And God Said, Let There Be Housing

Faith communities want to be housing advocates, if the law permits

The song “YMCA” by Village People is about a Christian organization running SROs for people in a new city or who need a simple, cheap room to get back on their feet.

That song came out in 1978, and SROs were already in decline, but you might be surprised just how long they lasted. A 1999 New York Times headline reads “Y.M.C.A. in Chelsea Sheds Its Tenants; 34 Men Used to Single Rooms Know New Homes Will Be Hard to Find.” A 2007 Chicago Tribune piece reads, “YMCAs dropping housing mission.”

The growing “YIGBY”—Yes in God’s Back Yard—movement, which originated in California a few years ago and has recently reached Maryland and Virginia—seeks to get churches, religious nonprofits, and higher-education institutions back into the affordable-housing game. A lot of the advocacy for these YIGBY bills is coming from these institutions themselves. These bills typically simplify or relax zoning specifically for supportive or affordable (i.e. income-restricted) housing.

I can imagine two objections. One is that churches are spiritual enterprises and shouldn’t be in the real-estate industry. The other is that…churches are spiritual enterprises and shouldn’t be in the real-estate industry. This could come from the “left,” with concerns over things like discrimination or the question of tax exemption. Or it could come from the “right,” going something like, “churches need to dispense sacraments and offer worship services and not get caught up in the things of the world.”

It appears that most of the churches and denominations involved in YIGBY advocacy are progressive and/or mainline churches with a “Social Gospel” orientation. It might be the case that those churches which place the most weight on worship and sacraments—like the LCMS Lutherans or the Catholics—will be less interested in this sort of thing. Churches which are already stretched thin clerically or administratively may not have the capacity. But as church-led housing projects become more common, there will no doubt start to arise a body of best practices, and intermediators who simplify the extent to which anybody in the church itself has to be involved in the process.

And against any concerns that there’s something newfangled about churches building low-income or supportive housing, you only need to look at history. Like so much in urbanism— “mixed-use,” “15-minute cities,” “transit-oriented development,” “New Urbanism”—YIGBY is really just a cutesy public-policy word for a very old reality, a former status quo, that we lost in the 20th century. Like most of urbanism, it’s about returning—with modern standards, of course—as much as it is about innovating.

For example, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakland, California was involved in the building of a high-rise retirement home community called St. Paul’s Towers, back in 1966. The Los Angeles Jewish Home, founded in 1912, offers senior housing and healthcare. There are countless examples of this sort of thing over the decades, even centuries. Back then, this didn’t need a name. It was just religious institutions living out their values. And that’s what it is today, if the land-use laws allow it.

While YIGBY is not about allowing churches to “profit” off of real estate, it can help them financially. The sheer expense of running and maintaining a church is probably underestimated, if anything. Maybe some of those gorgeous ruined churches in old cities could have remained afloat if they could have derived some income from underused land.

Here’s a nice example from Virginia, which even precedes a YIGBY bill in that state. Village of Faith Ministries plans to sell one of its locations for housing development in order to purchase and pay off a new location that could be handed down in the future without debt. The easier it is for churches to utilize dead space in their properties—especially oversized parking lots—the more they can help others and help themselves.

Virginia has a YIGBY bill currently making its way through the legislature. Maryland’s Montgomery County—where housing pressure is probably the greatest in the state, or close to it—just on Wednesday passed a zoning text amendment which would make it easier for religious and educational institutions to build affordable housing. And in March, Sherrod Brown—not a state or local official, but a U.S. senator from Ohio—introduced a national YIGBY bill to the U.S. Senate.

Here’s a news item on the Montgomery County rule. It’s really very simple stuff:

Under current county zoning laws, multi-unit housing is not permitted in non-residential zones. This bill would change that for qualifying institutions, such as houses of worship. The proposed zoning change would enable the institutions to build housing on their land, though they would still have to follow county affordability guidelines, with at least 30% to 50% of units being designated as “affordable dwelling units” under county government rent standards.

There’s an analogy to be made here with older empty-nester homeowners who find that while their homes might be worth quite a bit, they don’t have affordable options to downsize and remain in their neighborhoods. This traps older homeowners while also locking up prime family-sized homes. That’s what happens when such a large share of land is governed by single-family-only zoning.

Similarly, churches whose congregations have shrunken may have trouble downsizing, and the YIGBY bills could aid them in unlocking cash for a more appropriate site as well as unlocking their old spaces for needed housing. Look at this anecdote from a recent Washington Post story:

As the 15,000-square-foot church, which sits on seven acres on the edge of Silver Spring, Md., has seen its congregation shrink from 400 at its first service in 1958 to just above 100 in recent years, [Rev. Chris] Deacon and his colleagues believe the church could be used to house people in a more literal way. Church officials have begun talking to developers about whether they can shrink the congregation’s physical space and convert parts of the property into affordable housing.

This idea isn’t proliferating quickly because there’s anything suspicious or trendy about it. It just makes a lot of sense. And I’d go a step further: let’s make it easier for churches to build housing. And then let’s do that for everyone!

Addison Del Mastro is a Partner Writer for the Resident Urbanist. He writes from Northern Virginia on urbanism, retail, cultural history, and other assorted issues, with a focus on the ideas and psychology behind urbanism. Of particular interest to him are small towns, the ongoing urbanization and "growing up" of the suburbs, and what urbanism looks like outside of the big city. He runs The Deleted Scenes. You can follow him on Twitter and Threads.

Join the conversation

or to participate.