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New bill would allow churches and hospitals to build housing on their land

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Faith can be your shelter, but it probably shouldn’t be the only one

A grand church with two tall steeples and a cross. Photo via Shutterstock

San Francisco State Sen. Scott Wiener has an idea to allow churches, synagogues, mosques, and similar faith-based institutions to build new housing on their properties. His new legislation, Senate Bill 899, which he announced Friday, would apply to institutions of faith and nonprofit hospitals.

If it becomes law, 100 percent affordable housing projects by “a nonprofit hospital, nonprofit diagnostic or treatment center, nonprofit rehabilitation facility, nonprofit nursing home, or religious institution” would be considered “by right” development, a coveted designation that lets a project skip over a huge amount of red tape.

The bill requires that nonprofits partner with a qualified developer and price the resulting homes toward low-income people.

Wiener says that such institutions often have more land than they know what to do with—the proverbial example being small churches sitting on huge parcels, with much of the property serving as parking.

That’s particularly common in SF’s western neighborhoods, where YIMBYs and their backers are often keen to increase housing density.

The new bill would excommunicate zoning restrictions on these properties, allowing for buildings up three stories and 40 units in residential neighborhoods and up to five stories and 150 units in mixed-use and commercial zones, so long as both the project and its sponsor match the previously mentioned requirements.

Some churches are already well ahead of the game, like Walnut Creek’s St Paul’s Episcopal Church and its new St. Paul’s Commons, a development of 44 homes aimed at low-income renters. San Jose Mercury-News reported last year that 35 East Palo Alto churches had expressed interest in housing development, and two are actively pursuing deals.

Berkeley Assemblymember Buffy Wicks came out in support of Wiener’s bill, saying that if churches and hospitals “want to be a part of the solution by building affordable housing” the law ought to allow it.

Mayor London Breed signaled support as well, calling the measure another small way to chip away at “decades of under-building and restrictive zoning” that bedevils the city.

Some housing activists have even attempted to coin a name for religiously motivated development: YIGBY for “Yes In God’s Backyard.”

And a bit of divine intervention is not necessarily a bad thing, either; neighborhood interests in SF are unlikely to sit still for the prospect of new three-to-five story developments, no matter how sanctified.