Church-owned properties are becoming a potential solution to Bay Area’s ongoing housing crisis through program and funding support.

Last month, LISC Bay Area, an organization focused on community improvement, shared progress and expansion of its Faith and Housing program and announced a $500,000 grant from Wells Fargo to help Bay Area churches convert underutilized land into affordable homes.

Oakland and Berkeley councilmembers, church leaders and other participants gathered at the United Lutheran Church of Oakland on Sept. 27, celebrating the efforts to help homeless residents in their communities.

“Our work is fundamentally about justice for people and communities who have been harmed by policies and practices — from redlining to segregation — designed to limit access to safe, affordable housing,” said Cindy Wu, the executive director of LISC Bay Area.

Piloted in 2019, the program has nurtured two cohorts consisting of 20 faith-based organizations in Alameda County, with over 600 housing units in the pipeline.

The donation from Wells Fargo will specifically help expand the program to support about 10 more faith-based organizations to develop housing units on their unused land. The new cohort will be open to organizations across nine counties in the Bay Area, and is expected to house 300 additional low-income families with their projects.

“I look at this as an opportunity for us to come across cities and counties,” said Pastor Paul Bains, United Hope Builders and WeHOPE’s founder and an advisor of the program. “This is a regional program. We just have to be more intentional with our efforts of coming together.”

Acres of faith-owned land

According to UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation’s 2020 report, approximately 38,800 acres of faith-owned land in California could be repurposed and developed into affordable housing.

Much of such land is located in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates and greater educational, economic, and environmental amenities, and are relatively closer to transit, the report said.

The program offers organizations cohort-based workshops and web training, technical assistance from a development coach, and guidance through the process of evaluating their land and creating a viable development plan.

Churches often have to navigate the intricacies of housing development to make their good intentions come to life. Many organizations reached out with questions around funding, time cost and application issues, said Tia Hicks, LISC Bay Area’s program officer.

“I wanted to understand the language of affordable housing, but the application process seemed so overwhelming and frustrating,” said Billie Simmons, president at Agnes Memorial Church of God in Christ.

An affordable apartment development that recently opened in Berkeley was constructed through a partnership between South Berkeley McGee Avenue Baptist Church and the Bay Area Community Land Trust. (Photo courtesy of LISC Bay Area/Twitter)

Simmons had tried to apply for city funding to get his organization’s housing project to construction, but the applications failed four times. As a member of the program’s first cohort, Simmons managed to secure funds from the city of Oakland with revised project plans.

Although the program has seen some success, it is not without challenges moving forward.

“A lot of our projects are still very early stage,” Hicks said. “We have this program that helps folks, but there are barriers that people kind of come up against with these projects.”

Some common hurdles include neighborhood pushback and zoning issues. The United Lutheran Church of Oakland, for instance, has planned on building an 88-unit apartment on its parking lot, but the land is not zoned for residential multi-family development, but only for detached unit residential, according to Oakland’s zoning map.

Oakland Councilmember Treva Reid spoke about how the city may help push the housing projects forward by fast-tracking their approval and getting corresponding departments staffed up to help remove barriers, for example.

“We’ve heard the challenges,” Reid said.