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New California law eases process of building affordable housing on church property

Churches being transformed into affordable housing as new law relaxes process
Churches being transformed into affordable housing as new law relaxes process 03:37

A church that was once in a predominantly black neighborhood of Berkeley has been transformed into a multi-million dollar home.

As church attendance continues to dwindle according to researchers, a new state law is making it easier for places of worship to be converted into housing.

Barry Cammer is a retired pastor who live within walking distance to churches that have closed over the years.  

"I'm more interested in what is the something else that it's become and not, 'Oh, another church closed'," said Cammer. 

Not far from Cammer's home is what was once the New Light Baptist Church on Parker Street in the South Berkeley neighborhood that was once 70% Black. 

U.S. Census Bureau data shows the Black population now less than 30%. The church has been transformed into a chic six bedroom, three bath single-family home. 

"If it's serving middle and low-income people, I'd be happy. If it's just serving the affluent, I'm not sure I'd be all that thrilled," said Cammer. 

Architect Josiah Maddock snapped up the old church in disrepair in 2016 for $540,000. 

"I had no money at the time. I was looking for my first house in the Bay Area," explained Maddock. 

He lived inside what he called a construction zone while working nights and weekends on a years-long renovation. 

"As an architect, being able to convert a church into your house is really a dream project," said Maddock. 

Some relics of the church remain. 

"Architecturally, we tried to keep the space as open as possible and preserve all those details, and just really honor the space that it had been," said Maddock. 

Maddock no longer lives in the Bay Area and rents the property out. Neighbors like Cammer hope churches in distress will find ways to use their property to build affordable housing instead.

"I believe it's the role of the church to do exactly that," said Cammer.   

The McGee Avenue Baptist Church, which sits just across the street from Cammer's house, received help through public-private partnerships to build eight new affordable housing units on its site in 2022.  

David Garcia is policy director at UC Berkeley's Terner Center for Housing Innovation. 

"Many of these organizations are facing revenue shortfalls. Getting into housing may be a way for them to find new purpose and new sources of revenue," said Garcia. 

California's new law SB 4 will make it legal for faith-based institutions and non-profit colleges to build affordable, multi-family homes on lands they own by streamlining the permitting process and overriding local zoning restrictions. 

"Most of these organizations don't have experience in building or managing homes on their own, so anything the policy makers can do to make the process more certain, to remove risk, is going to help these organizations move forward on these kinds of projects," said Garcia. 

It could help struggling churches stave off desperate sell-offs, and build affordable units in the midst of a housing crisis. 

"Even if we only see one church here, and there in our neighborhoods, think about that scale across the whole state, and how big of an impact that can have on the overall deficit," said Garcia. 

"I believe in the expression that sometimes a church has to die, that something else might arise from that," said Cammer. 

It's not a leap of faith for Cammer. It's just one step in the right direction. 

The new SB4 law frees up some 171,000 acres throughout the state -- nearly five times the size of Oakland  -- for faith based organizations to convert parking lots and unused land into affordable housing according to recent research by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley. 

Studies continue to show a decline in church attendance across the country. Pew research shows that in 1972, 92% of Americans said they were Christian. By 2070, that number will drop to below 50%.

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