Khamis: Yes In God’s Backyard
La Trinidad United Methodist Church is a place of worship for the 95116 neighborhood. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

In the past, Santa Clara County faith leaders welcomed the unhoused into their houses of worship through the Winter Faith Collaborative and allowed their parking lots to be used for overnight parking. Once again, our faith community is stepping up to help address some of our most difficult socio-economic issues.

Faith leaders have now leaned into a new initiative called “Yes In God’s Backyard,” commonly referred to as YIGBY. The faith community aims to use their surplus land to build housing with a “vision to get people out of poverty.” Although this proposal can help put a real dent in our housing supply and help alleviate the housing crisis, cities have the final word on land use and many hurdles have to be overcome before city leaders approve a policy to allow residential units to be built on church lands.

The state and San Jose are attempting to clear the existing bureaucratic hurdles to allow for opportunities to build housing on land zoned Public/Quasi Public, or PQP. Typically, the PQP designation applies to places of worship and schools because they are considered places for public assembly. Once the zoning hurdles are removed, this can pave the way for proponents of YIGBY to build housing on church land. The city will separately develop a PQP policy specifically for schools.

In September 2020, San Jose approved a Citywide Residential Anti-Displacement Strategy that included analyzing zoning changes in limited cases for places of worship. Mayor Sam Liccardo included funding in the 2021-22 budget to conduct the necessary outreach to explore the conditions for which PQP zoned properties would be allowed to use a portion of their land for construction of residential units. A broader proposal to change zoning on a statewide level, Senate Bill 899, was shelved in November last year but could be revived.

In San Jose, the Cathedral of Faith has been in talks with the city and Mayor Liccardo for more than a year in hopes of building 200 units to house low-income residents on their unused land. They have already begun the long and difficult process of changing the zoning for their property from PQP to residential zoning.

Cathedral of Faith has received funding from the Sand Hill Foundation, a nonprofit that provides funding for promising organizations working to alleviate poverty and build housing. According to Elliot Sands, COO of the Sand Hill Foundation, the Cathedral of Faith has secured $20 million in funding from the foundation. The church leadership is hoping that the PQP YIGBY policy development for “assembly use” currently in the works with the planning and housing departments will clear the way for development to commence in early to mid 2022.

The Cathedral of Faith land development project is being used as a model for other churches. However, before we declare this a victory in addressing the housing crisis, many questions remain for the PQP YIGBY policy under development. What will be the affordability mix of low income units to market rate units? Who will manage these properties after they are built?

While the Cathedral of Faith’s project is not in a low density area, many churches are. Will those churches be allowed to build high density housing in low density neighborhoods? Will churches lose long term assets for short term financial gains if they are able to sell to developers? What will happen to the assembly space for the community?

These questions and more will be discussed in San Jose’s community outreach efforts taking place in August through October. The city is hosting a community meeting on the development policy on Aug. 19 from 6-8 p.m. on Zoom. For the outreach meeting link and city updates on affordable housing on sites with assembly use, click here.

The hope is to get community buy-in to create an ordinance that will allow PQP zoned properties to build residential housing by right, meaning churches could develop their land without going through the rezoning process in the future. Again, the PQP policy development of schools is being done separately from the policy for churches.

The devil is in the details and these discussions are happening concurrently alongside several other recommendations from San Jose, including anti-displacement strategy, urban villages and Opportunity Housing. One thing for sure is that these will be heated discussions.

Johnny Khamis is a former San Jose councilmember representing District 10. He now works as a public relations consultant for the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors (SCCAOR).

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