Building homes in ‘God’s backyard’: New bill would permit housing at California’s churches, mosques and synagogues

Seeking to ease the housing crisis by building homes in “God’s backyard,” a new bill would allow California churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions to build affordable housing on their properties — even if the land isn’t zoned for residential use.

Just one day after the start of the new legislative session, Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) announced Senate Bill 4 — the “Affordable Housing on Faith Lands Act.” The bill would remove red tape for religious groups and nonprofit colleges that want to build low-income housing, making them immune to certain lawsuits, appeals and denials as they go through the permitting process.

As the housing shortage continues to price people out of the overpriced market, Bay Area places of worship have shown growing interest in converting unused property — such as parking lots they don’t need — into homes. Churches such as St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Walnut Creek have built low-income apartments on their land. Others, such as First Presbyterian Church of Hayward, have created tiny home communities for homeless residents. Supporters have dubbed the movement “YIGBY,” or “yes in God’s backyard.”

It’s the third time Wiener has tried to streamline housing construction on religious lands. His prior two attempts — SB 899 in 2020 and SB 1336 earlier this year — fell flat.

“Third time’s the charm,” Wiener said Tuesday at El Bethel Arms, a San Francisco affordable housing complex for seniors owned by El Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, “and we’re going to get this legislation passed into law to expand affordable housing here in the state of California.”

If passed, the bill would automatically re-zone land owned by religious entities and nonprofit colleges to allow for housing, while also exempting projects on that land from lawsuits brought under the California Environmental Quality Act. And it would force cities to approve the developments, as long as they comply with height, density and other building rules of the area.

The legislation would apply only to 100% affordable housing projects.

There are nearly 40,000 acres of land used for religious purposes in California, according to a study by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation. In Alameda County, researchers estimated religious groups own 1,000 acres that could be turned into housing. There are another nearly 100 in San Francisco.

But when churches and other religious organizations try, they often are bogged down by so much red tape that they give up, Wiener said. It can be a headache just to get over the first hurdle — re-zoning the land to allow for housing.

Several affordable housing advocates and religious leaders joined Wiener to speak about the bill’s merits. Dozens of members of the Carpenters Union also showed up in safety vests and hardhats to support the bill.

“If a congregation is willing to share their extra land with the community, we should say thank you,” said Abram Diaz, policy director for the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California. “If they’re willing to house the homeless, we should say thank you. If a college is willing to put a roof over a low-income family’s head, we should thank them and welcome the opportunity in our community.”

Marty Schenker, board chair of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, said the bill gives the Bay Area’s religious communities the chance to do good.

“Many synagogues are eager to address the housing crisis and support our neighbors who are most in need,” he said. “We know our friends in other faith communities share these same values.”

Wiener’s announcement Tuesday came hours after police investigated a bomb threat at the legislator’s home and office. Wiener responded with anger to the threat, which he said relates to his work to end discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“The extreme homophobic and transphobic rhetoric that has escalated on social media and right wing media outlets has real world impacts,” he said in a statement. “It leads to harassment, stalking, threats, and violence against our community. People are dying as a result. Responsible political leaders on the right must call it out and stop tolerating it.”

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Author: Marisa Kendall

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