Housing Policy

California Wants To Carve Out Religious Exemptions to Its Insane Housing Laws

State lawmakers want to override local zoning codes to let churches and other nonprofits build affordable housing on their own land.

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California's housing crisis has gotten so bad that state lawmakers are considering a little divine preemption.

Last Friday, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) introduced Senate Bill (S.B.) 899, which would allow religious institutions—as well as nonprofit hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes—to build affordable housing "by right" on land they own.

That means that local planners wouldn't have the discretion to deny these housing projects, and third parties would lose the ability to hold them up with interminable environmental appeals and lawsuits.

"Churches and other religious and charitable institutions often have land to spare, and they should be able to use that land to build affordable housing and thus further their mission," said Wiener in a press release. "SB 899 ensures that affordable housing can be built and removes local zoning and approval obstacles in order to do so."

Wiener's bill would let qualifying nonprofit institutions build housing projects containing at least 40 units on their own land. If that land is located in an area already zoned for commercial or residential use, these nonprofits could build up to 150 units.

Any organizations that take advantage of SB 899 would have to guarantee that the new housing they produce is 100 percent affordable (meaning it's offered at below-market rates to low-income people). That affordability requirement would expire after 45 years for for-sale housing, and after 55 years for rental housing.

S.B. 899 comes on the heels of another piece of legislation—Assembly Bill (A.B.) 1851, sponsored by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D–Oakland)—which would eliminate parking requirements for housing projects being built on church land.

As Wiener notes, churches often have spare land in prime locations that would make excellent sites for new housing. Many are also already involved in providing temporary shelter to the homeless. But thanks to zoning restrictions, parking requirements, and lengthy approval processes, many religious institutions are kept out of the housing development business.

One prominent example is the Clairemont Lutheran Church in San Diego, which has been trying to include an affordable housing component to the redevelopment of a dilapidated fellowship hall on its property since 2015. Their plans required building over existing spaces in the church's underutilized parking lot, and that ran afoul of a city code that ties parking requirements for churches to the square inches of pew space that they have.

"Two weeks of the year that parking lot is utilized to the full extent. 50 weeks of the year it's not," says Eddie McCoven, a spokesperson for the Clairemont Lutheran Church.

Thanks to lobbying by Clairemont and other faith-based nonprofits, the San Diego City Council voted in December 2019 to scrap the pew-space-to-parking-space formula and reduce church parking minimums overall.

These local efforts are now being mirrored at the state level with the legislation being introduced by Wiener and Wicks.

McCoven says his church is still in the development process, and he predicts that breaking ground for the housing component of their project is still a couple of years away. The plan, he says, is eventually to build somewhere between a dozen and 20 new affordable units.

McCoven says bills such as S.B. 899 and A.B. 1851 will help other congregations interested in developing affordable housing to spend less time and money on the planning process, and more on actually building homes.

"If this type of legislation was already in place when we were starting this project, we would be a lot further along than we are," he tells Reason. "Any congregation that decides this is something they want to pursue, would probably make it a whole lot easier and a much more streamlined."

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  1. “Two weeks of the year that parking lot is utilized to the full extent. 50 weeks of the year it’s not,” says Eddie McCoven, a spokesperson for the Clairemont Lutheran Church.

    I attend church every Christmas and Easter, whether I need it or not.

    1. That reminds me of a line from a 30 Rock episode:

      “Don’t tell me you’re one of those convenient Christians that only goes to church on Sunday.”

      1. “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday”

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZXj20MjNek

        1. Oh Father high in Heaven
          Smile down upon your son
          Who’s busy with his money games
          His women and his guns…

          1. Mr Business went to church, he never missed a Sunday.
            Mr Business went to Hell for what he did on Monday.

  2. “State lawmakers want to override local zoning codes to let churches and other nonprofits build affordable housing on their own land.”

    A good start. Hopefully they expand this to include all property within a hundred miles of a church or other nonprofit.

    1. Weiner had another bill to do that, but NIMBYs killed it.

    2. churches and other nonprofits
      That’s the money quote. The lawmakers don’t want a bunch of those evil for-profit developers making any money building houses for families who work for a living, even if that would quickly end the housing shortage.

  3. Sounds like the kind of thing Reason was histrionically screeching about as a separate of church and state violation when fag marriage was the issue at play. Hmmmmmmm. It’s almost like the Marxists at Reason have no principles and will speech out both sides of their mouths in support or opposition of literally any policy or legislation just so long as the end result is the advancement of global Marxism.

    1. Pretty poor trolling. Not enough CAPS or P!U!N!C!T!U!A!T!I!O!N! to attract attention. No real snark or faux-reality.

    2. How far did you fall before striking your head?

    3. But they are advancing the ability of religious groups to use their own property. How is that global Marxism?

  4. “that ran afoul of a city code that ties parking requirements for churches to the square inches of pew space that they have.”

    Jesus Christ.

    1. Fuck zoning.

  5. But if enough of these “affordable” units get built, the average price will fall, and there will not be enough left to qualify for the exemption – –

    And oh, by the way, how can a church be zoned commercial? Are those like the TV churches where you have to “pay to pray”?

    1. Like the Church of the Subgenius, an industrial, for-profit religion. Seriously, though, I’m sure churches are allowed in commercial zones, as are lots of other non-commercial things.

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  7. The original idea of homeownership is it gives people a steak in the community. However, homeownership also means the homeowners don’t want to do anything that might reduce the value of their home (even if their home is insanely overvalued). So homeowners will vote down denser housing. The downside of of democracy and capitalism?

    What has happened is many businesses have moved from California to Texas, Washington State and Oregon so their employees could find more affordable housing. Maybe large employers should demand a housing plan. Driving out employment will reduce the need for more housing, but will also reduce the value of existing homes. Not sure if current homeowners have considered that.

    1. Ill visit any community I can have steak in (depending on the cut)

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  9. San Diego City Council voted in December 2019 to scrap the pew-space-to-parking-space formula and reduce church parking minimums overall.

    How is that even constitutional? “You can’t worship because we don’t wanna be bothered with overflow on The Peoples’ streets where you all have every right to park, drive, and walk.”

  10. Why “at least 40 units?” Shouldn’t California be happy with any number of units?

    My guess is that they are trying to saddle these churches with what are the equivalent of public housing projects. When I read the headline, I knew there had to be an anti-religion angle to this whole plan.

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