are uniquely positioned to help solve the affordable housing crisis," writes Sisson. "A 2020 report by Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation found roughly 38,800 acres of developable land in California owned by religious institutions, a combined plot the size of the city of Stockton, with 45 percent located in the state’s highest resource area (neighborhoods with lower poverty rates and greater economic and educational amenities) and 256 acres located near public transit." 

To assist in the process, "a constellation of programs have taken shape to help other church leaders do what [Bishop] Matthews did, teaching them the ins and outs of development timelines, construction and housing regulations. The Bay Area chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution, runs a program that is investing $1 million to train religious leaders, connect them to developers and provide small grants to get them started." In California, "a bill that’s repeatedly been introduced and defeated in the state legislature, SB899, would give faith institutions the ability to build 100 percent affordable housing on their land “by right,” meaning they could skip the often onerous zoning approval process."

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