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Churches trying to build affordable housing to help with homeless problem

"Yes In God's Back Yard" effort stuck in red tape
Posted at 8:55 AM, Jun 10, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-23 20:26:19-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - San Diego churches have an idea to help solve the housing crisis. They want to build affordable housing on their unused land.

UPLIFT San Diego is leading the effort, called YIGBY (Yes in God's Back Yard).

"There are 1,100 churches in San Diego County with over 3,000 acres of property," says UPLIFT leader Tom Theisen. "If just 10% of those churches, 100 churches, were to build 20-30 units each, we're talking thousands of units of housing."

Theisen used to serve as the Board President of the San Diego Task Force on the Homeless. He's now spearheading the YIGBY effort for UPLIFT.

"I can't tell you how many faith communities have called me and asked what they can do to help," he says. "I have a hard time telling them to hand out blankets and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They want to do something that makes a difference, and housing makes a difference."

Theisen says he already has 12 churches that want to build housing.

One church that is already working to make the idea a reality is Clairemont Lutheran Church. They have a plan to build as many as 21 units on land that is currently part of their parking lot.

"Using our parking lot for something other than empty weeds growing seems like a good idea," says Pastor Jonathan Doolittle.

"We want something that works in the scale of our neighborhood, so our neighbors don't notice a huge change," he says. "But, we want it to be large enough to make a difference in the lives of those who need a place to live."

Doolittle shared preliminary floor plans and renderings of the apartments. He says the church has been trying to get the project going for four years, but red tape keeps holding it up.

One problem is changing zoning rules on the land. The other is parking regulations with the city.

The plan would take 20 spots out of the parking lot. City law requires a certain number of parking spaces per church based on pew capacity. Without those 20 spots, the church would be under the legal requirement.

Doolittle says his church only reaches capacity on major holidays. The rest of the year, those spots sit empty. He also pointed out that the church is on a transit corridor, and new city laws saw affordable housing is not required to have parking along transit corridors.

UPLIFT has already met with Mayor Kevin Faulconer to discuss ways to ease those requirements on churches and other faith-based organizations that want to build affordable housing units. Theisen says churches would be more sensitive to concerns within the neighborhood than a private developer.

"These projects are self-sufficient," he says. "We can do as many of them as we have willing churches to work with us."

UPLIFT hopes that a successful start to the YIGBY project will spur similar development. He thinks unused land owned by non-profit groups, health centers and even the City of San Diego could also be used for housing.