St. Mark’s Lutheran Church near Franklin and O’Farrell streets is seeking to build more affordable housing for seniors on its property. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Legislation would give the state’s blessing to affordable housing on church properties

Senate Bill 899 would allow up to 150 units without requiring rezoning

State legislators are paving the way for churches to build affordable housing on church property or parking lots.

State Sen. Scott Wiener introduced legislation Thursday to make it easier to build affordable housing for low-income residents on properties of religious institutions and nonprofit hospitals to combat the housing crisis in the state.

Senate Bill 899 would allow churches, synagogues and mosques to build up to 150 units of affordable housing without going through rezoning. The bill is paired with Assembly Bill 1851, introduced by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, which would eliminate minimum parking requirements for church parking lots to make way for housing development.

“This is a creative approach to the crisis,” Wiener said at a press conference. “San Francisco faith institutions have a historic commitment to build affordable housing. Many are trying to do that now, and it’s really hard and we need to make that easier.”

The bill would permit projects up to three stories tall with 40 units in residential neighborhoods and five stories tall with 150 units in mixed-use commercial and residential areas. The religious organizations would have to maintain the affordability of the housing for at least 55 years for rentals and 45 years for homeowners.

Wiener said the bill would lead to more housing and could deal with the surge in homelessness in the state. Wicks said there are 38,000 acres of potential property throughout the state. Of the City’s over 500 religious locations there are 99 acres of religious property that could be developed for housing.

“The state needs to consider all options for alleviating our housing crisis and removing roadblocks for the faith community is a critical step in the right direction,” Wicks said.

Churches across The City have seen a decline in membership, leading to some church closures. Pastor Elizabeth Ekdale of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on O’Farrell Street said providing housing is essential to the vitality of churches in San Francisco and is the moral obligation of faith leaders.

St. Mark’s has operated Martin Luther Tower, an affordable senior housing, on church property since the 1960s. For the past seven years, the church has been looking to develop more affordable housing for low-income seniors on its property. Eight story and 20 story buildings are tentatively planned, but the church has run into considerable difficulty in funding and navigating the complicated zoning restrictions, Ekdale said.

Other churches in The City are trying to develop housing, such as St. Paul’s Presbytarian Church on Judah Street and Fifth Church of Christ Scientist on O’Farrel Street.

“There’s a desperate need for housing in the city, and we have land,” Ekdale said. “We’re trying to be part of the solution.”

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