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Bay Area churches are building housing in God's backyard

Marisa Kendall, The Mercury News on

Published in Religious News

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- There's a new acronym floating in the alphabet soup of California housing parlance: YIGBY, or "yes in God's backyard."

Congregations in the Bay Area and beyond are taking steps to build affordable housing on their properties to shelter some of the many local residents who can't pay the region's sky-high rents. Housing advocates and religious leaders hope the movement for faith-built housing -- christened "YIGBY" by a group in San Diego as a play on "not in my backyard," or "NIMBY" -- will open up new properties for development and pad the Bay Area's depleted housing stock with hundreds of new units.

Playing developer can be daunting for a congregation that has no experience navigating the lengthy permitting processes or the backlash that can come from neighbors. But for many, it seemed like the obvious, and godly, way to help those struggling with homelessness or unstable housing situations.

"We just knew we had to do something, and this was something we could do," said Donna Colombo, executive director of the Trinity Center, the nonprofit connected with St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Walnut Creek. "We could build housing for people who have nothing."

St. Paul's is wrapping up construction of 44 affordable apartments on its property and plans to start moving residents in as early as November. The apartment building is going up next door to the church, replacing two structures the congregation formerly used to provide day-time services to the homeless. Half of the apartments will be for renters with Section 8 vouchers, and all will have varying income caps. Most will be for renters making between about $26,000 and $35,000 a year -- equal to 30 to 40% of the area median income for a single-person household. Renters will pay between $759 and $1,302 a month, or one-third of their income.

St. Paul's leased its land to developer Resources for Community Development, rather than selling it, so the church could retain some control over the project. The apartment building, dubbed St. Paul's Commons, cost about $23 million to build and was funded through a combination of city, county and federal dollars, as well as private loans. It already has received more than 5,000 applications.

 

Experts say places of worship can make ideal sites for affordable housing. Many congregations have owned their land for decades and now are sitting on large properties worth a small fortune. At the same time, some congregations are shrinking as high housing prices force members to move to cheaper areas. The result is chunks of prime but under-utilized real estate -- half-empty sanctuaries, vacant auxiliary buildings and barely-used parking lots.

Faced with that realization, East Palo Alto city leaders convened a meeting of local churches in October to discuss turning some of their under-used land into housing. Of the 80 churches in the city, about 35 sent representatives, said Patrick Heisinger, the city's community development director. Now two of those congregations are in talks with developers.

"We're really working hard to stop the hemorrhaging of gentrification in East Palo Alto," he said. "So if there's a way to preserve churches ... as well as building more affordable housing for folks in our community to live, I feel like it's a win-win."

To make sure a deal really is a win for the congregation, many religious leaders are turning to developer and real estate consultant Landis Graden with Dublin-based DCG Strategies. Graden specializes in helping congregations downsize or find new sanctuaries. But over the past few years, more Bay Area congregations have come to him with the idea of building housing. He's now working with four on residential development plans -- including a Methodist Church in San Jose that wants to build a seven- or eight-story apartment building on its property -- and is in early discussions with five or six more.

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