Yes In God’s Back Yard

A new study by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center finds that 38,800 acres of developable land held by faith-based organizations in California could (and very likely would) be developed for affordable housing, if local land-use regulations would permit them. Two bills currently moving through the state legislature, Assembly Bill 1851 and Senate Bill 899, would help clarify the regulations that currently make it difficult to build housing on property held by religious institutions. 

 Key takeaways:

  • The amount of developable land held by religious institutions is large — at least as much as the entire city of Stockton —and often in ideal locations for affordable housing.
  • Current barriers to housing development on this land include zoning, access to finance, and existing infrastructure.
  • Faith groups need streamlined land-use regulations and support from housing experts to develop their land.

Eddie Sun and David Garcia of the Terner Center surveyed faith group-held property in California, and found an abundant supply in high-opportunity areas with development potential; a share of those properties are already accessible to transit. The researchers note that houses of worship and faith communities often have both a moral and financial incentive to provide housing for the needy. They could house staff, worshippers, and the vulnerable populations they serve, while potentially even providing a source of revenue.

A good portion of this land is also in relatively affluent, high-opportunity areas. Over 16,000 acres are in the state Tax Credit Allocation Committee (TCAC)’s “high resource” and “highest resource” tiers in its map of Opportunity Areas.

Some financing requirements complicate efforts to develop religious land. Fair housing law prohibits income-restricted affordable housing from discriminating against tenants if it receives  the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, even by reserving units for clergy or other staff. California recently exempted public school staff from this requirement, so that school districts could use LIHTC funding for affordable housing development.

But the primary barriers impeding housing “in God’s back yard” are local: City zoning and other land-use regulations typically raise costs, and make development impossible for churches, which are typically non-profits on shoestring budgets.

Many of the developable sites found were in single-family zones, or had high parking requirements. For example, 66% of the potentially developable sites in Sacramento were zoned single-family; 21.6% of sites in San Francisco also prohibit multi-family development.