Multifamily Housing ‘In God’s Backyard’

Columnist Lew Sichelman on the potential symbiotic relationship between housing and religion.

Lew Sichelman

Lew Sichelman

As religious congregations continue to see their flocks diminish, some churches are discovering that they have more land than they need. Some have excess parking, others have unused space on their sprawling campuses and still others may have a non-contiguous lot away from their main buildings.

Increasingly, churches are developing their unnecessary space into multifamily housing. There’s even an acronym for it – not “Yes in My Backyard” but YIGBY as in: “Yes, in God’s Backyard.”

If the YIGBY movement sounds like an idea minted in California, you’d be right. It got its start in San Diego with an ambitious plan to build 3,000 units of multifamily housing on church land there by 2025.

And that could be just the beginning for the Golden State. Turns out there is a lot of church land that could be potentially developable—some 40,000 acres, according to a 2020 study by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation. With today’s emphasis on transit-oriented development, apartment builders may be particularly interested in the 256.5 acres of that land that is located near public transit.

Located on the University of California’s Berkeley Campus, the Terner Center noted that 45 percent of the excess church acreage is in higher-end areas which could provide desirable market-rate apartments as well as opportunities for more affordable units. That’s “an opportunity for building housing in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates and greater economic, educational and environmental amenities,” according to the report.

Developing excess church property, the report said, offers “some potential to build housing that meets the state’s twin objectives of expanding access to opportunity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through improved land use.”

On the downside, the unused church land is very decentralized, with 10,440 different entities owning those 40,000 acres.

San Diego projects underway

San Diego-based YIGBY.org is concentrating on the affordable housing end of the market. YIGBY claims that faith communities own 4,675 acres of land in San Diego County where 171,000 more units of affordable housing are needed. Much of that ground is already zoned for housing. And as church-owned, much of that property is not taxed.

Selling church property to developers is one of those rare win-win-win situations, the non-profit maintains: Housing opportunities for vulnerable populations, much-needed revenues for churches with declining congregant bases and the chance to build more environmentally friendly projects.

The group, started by various professionals and faith practitioners in the San Diego area, likes the idea of modular housing because of its low cost. It is also quick to build, roughly 10 days or less. Faster yet, all the necessary government approvals can be obtained from the state right in the manufacturing plant.

With money from Uncle Sam, YIGBY’s first project used modular housing to keep costs down. It was built for veterans and the formerly homeless on a lot owned by a San Diego church.

Financing came from a federal program called HUD VASH, a collaboration between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs. HUD VASH targets homeless veterans with HUD providing housing money and the VA contributing the supportive services the veterans need. Money also came from donations into a fund organized by the Self Help Credit Union of North Carolina.

If the idea of two federal bureaucracies cooperating on something seems like something of a miracle, well why not? After all, this is a faith-based endeavor.

It’s likely the YIGBY movement will provoke NIMBY-ism, as in “Not in My Backyard.” But California’s extremely expensive housing market makes it just as likely that private developers – or the churches themselves – will be happy to take up the fight to find inexpensive housing sites.

Mixing faith and housing

Another creative way churches have looked to shore up failing congregations is to make it easier for its members to come to services. What does that have to do with multifamily housing? In at least two cases, a mixed-use development will include a church on the ground floor and residential units above it.

In New York City, both Iglesia De Dios Senda De Bendicion in the Bronx and the Fort George Hill development in Manhattan feature ground-floor churches paired with apartments above. NYC architect Victor Body-Lawson of Body Lawson Associates and developer SoBro (the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp.) have teamed up on each of these projects.

Iglesia De Dios Senda De Bendicion used to be housed in two ordinary storefronts. Now it is being turned into a church of 6,745 square feet with 43 low-income residential units above it. Congregants could be an elevator ride home from Sunday services.

Fort George Hill is even bigger. A 12-story development there will hold 146 units of housing above the lower-floor Movimiento Mundial Church, again an elevator ride away.

Both these projects used Low Income Housing Tax Credits as part of their financing.

Body-Lawson told Multi-Housing News that churches currently are in flux. “The market, though that’s not the best word to use for churches, has changed, particularly in urban areas,” he said. “The membership, the demographic has changed. They have somewhat reduced and atrophied making the churches very difficult to maintain by the existing members.”

These projects create a “symbiotic relationship” between church sacred spaces and where congregants live. Body-Lawson has thought seriously about this relationship, keeping the two realms separate by making the church’s ceiling separate from the bottom floor of the apartments above.

And it seems like an elegant combination to have churches provide both spiritual support and housing to low-income populations whose welfare is part of their original charters and a priority of their founding visionary 2,000 years ago.

My associate Mark Fogarty contributed reporting and writing to this article.

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