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California churches have space to create affordable housing, but there are hurdles

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There is a desperate need for affordable housing in California. Churches have the space to build, but many economic hurdles stand in the way of congregations trying to live out their mission to house the most vulnerable. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Adhiti Bandlamudi reports.

ADHITI BANDLAMUDI, BYLINE: Late last year, Ira Hudson was searching for an affordable place to live in the Bay Area. She'd been living in an apartment in downtown Oakland for almost a decade. But when the building's management changed, it became run down.

IRA HUDSON: They were just starting to let any and everybody come in there.

BANDLAMUDI: Some new neighbors moved in next door and didn't keep their space clean.

HUDSON: And then - and I couldn't stand the bugs.

BANDLAMUDI: Hudson is retired and lived off of her Social Security benefits, so she didn't have a lot of options. On a whim, she submitted an application to a new, low-income apartment building for seniors in Berkeley.

HUDSON: Out of the blue, I got a call. It said, you got an apartment here. I said, you got to be kidding.

BANDLAMUDI: She moved into Jordan Court in March and loves her new home.

HUDSON: We got mint, and we got cucumber. We got the chives, the Swiss chard and...

BANDLAMUDI: We're sitting in the shared garden, where Hudson loves to pick fresh vegetables for dinner.

HUDSON: Neighbors are great. They don't bug you, you know? And then, sometimes, we sit out here and just talk.

BANDLAMUDI: Jordan Court was built by All Souls Episcopal Church, located next door. It all started eight years ago when the congregation decided to transform an unused apartment building into new low-income housing. According to Reverend Phil Brochard, the church faced the usual challenges - funding, bureaucracy and pushback from neighbors.

PHIL BROCHARD: For some, it was they didn't want to see a bigger structure here. For some, it was just they didn't want poor people living in "their," quote, unquote, neighborhood.

BANDLAMUDI: Obstacles like these can prevent many housing developments. And churches don't often know how to navigate them. But All Souls had a few things going for it. New housing laws streamlined the approval process. It's a big church in an affluent neighborhood. They didn't need to make a profit. They wanted to serve the community.

BROCHARD: We had a number of people who gave up thousands of hours to this project from our congregation, who came in with different skill sets - a journalist, an attorney and a couple of architects.

BANDLAMUDI: Jordan Court succeeded because it had considerable human and financial resources to start with. But the situation is different for many Black churches in the Bay Area. They're often less affluent, and the high cost of housing is actively displacing their congregants.

LJ JENNINGS: Church attendance is down. So is your offering plate. So we had to think about, how do churches survive? Repurposing your land into housing became significant.

JENNINGS: That's Pastor L.J. Jennings. He runs the Kingdom Builders Christian Fellowship Church in Oakland and has built two transitional housing facilities for people who had been homeless.

JENNINGS: It would take up the space all in here. All parking lot right now, and so we're...

BANDLAMUDI: We're in Hayward, a small city south of Oakland, where Jennings wants to build low-income housing in another church's parking lot.

JENNINGS: We proposed building, in terms of what we can put together, is 42 units total.

BANDLAMUDI: Jennings was born and raised in this area and has seen his neighbors get forced out. Before becoming a pastor, he worked in real estate. So in 2019, he decided to use his experience to tackle the problem. He started the Kingdom Builders Project, a nonprofit that helps churches build affordable housing in their backyards.

JENNINGS: It was important for us to think about how do we, as the faith community, attack this issue and attack the crises of losing members that are being pushed out?

BANDLAMUDI: His goal is not only to build housing but to help the churches building it make money so they can stay in the community themselves. The congregation could learn how to run the property and could provide supportive housing services that would otherwise be contracted out - daycare for the children of tenants or financial literacy classes.

JENNINGS: We're really trying to stem the tide of the Black displacement. In a real sense, it's our survival. No one's going to save us but us.

BANDLAMUDI: Jennings believes it's the mission of Black churches to serve their neighbors and in so doing, bring new life to their communities as a whole. For NPR News, I'm Adhiti Bandlamudi in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.