Bills Would Let Churches Build Affordable Housing on Their Land, Regardless of Zoning

March 6, 2020

Bills Would Let Churches Build Affordable Housing on Their Land, Regardless of Zoning - (SF Chronicle - March 6)

SACRAMENTO — Can church parking lots provide a solution to California’s housing shortage? A pair of bills would make it easier to build affordable housing projects on property owned by religious institutions.

Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, introduced a measure Thursday to remove local zoning restrictions for residential development by churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith organizations, as well as nonprofit hospitals.

SB899 would permit them to build apartments and condominiums that are entirely affordable to low-income residents without having to ask officials to rezone their land for multifamily housing.

Projects in residential neighborhoods could be up to three stories tall and include as many as 40 units. In mixed-use and commercial areas, they could be five stories tall with 150 units. Developers would have to agree to keep the housing affordable to low-income renters for at least 55 years and to low-income buyers for at least 45 years.

For cash-strapped religious institutions with shrinking congregations or closed buildings, developing excess land into housing can be an attractive proposition — and one that fits with their charitable mission of serving poor or homeless people.

Consultants say they are exploring projects with dozens of churches in the Bay Area. Religious properties are considered prime sites for affordable housing in San Francisco, particularly in neighborhoods like the Sunset District where few homes have been built in recent years.

Wiener said his bill is meant to remove stumbling blocks, such as the costly and time-consuming rezoning process, for faith organizations and nonprofit hospitals trying to convert their unused space.

“Churches and other religious and charitable institutions often have land to spare, and they should be able to use that land to build affordable housing and thus further their mission,” he said in a statement.

His proposal follows another measure introduced earlier this year by Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, to loosen minimum parking requirements for religious properties. AB1851 would make it easier for churches and other faith institutions to build affordable housing projects on their parking lots without having to replace the lost spaces or add new ones for the residents.

A Lutheran church in San Diego that wanted to redevelop its fellowship hall into affordable housing ran into problems last year because of a city code linking parking spots to the number of pews.