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'Yes In God's Backyard' Seeks Affordable Housing On Religious Land

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A group of faith communities and housing advocates are exploring how to make houses of worship part of the solution to San Diego's housing crisis. They call their initiative YIGBY, for "Yes in God's Backyard."

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Speaker 1: 00:00 You might call it an inspiration. San Diego housing advocates in some local faith leaders have come with an come up with an idea to create more affordable housing by building it in the parking lots of churches, synagogues and mosques. Kpbs Metro reporter Andrew Bowen says they've got a name for their idea. Yes, in God's backyard

Speaker 2: 00:22 along here would be a courtyard area for you to the departments to have an outside place on the first floor or a balcony on the second floor.

Speaker 3: 00:29 Pastor John do little is walking me through the parking lot of his church, Clermont Lutheran, which sits between a residential neighborhood and a shopping center for the past few years. Do little and his congregation have been exploring how to build affordable housing here

Speaker 2: 00:43 so it would go along our back property line and then the same apartment structure on two levels.

Speaker 3: 00:50 Do little shows me a site plan, one of two design options. The church is exploring. The idea is to build housing over the parking lot. He says houses of worship are in a unique position to help with San Diego's housing crisis.

Speaker 2: 01:02 Churches have the resources, they have the property, they have the ability to provide the space and the place for these kinds of structures to be built. Jesus told us to, to clothe the naked, to provide shelter for the homeless. So here we are doing that in a real tangible way, making sure that our resources are put to good use as part of the ministry for the good of the world.

Speaker 3: 01:23 Most congregations don't really need all of their parking spaces outside a few hours, one day a week, even still, San Diego's parking regulations have been a stumbling block. City code decides how many parking spaces at church needs based on the square inches of pew space.

Speaker 2: 01:40 So that formula was used, uh, to say that we have a deficit and that we needed to do a parking study to see what our actual parking use was

Speaker 3: 01:49 for a month. Congregants went out and surveyed vacant parking spaces and the church lot and the neighborhood four times a day. Do Little says that survey showed a surplus of parking, but that city officials still weren't satisfied and asked for more analysis. That plus the possible need for an environmental study have made for a lot of headaches,

Speaker 2: 02:08 so it's been one, one frustrating meeting after another. The Churches' mission is to help the less fortunate

Speaker 3: 02:16 a few months ago do little end. His congregation got a helping hand in the form of Tom Tyson. He's a retired attorney and former chair of the regional task force on the homeless Tyson and a few other advocates have been working to encourage more faith communities to consider building affordable housing on their land instead of the movement. Yes, in my backyard or [inaudible] they're calling it [inaudible]. Yes. In God's backyard.

Speaker 2: 02:41 I cannot tell you how many faith communities have come to me and said, what can we do to address homelessness and I have real hard time at telling them to go out hand out blankets or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or that type of stuff. They're looking for a way to be relevant and to do something that really makes a difference and building housing really makes a difference.

Speaker 3: 03:00 Tyson says the genesis of [inaudible] actually came from a list of properties designated for religious use in San Diego County. They represent more than 2000 acres spread across the county. Now Tyson and his partners are talking to about 15 faith communities. They're also analyzing different construction types and financing models and

Speaker 2: 03:20 we've been meeting with the city, talking with them about zoning requirements, figuring out how we can do this without getting bogged down in years and years of zoning and red tape in order to make this happen because the idea is to solve this problem now, not five years from now, it could be

Speaker 3: 03:35 still in its infancy. Tyson is hoping Claremont Lutherans pursuit of affordable housing can serve as a proof of concept that can be replicated elsewhere. Pastor do little says churches like his have a decades long relationship with their community and can avoid some of the backlash that often derails new housing.

Speaker 2: 03:54 It's our calling. It's our responsibility to be, to be neighbors to those who are around us and to be neighborly to those who need a hand up. And so we as a community of faith want to say yes and, and always as God always says yes to God's people. We too need to say yes to those who are in need.

Speaker 3: 04:10 The church is to design options, would create between 16 and 21 new affordable homes in Claremont. But given the roadblocks he's faced so far, do little hesitates to predict when that housing might be complete. Joining me as Kpbs Metro reporter Andrew Bowen. Hi Andrew. Hi Maureen. Now Church property is exempt from taxes, isn't that right? Yeah, they are exempt from property taxes, income taxes as well. Uh, but some of those same exemptions also apply to traditional affordable housing developers. There's a welfare exemption. So, uh, but that being said, developers often have to purchase the land up front and then they're paying their mortgage and sometimes their property taxes while they're going through the approval process for their PR, for their projects. Uh, churches by and large already owned their land. Uh, so there are some financial barriers that they would not have that a more traditional affordable housing developers would face.

Speaker 3: 05:05 Okay. So you mentioned the Digby proponents are exploring different construction types and financing models. Tell us more about that. Most affordable housing is made of wood and steel frame a structures there. They cost upwards of $400,000, often more a to build per unit. Uh, the UK folks are looking at actually recycled shipping containers. This is something that's been done before. It's not entirely new, but it is a less conventional, certainly they're stackable units. Um, they've got full plumbing, heating, air conditioning, etc. And because they're prefabricated, they're costs can go down to about $150,000. I'm also, they're looking at a different kind of financing you mentioned. So most affordable housing is financed through government tax credits and those are extremely competitive, affordable housing developers often need to cobble together a of different funding sources and it takes them quite a while. So the Higbee folks are also looking at a private financing.

Speaker 3: 06:04 So a separate agency would master lease this property. Uh, so the church has guaranteed income that they can use to pay off their mortgage that they're using to purchase the, the, the units and that agency. Then the outside agency subleases the apartment. So they're able to pay their costs with, uh, the rental income from the tenants. And this is also a very new and experimental model. What about after the units are built? Would the occupants be selected from the church community? They would not necessarily so that it would depend on, you know, typically churches would contract with a private property manager. Uh, that could be a nonprofit. It could be, um, perhaps the San Diego housing commission or a public agency. Um, because generally churches don't have a whole lot of experience in collecting rent and things like that. How has the FBI dia been received so far?

Speaker 3: 06:53 They gave a presentation to the community planners committee in April. This is the chairs of the various neighborhood planning groups across the city of San Diego. And, uh, I spoke with the chair of that committee and he said that they got a pretty positive reception. Um, they told them basically to continue with their phase one operations, exploring these ideas a little bit more and to come back to the committee for a requesting an endorsement, uh, when they have something more concrete to propose. Um, and I think that's a testament to the good faith, uh, no pun intended, that many churches have built in their communities. And also the scale of these projects would be pretty small. We're talking about, you know, a dozen, two dozen units, maybe two, two or three stories. And so it's maybe less likely to have the kind of big impact on, on the neighborhood that, um, some of the larger projects are larger, um, ideas for upzoning neighborhoods might, might, uh, create.

Speaker 3: 07:47 Now, you spoke with the pastor of Claremont Lutheran Church. The neighborhood of Clermont in particular has been the center of multiple fights over housing recently, hasn't it? Yes. Last December, uh, the city, uh, initiated a process to ups on the site of a former county crime labs. They moved their crime lab elsewhere. So this property is now out of use and the intent is to a ups zone it or allow increase the allowable density and to uh, build affordable housing there that drew a lot of opposition in the community. There's also a plan to create, uh, a number of permanent supportive housing units, um, and that has a in Claremont and that is also generated a lot of opposition. I'm also, Bay Ho is part of Claremont, so there's the whole discussion around the height limits near those future trolley stops along the interstate five freeway. And I did ask the pastor a pastor doodle a little about all of this activity that's happening in Claremont and what it's like for him just to kind of watch it while he's got his small project going on.

Speaker 3: 08:45 And he said that he knows some of those folks who are opposed to all these plans and he thinks that there'll be more amenable to what his church is planning for their property. And when it comes to complaints, let's talk for a minute about a parking, because if, if the churches lose their parking lots or at least what portions of them to affordable housing units, what about the surrounding communities who are already sometimes impacted unfavorably when the churches have meetings and on Sundays there's not enough parking. So I think every, every church is different. Uh, you know, they, some churches don't have any parking lots right now. Uh, so it depends on the churches size, the size of the parking lot, the size of the congregation. Um, but there will probably be cases in which a church might be losing some parking and some of the people who attend will be parking on the streets.

Speaker 3: 09:35 And so I think that what has to happen probably is that the community has to weigh its options and the costs and benefits of, of the, these types of projects as they come forward. If they do continue to come forward. What is more important to a community? Is that the availability of free on street parking? Uh, or is it our affordable housing shortage? The former chair of the regional task force on the homeless doesn't want to wait five years for these units to be built as we just heard him say, but don't let us like this usually take at least that long, at least. Certainly. And their hope is that with their, a sort of less conventional ideas about modular housing, you know, shipping container units and maybe private financing, that they can get these things to go along a lot faster. They're perspective is that the status quo simply isn't working. The system is unable to meet the housing needs of the poor in our community. I've been speaking with Kpbs Metro reporter Andrew Bowen. Andrew. Thank you. Thank you, Maureen.

Speaker 4: 10:31 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.