New law lets churches, colleges get around zoning laws to build housing
on October 16, 2023
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Wednesday that allows churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious organizations along with nonprofit colleges to build affordable housing on their properties.
The bill, SB4, introduced by State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, allows religious organizations to build housing without conducting environmental reviews, receiving approval from local governments or requesting zoning changes.
“It’s simple math — California needs to build more housing and ensure the housing we have is affordable,” Newsom said in a statement. “In partnership with the Legislature, we have advanced billions of dollars to that end.”
With a homeless population of roughly 161,548 people, California has the largest number of homeless individuals in the United States, according to a 2023 World Population Review report. This number represents 28% of the total unhoused population in the country. According to the latest federal count, Alameda County has 9,747 homeless people, nearly half of whom are in Oakland.
“California desperately needs to ramp up housing production, and the Governor’s actions today help put us on a path to achieve that goal,” Wiener said in a statement. “The era of saying no to housing is coming to an end.”
Steve Wertheim, Assembly Housing Committee staff member, said this is a step in the right direction, but a lot more needs to be done to address California’s housing crisis.
“This will free up lots of land for affordable housing. It will make the city have to say ‘yes’ and takes away the power of the neighbors to say no’ to building low-income houses within their neighborhood,” he said.
SB4 — colloquially referred to as “Yes, in God’s Backyard” – may help alleviate the housing crisis. A recent Turner Center report showed that there are 171,749 acres of developable land across 11 surveyed counties, including Alameda, under the ownership of faith-based organizations and nonprofit colleges. Faith-based organizations hold 47,019 acres and 15,041 plots, of which 881 acres and 612 plots are in Alameda County.
New revenue stream
The Jewish Public Affairs Committee, an advocacy group that sponsored the bill, believes the principles of this legislation resonate with Jewish values of neighborly aid.
“Most synagogues had never built a business model around housing, though they have dues, and they raise money,” said David Carson, the committee’s director. “But they’ve never really thought about housing as an option for fundraising because the laws have been so unfeasible.”
He said the bill offers an opportunity for synagogues to consider housing as a potential new revenue stream.
There are several rules that institutions approved for these projects must follow, such as renting the housing units at legally defined rates. The bill states that the rent or sales price for a moderate-income unit must be affordable. The rent for each unit earmarked for a middle-income household should not exceed 30% of the household’s income.
Harry Bridge of the Buddhist Church of Oakland, the city’s longest-standing Buddhist temple, supports the measure, though like some associated with religious institutions, he was unaware of its passage.
“We’ve been here since 1950 and the land includes a pre-existing apartment building from the early 20th century. It is being used for our low-income community members,” Bridge said. “I think it is a good idea, but I don’t see us building anything new at this point.”
He explained that Buddhist temples are independent of each other, and many have limited resources and smaller plots of land to build on.
With the signing of this bill into law, the ball is now in the court of faith-based institutions in California.
(Top photo of The Cathedral of Christ the Light by Cecile Egbele)
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