California Lawmakers Eye Church Properties for Homeless Housing

(CN) – California lawmakers announced a plan Friday to cut red tape to allow churches to build affordable housing on their property to address the growing rental, homeless and housing crisis in the Golden State.

If approved, the pair of bills would remove zoning barriers to allow churches and other places of worship to build low-income apartments and condominiums on their property. Senate Bill 899 and Assembly Bill 1851 are just the latest volleys in the state’s fight over unaffordable housing costs and a growing homeless population.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, announced the latest proposals at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco with Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland.

Wiener has led multiple zoning and housing bills in the last few years that failed to make it to the governor’s desk, including a bill that would allow for the construction of more affordable housing near transit centers.

On Friday, Wiener said California is in a housing crisis with a shortage of affordable housing and a spike in homelessness.

“We have frankly a housing emergency on our hands in California,” Wiener said. He called SB 899 a creative approach to the housing crisis that would allow faith-based institutions and nonprofit hospitals to build affordable housing on their land without having to go through the process of rezoning, which Wiener said can be costly and time consuming.

These institutions often have large parking lots said Wiener and other surplus land that could be converted into housing.

“Our faith institutions care for an enormous number of people in need,” Wiener said.

Wicks proposed AB 1851, which would eliminate parking requirements for any churches that want to build on their properties.

Wiener’s previous proposal, Senate Bill 50, would have lifted zoning restrictions to allow multistory affordable housing units near transit centers. Opponents called SB 50 an attack on single-family neighborhood homes.

Under SB 899, churches could build five-story developments with 150 units in commercial or mixed-use zones and three-story buildings with 40 units in residential areas. Those projects would be built by affordable-housing developers or local government partnerships, according to Wiener’s office.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed $222 billion budget earmarked $6.8 billion for housing spending and $1.4 billion for homeless services, including rental assistance and mental health care assistance, along with a one-time $750 million injection for a new state fund that would speed up the process of moving people off the streets and into supportive services.

Recently, state lawmakers proposed setting aside an ongoing $2 billion from the general fund to be sent to local jurisdictions for long-term homeless services.

Under the proposed Homeless Housing and Services Act, Assembly Bill 3300 co-written by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, $1.1 billion would go to counties and their lead agencies who facilitate homeless services with state and federal dollars. Other portions of the funds would go to municipalities and nonprofit housing developers to build new homes in a collaboration between local and state officials.

Bill co-sponsor Assemblymember Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, says lawmakers are not only asking for more money from the governor’s proposed budget, but to implement better oversight and coordination between local and state agencies.

“This is to ensure that local and state partners are not working in silos,” Friedman told Courthouse News. “We have to figure out what success looks like and how those expectations can be cleared up.”

On Friday, a pair of state lawmakers called for an audit of the lead agencies who coordinate homeless funds in five selected counties. In a letter to the state’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee assemblymembers Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, and Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, say the state’s homeless population continues to grow despite continued voter-approved funding measures.

“Every day, the hardworking people in my district remind me that they have voted for various initiatives to address homelessness and are willing to tax themselves more to help, but they want to make sure their tax dollars are leading to results and that those results are seen in their backyard,” Garcia said in a statement. “They deserve that much.”

The lawmakers want to know what each homeless service body does to strategize, what data they analyze and how the information is used to better serve the growing homeless population.

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