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A photo of the exterior of Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville.
A Baptist church in Louisville; a number of cities have launched programs to utilize unused church real estate as a means to increase the local supply of affordable housing.
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Churches divine a new role: Housing development

New city programs helping mission-based groups turn unused land into housing take aim at the affordability crisis

When Rev. Dr. Michael A. Jolla took over as pastor at San Antonio’s “Exciting” West End Baptist Church in 2011, he aimed to nurture the needs of the congregation of 75 on the city’s near northwest side. The 115-year-old church would be “renewed and reviewed,” according to his wife, Sandra Jolla, who works as the outreach coordinator, with major changes to the ministry, including more community engagement.

The church sits on Culebra Street a few blocks from the overpasses of Interstate 10, where a number of homeless residents of the city sleep. Over the last few years, many of them have spent their nights on church grounds, with roughly four to six settled in on the church steps each night.

“They’re coming to the Lord’s house to sleep, but the problem is, they loiter and leave trash,” says Jolla. “But it just didn’t seem right to call the police to have them removed. We thought, ‘There ought to be something we can do for them.’”

The church already held a food bank each Thursday, and collected used clothes and provided hot meals semi-regularly, but that didn’t seem to be enough. So last year, the Jollas began seriously thinking about turning the 7/8th of an acre of land adjacent to the church, which they’d accumulated by buying up vacant lots, into a shelter.

Initially, they planned to set up temporary trailers. They didn’t think they knew enough about zoning or construction to build something permanent.

Part of a proposal from a San Antonio church aiming to turn unused real estate into a homeless shelter.
A portion of Exciting West End Baptist Church’s proposal to turn unused real estate into what they’re calling a homeless hotel.
Courtesy Exciting West End Baptist Church

Then, last fall, they found a partner that may be willing to help them break ground: the city of San Antonio. As part of what the city is calling its Mission-Oriented Development Pilot, housing officials are reaching out to churches, other faith-based organizations, and charities to help them convert unused land into affordable housing projects or facilities to shelter the homeless.

It’s currently a small test, with just $300,000 allocated to support up to 10 projects, which city officials are currently vetting. But its backers hope it can kickstart development and get more organizations engaged in affordable housing.

“When you consider there are seven or eight community organizations developing housing in San Antonio now, and there could be five more working by next year, that’s a pretty big resource,” says Leilah Powell, executive director of San Antonio’s chapter of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) San Antonio, a community development financial institution partnering with the city on this new initiative. “Churches are a nonprofit we haven’t relied on enough.”

Combining housing, service, and support

San Antonio’s program comes at an ideal time, both for the city itself and for potential partners. The city has a growing downtown, and according to Ian Benavidez, the city’s affordable housing administrator, the development is leading to rising housing costs as wages stay stagnant. At the same time, churches, in both San Antonio and across the country, have been losing congregants, prompting the churches to search for new missions and new funding sources, and leaving them with excess land.

“We’re a growing city, and one of the biggest barriers to creating affordable housing as we grow is available land,” says Benavidez. The city estimates that roughly 3,000 acres across the city could be unlocked by partnering with faith-based groups.

A watercolor sketch of a church with an adjacent housing development.
A rendering of a proposed housing development that would be adjacent to Greater Cooper AME Zion Church in Oakland, California, part of a local LISC program working with mission-based organizations.
Courtesy LISC

Benavidez and Powell also believe the program will ultimately serve homeless residents or those looking for affordable rent. Churches and faith-based groups tend to offer social services already, including meals, meeting space, and other forms of assistance, and are often centrally located. Proximity to support services can make a big difference in successfully transitioning someone out of homelessness.

This mutually beneficial scenario between the city and churches, as well as the extent of the homeless and affordability crisis, aren’t unique to San Antonio. Laurel Engbretson, a local program officer for Bay Area LISC, which is running a similar pilot in Alameda County, California, says the housing crisis has inspired an “all hands on deck” approach.

“Churches really feel the impact of the displacement issue in their communities,” she says. “There’s a higher level of energy to get involved in this, because they understand the larger market context.”

Teaching community development to churches

In 2018, San Antonio adopted a new housing policy framework and plan that was, in large part, a reaction to increasing housing costs. In 2016, 48 percent of renters in the city were cost-burdened, meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing, a common measure of affordability. The city’s analysis of its housing needs suggested faith-based partnerships could help provide more housing. With that in mind, in early 2019, the housing department and other parts of city government began examining the idea of collaborating with churches and other faith- and mission-based organizations, and using some of the city’s $35 million annual fund for affordable housing to do so.

The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives began creating an inventory of property, and individual city council offices provided information on individual parishes. The city also partnered with LISC to help run the program. Eventually, the city approved funding last October and invited potential partners to a meeting in November.

A crowd gathers behind a San Antonio city official presenting details of the city’s Mission-Oriented Development pilot on a screen to her left.
Lori Houston, San Antonio’s assistant city manager, speaks to a crowd at the kickoff meeting for the city’s Mission-Oriented Development Pilot last November.
Courtesy Ian Benavidez

According to Powell, there’s a vast range of experience, expertise, and knowledge within the initial pool of potential partners.

“Some will be ready to go; some need to start from scratch,” she says. “We’re working with groups who can launch right into pre-development, or those that just have land and an idea.”

The idea is to provide churches and organizations willing to use their land with assistance, in the form of guidance from city agencies that handle permitting, help applying for tax credits, and connections with developers.

Last week, Benavidez said the city was evaluating about a dozen proposals, including West End Baptist. (He wouldn’t share the list of other participants, saying many proposals still need to be approved by their respective congregations.) The ideas presented include building everything from single-family homes to small apartment buildings.

Powell says this program offers an ideal tool as San Antonio seeks to expand its affordable housing stock. Since inclusionary zoning—a rule that forces developers to guarantee a certain number or percentage of affordable units in a new project—isn’t legal due to Texas state law, she says the construction of thousands of new market-rate apartments downtown has put a lot of pressure on inner-ring neighborhoods in San Antonio, which traditionally provided affordable living close to downtown jobs. The displacement is “just rampant” in some areas, she says.

“Community churches look around and a decade ago, their neighborhood was all single-family homes, and now it’s $400,0000 townhomes, and they think, ‘Where did everybody go?’” she says.

West End Baptist proposed building a two-story homeless shelter on its vacant lot. According to Jolla, the first story would contain meeting rooms and a kitchen, while the second story would include male and female wings with 50 cots and showers on each side.

Joining a long history of faith-based affordable housing projects

Around the U.S., faith-based groups have long been involved with affordable housing. Mercy Housing has built nearly 50,000 affordable housing units across the country since starting in the early ’80s, and the Adrian Dominican Sisters have been providing loans for housing developments since the late ’70s. Habitat for Humanity has long utilized land donated by churches.

San Antonio’s Mission-Oriented Development pilot is one of a handful of similar programs that have taken shape over the last few years to use city resources in combination with faith-based efforts. In 2016, LISC New York and New York City launched the New York Land Opportunity Program (NYLOP), the first of its kind in the country to provide assistance to mission-driven organizations, and has already partnered with 11 organizations in its first few years of operation. Enterprise Community Partners’s Faith-Based Development Initiative has helped create more than 1,200 units of housing in the Mid-Atlantic region.

In Alameda County, California, LISC is also overseeing a $1 million program to provide dedicated resources, technical assistance, and development advice to similar groups in a region that encompasses the East Bay, including Berkeley and Oakland. According to Engbretson, the local LISC member managing the effort, part of the program is helping these groups navigate the tricky world of development and affordable housing financing.

“Affordable housing is a technical field,” she says. “We want to provide resources and support so they have the knowledge to make the best decisions for their land.”

So far, the Alameda County initiative has engaged with 10 groups, six of them faith-based, including Greater Cooper AME Zion Church. Seven of the 10 have plans ready for pre-development, and Engbretson estimates these seven have the potential to create 250 new housing units across the region. It may not seem like a lot, but with the homeless crisis so visible in the area—Oakland’s homeless population grew 47 percent between 2017 and 2019—all help is welcome.

“What’s unique about this program is that while it may not be the pathway to maximizing the number of new units, it does stabilize anchor institutions that provide critical community services and also provide critical housing,” she says.

Some of these programs may also include a religious component. When talking about her church’s proposal, Jolla said they planned to include faith-based outreach.

“Clearly we’d want to set up some kind of Bible study,” she says. “We would have a problem if we were unable to share our faith with these individuals.”

“Right now we can’t tell churches what they can or can’t do with their resources, unless it’s against code,” said LISC’s Powell. “I can’t imagine a scenario where government resources would be made available for a project that didn’t advance equity in our community in all dimensions.”

Engbretson says she hasn’t seen that issue ever become a problem in any of the Alameda County pilot projects.

“I haven’t come across any conflict,” she says. “It also could be context specific because the Bay Area is generally pretty progressive and has always been open to new ideas.”

A new partner in affordable housing

Benavidez hopes to begin moving forward in earnest on the program later this month, after evaluations of all the proposals. By the end of the year, he hopes to have five to 10 projects ready to break ground. At that point, he believes it’ll be a year or two before projects are complete and open their doors.

But he sees this as just the beginning. The lessons learned from the initial pilot can help fine-tune the program and bring more potential partners into the fold.

“For San Antonio, this is opening a door,” he says. “We’ve received huge interest, and the demand is certainly out there.”

Powell from LISC feels the same way. As San Antonio grows, it will be challenging for affordable housing developers to find plots with as much potential as church property, lands central to the communities where they operate.

“This isn’t something we do once,” says Powell. “There are lots of great places in this portfolio, now and in the future.”

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