A house of worship could be the next refuge for people looking for a permanent home.
San Jose and local faith leaders are proposing a change to the city’s affordable housing plans that would allow developers to build at gathering places such as churches, private clubs, lodges and theaters, bypassing the city’s often lengthy permit and approval process—land the city calls public/quasi-public, or PQP.
Places of assembly often have excess land, such as grass fields or parking lots, which makes them attractive for housing development. The city estimates that between 300 to 500 affordable homes can be constructed throughout San Jose should the policy be approved, with places of worship as the most likely sites for development. The city promises to minimize the parking impacts as much as possible to offset an influx of residents.
A movement to build on church property, called Yes In God’s Backyard, or YIGBY—mirroring similarly-named movements such as NIMBY and YIMBY—started among faith leaders in San Diego in the late 2010s. In 2019, the San Diego City Council passed legislation eliminating parking requirements for churches and streamlining the permit process to allow places of worship to build affordable housing.
The strategy to build on gathering places is part of the San Jose’s anti-displacement policy unveiled last year. Mayor Sam Liccardo included funding in his 2021-22 budget to research the idea. It’s part of the city’s lofty goal to build 25,000 homes, including 10,000 affordable units by 2023. The city has built 3,348 housing units, 506 of which are affordable, since 2018.
“Displacement has a lot of negative impacts,” said Kemit Mawakana, division manager with the city’s housing department. “It impacts education, it impacts vulnerable groups like seniors.”
The housing program, if approved, is voluntary—churches, lodges and similar buildings won’t be mandated to build affordable units on their grounds.
The city hosted a virtual meeting Thursday as part of a two-month outreach effort to help sell the idea to residents.
The plan is already gaining some traction among the brass at Cathedral of Faith, a Christian megachurch in central San Jose. The church has been working with developer Sand Hill Property Company for more than a year on a housing project filled with affordable units on the church’s 13.4 acres—and talks with the city are still ongoing. The two-building project plans to offer 258 affordable units, according to the church. One building would be reserved for low-income families, the other for seniors. Each building is envisioned as five stories high.
“The biggest thing at the heart of our church is meeting the needs of our community,” said Kurt Foreman, director of operations and executive pastor at Cathedral of Faith. “One of the things for us as a church is always trying to address and provide solutions to community issues because we have 12,000 people that are part of our church and part of our community. One of the big challenges we’ve seen is the affordability of housing. It’s critical and probably the highest-level challenge I’ve ever seen.”
Foreman hopes the city will adopt the policy soon. By his estimate, if the church went the traditional planning route, it would take until at least 2025 to begin construction. With the proposed policy, groundbreaking could be moved up as early as 2023.
Some have concerns about the timeline for building units. Steve Lynch, director of planning and entitlements at Sand Hill Property Company, said he’s worried housing projects will still take too long for approval.
“All told, the soonest we can begin to address any kind of affordable unit, any type of housing crisis, we’re four years, maybe even farther,” Lynch said. “In the 20 years I’ve been here, homelessness has just exploded around this city, and we need to do something. And honestly, four years is too long.”
The city is also considering a similar zoning policy that could allow libraries, museums, airports, fire stations, convention centers, government offices and other public buildings to host affordable housing.
There are 541 public/quasi-public sites in San Jose, including the Mineta San Jose International Airport and San Jose State University. Of those sites, 203 are used for gatherings, including places of worship.
Another community meeting is tentatively set for November. The policy is set to go before the city’s Planning Commission this fall. The City Council will then consider it early next year.
“It’s a great opportunity for churches to plug in. We have some other ideas about making this our own version of Google village,” Foreman joked. “It might not be for all churches, but it’s a great opportunity for churches to help.”