‘Yes in God’s Backyard,’ or YIGBY: Group Aims to Build Affordable Housing on Religious Land

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The parking lot of Clairemont Lutheran Church, where religious leaders and housing advocates hope to build apartments, on May 28, 2019. (Andrew Bowen/KPBS)

Several years ago, the congregation of Clairemont Lutheran Church had an idea: The planned redevelopment of their fellowship hall was slowly moving through San Diego's approval process. Perhaps they could speed things up if they agreed to include affordable housing.

The idea was somewhat unconventional, but the church was hearing city leaders talk more and more about the need for affordable housing and felt they could help.

The redeveloped fellowship hall is now nearing final approval, but the housing is still in the idea phase. Yet church leaders and a small group of advocates are persevering in hopes that the housing can serve as a proof of concept project to be replicated by other faith communities across the county.

They are branding their initiative "Yes in God's Backyard," or YIGBY — a play on the YIMBY, or "yes in my backyard," movement.

Houses of worship are in a good position to help alleviate the affordable housing shortage, said Jon Doolittle, senior pastor at Clairemont Lutheran Church.

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"They have the property, they have the ability to provide the space and the place for these kinds of structures to be built," he said. "Jesus told us to clothe the naked, to provide shelter for the homeless. So here we are doing that in a real tangible way, making sure that our resources are put to good use as part of the ministry for the good of the world."

The plans to build housing on the church's property have hit several roadblocks, including the city's parking regulations. The church envisions putting between 16 and 21 apartments on top of its parking lot, which typically sits mostly empty except for a few hours on Sundays.

But city code includes a formula dictating how many parking spaces a church needs based on square inches of pew space. City officials told Doolittle even without the loss of parking created by the new homes, the church had a parking deficit and would have to conduct a study to quantify its parking use.

For a month, congregants counted all the vacant parking spaces in the church lot and the surrounding neighborhood four times a day. Doolittle said their study determined they had a parking surplus but that city officials still were not satisfied.

"It's been one frustrating meeting after another," Doolittle said.

A few months ago, Clairemont Lutheran Church got help from Tom Theisen and Monica Ball, two housing advocates who had already been putting together a YIGBY initiative. Theisen is a retired attorney and former chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless San Diego, and Ball is a real estate agent and board member of UPLIFT San Diego, a faith-based nonprofit.

Pastor Jon Doolittle stands in the sanctuary of Clairemont Lutheran Church in San Diego on May 28, 2019. (Andrew Bowen/KPBS)

Theisen said the genesis for YIGBY came from San Diego County Tax Collector Dan McAllister, who had compiled a list of more than 1,100 properties zoned for religious use. Together, they represent more than 2,000 acres of land across the county, much of it also zoned for housing.

"I cannot tell you how many faith communities have come to me and said, 'What can we do to address homelessness?' " said Theisen. "And I have a real hard time telling them to go out, hand out blankets or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or that type of stuff. They're looking for a way to be relevant and to do something that really makes a difference, and building housing really makes a difference."

To save time and money on construction, the YIGBY team is suggesting faith communities consider modular homes made of recycled shipping containers rather than traditional wood frame housing. And they are exploring private financing models to avoid the difficult and lengthy process of applying for government tax credits.

Faith communities could be the perfect test drivers of less conventional construction models that traditional affordable housing developers have been wary of, Ball said.

"Should construction delays occur for whatever reason, that could potentially compromise their entire finance structure for the project," she said. "So that's too big a risk for the traditional affordable housing developers really to take."

In April, Ball and Theisen presented their YIGBY proposal to the Community Planners Committee, which represents San Diego's neighborhood planning groups. Wally Wulfeck, of the committee, said the presentation was well received and members were interested in the initiative's progress.

Then last week, Ball and Theisen met with San Diego city staffers to discuss how the city can speed up approval of housing on religious properties. Planning Department director Mike Hansen said in an email that the city welcomes the support of faith leaders in addressing the housing crisis.

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"This is a promising concept and the city is in discussions with the YIGBY team as well as other affordable housing stakeholders about how the city can make the process easier, faster and less expensive," he said.

Doolittle hesitated to predict when the housing might be complete, given the number of roadblocks the church has already hit. But he said he is not expecting serious resistance from neighbors, in part because of the small scale of their housing plans and the church's decades-long relationship with the community.

"It's our calling, it's our responsibility to be neighbors to those who are around us and to be neighborly to those who need a hand up," Doolittle said. "As God always says yes to God's people, we too need to say yes to those who are in need."