Yes In God’s Backyard

8 min read

Faith-Based Organizations Embrace the Affordable Housing Space

Looking to bring their philanthropic missions into their own backyards, an increasing number of faith-based organizations are building affordable housing projects on their properties, often with the help of new local and state laws.

Those looking to develop affordable housing on land or other property owned by faith-based groups refer to the efforts as YIGBYism – Yes in God’s Backyard. The term is a riff on the development-opposing mantra, Not in My Backyard, or NIMBYism, which highlights neighbors’ wariness of new, and especially affordable, projects.

YIGBYism is having a moment in the United States, according to developers, affordable housing advocates and faith-based groups. Many faith-based groups have land resources, and the need for affordable housing is immense in their communities and others throughout the country. According to a 2020 report by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, religious institutions in San Diego County alone owned 4,675 developable acres on 1,188 lots.

“Houses of worship are in just about any community and they own much-underdeveloped land,” explains David Bowers, vice president of Mid-Atlantic Market and senior advisor, Faith-Based Development Initiative for Enterprise Community Partners. “You have a mission-aligned sector sitting on a resource that is fundamental to meeting the needs of the housing crisis…A need and an opportunity are being connected. That’s what I call radical common sense.”

Faith-Based Projects from Coast to Coast
From Boston to the San Francisco Bay Area, developers of affordable housing say that an increasing number of faith-based groups are looking to transition property they own into affordable housing. Many such groups have been working in the affordable space for years, but the number of newcomers to this space is growing.

The Planning Office for Urban Affairs (POUA) of the Archdiocese of Boston has been involved in developing affordable housing since the late 1960s, says Bill Grogan, president of POUA. It has developed over 3,000 units of affordable and mixed-income housing in 20 cities and towns in Massachusetts, says Grogan, and more are on the way. He says he sees other religious groups looking to build on their land too.

“I think it [development of affordable projects by faith-based groups] is seeing a moment because of the affordable housing crisis we are finding ourselves in, not just in Boston or Massachusetts, but across the country,” says Grogan. “More faith-based organizations are trying to see how they can develop a response to that crisis…and are looking to their assets and land as a possible response.”

Indeed, the adage ‘Land rich, cash poor’ describes the fiscal standing of many faith-based groups. The land-rich part is what makes the groups great candidates for developing affordable housing projects. The cash-poor part often compels the groups to seek grants and development expertise elsewhere.

In Arlington, VA, dwindling church attendance enticed the Arlington Presbyterian Church to consider selling its land and historic old church to a nonprofit developer who could redevelop it into affordable housing. In 2016, they found a nonprofit buyer, the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, which bought the church and land for $8.5 million. Now, a six-story apartment complex with 173 units for people who earn 60 percent of the area median income or less stands in the spot where the church once did. The ground-floor meeting space of the complex is rented out to the former church for services. In the end, the church was able to keep a meeting space and make a significant impact on lower-income families.

In San Mateo, CA, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pastor Marlyn Bussey of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, says she has been wanting to build affordable housing on a lot adjacent to her church for 11 years, but the “city was not hearing it.” Pastor Bussey and parishioners want to build six studio-like Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) to house young people who have aged out of the foster care system.

“I want to do something to help them have a safe, affordable place to live,” Pastor Bussey says.

States, Cities and Counties Pass Legislation to Help YIGBY Projects
Pastor Bussey, like other leaders of faith-based groups, got some traction for her project through state legislation. Cities and counties in other parts of the U.S. have also passed legislation to help YIGBY projects.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom this past fall signed into law SB 4, which allows faith-based groups to build 100 percent affordable housing on land they own “by right.” The bill allows the groups to circumvent approvals, reviews and zoning changes from city governments or county planning departments. It also prevents faith-based groups from being sued by neighbors and forbids local governments from denying the projects if they meet criteria set out in the law. These assurances help to reduce the time and cost of projects. The law is in effect as of Jan. 1, 2024.

Pastor Bussey believes SB 4 will allow her project to move closer to fruition. She is already working with Firm Foundations Housing in Hayward, CA about building the tiny home ADUs. The St. James Community Development Corporation that Pastor Bussey founded is applying for grant funding and has already raised almost a half million dollars in grant funding and the project is not yet entitled.

“I think SB 4 will remove a lot of the barriers and red tape to these (faith-based) projects,” says Pastor Bussey. “We want to be a model for the City of San Mateo that this can happen. The faith community, city, state and federal governments can all come together to help alleviate the housing crisis.”

Mark Stivers, director of advocacy for nonprofit, California Housing Partnership, says SB 4 will likely open doors to many more faith-based groups’ affordable housing projects in California.

“SB 4 is a win-win that both keeps houses of worship financially solvent and helps meet California’s affordable housing needs,” says Stivers. “Many houses of worship are cash-poor but land-rich and feel a moral obligation to assist those with needs. Once the law takes effect on January 1, we expect to see a slew of proposals for desperately needed new affordable homes.”

David Bowers, of Enterprise Community Partners, says many cities, states and counties across the United States are enacting legislation and initiatives to encourage YIGBY projects, or providing funding to help faith-based groups get projects off the ground.

“Governments are saying that they see the faith community as partners in this work,” says Bowers. “That is what is changing and evolving in this space.”

Bowers noted Washington state passed a law in 2019 that requires cities to allow additional density for affordable housing developed on property owned or controlled by a religious organization. An ordinance with more specific details about such projects passed shortly after that in Seattle. Washington, DC’s comprehensive plan does not have an implementing law on faith-based development, but the plan includes language that encourages favorable reviews of such projects by the city.

Linking Faith-Based Groups with Funding and Development Expertise
Enterprise Community Partners is one of a handful of national nonprofits with an initiative focused on helping faith-based groups develop their land into affordable housing. Through their Faith-Based Development Initiative, Enterprise helps to link faith-based groups with grants and capital, technical assistance, training and peer-to-peer learning on developing underutilized land into affordable homes or community assets.

Bowers says his organization seeks to help faith-based groups build not just affordable housing but community assets, such as daycare and healthcare facilities, grocery stores in food deserts, or other projects to fill community needs. The initiative also aims to support equitable procurement opportunities for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) vendors in project development and operations. Based on a cohort model, the Enterprise initiative trains faith-based organizations in groups ranging from seven to 17 organizations at a time. They help houses of worship understand the process, put together a request for proposal (RFP), select a developer and work to find a grant or other funding. Bowers says he has seen excitement about the opportunity that faith-based development creates in cities, towns and with funders of all sizes.

“I have talked to folks in places as big as New York City to a small outpost in Alaska and everywhere in between,” he says.

Several cities throughout the nation have put forth funding for training faith-based groups in developing the projects. Bowers says Washington, DC is currently supporting two different cohorts with $1.7 million. Alameda, CA and Prince George’s County, MD have also provided funding to faith-based cohorts.

In November 2023, Enterprise Community Partners announced its first national-level, faith-based collaboration, detailing a new partnership with the Church of God in Christ’s Community Economical Development Corporation (COGIC CEDC). Under the agreement, Enterprise will help COGIC CEDC train 200 congregations in faith-based community development to create an estimated 18,000 units of affordable housing, as well as 72 community facilities. The projects would be developed on vacant or underutilized church-owned land throughout the nation.  

“We are at a place where the movement is growing,” says Bowers. “If we can continue to get more members of the faith community, as well as professionals in the industry, to say the faith community can be integral partners in this ecosystem, we can really meet some need.”  

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, ME. She writes primarily about housing, local government, technology and education.