A project that would have provided affordable homes for 120 low-income seniors and 30 seniors who have experienced homelessness was proposed at Forest Hill Christian Church but dropped in the face of neighborhood opposition and other challenges. (File photo by Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

SB 899 puts faith into action to rectify California housing shortage

By Lucie Bacho

A few months ago, my minister approached me about a project—she was planning to turn an abandoned church into affordable housing. As someone who is deeply concerned about the affordable housing shortage in California, I immediately wanted to get involved. I did some research and quickly came across state Sen. Wiener’s Senate Bill 899, which would streamline the process of creating 100% subsidized affordable housing on underused religious and non-profit property in California. It’s heartbreaking to see how many people are experiencing homelessness in San Francisco and how difficult it is for people to find homes. As a young person growing up in San Francisco, I witness these tragic circumstances first-hand, and feel the urgency that all of us Californians should to pass this bill.

Having been raised in a San Francisco Presbytarian church, I hold dearly and have a pretty firm grasp on many of the core values of San Franciscan congregations. Since birth, I’ve been taught that loving one’s neighbor encompasses everyone in one’s greater community, especially those who are without a home. It means giving what you can to people who need it, with empathy and without judgement. For many in the San Francisco religious community, aiding those experiencing need is a moral obligation.

These well-established values provide a valuable framework for the successful implementation of SB 899. Because going to church has been such an important part of my life, it is sad for me to see so many fading congregations in San Francisco, but this is a perfect opportunity for religious institutions to put their faith in action. The bill would allow for the 800 parcels of underused religious land in San Francisco identified by the Planning Department to be used to aid one of the most pertinent crises in California: the housing shortage. It would simplify the development process and repurpose excess non-profit land to be used for 100% subsidized affordable housing.

Wiener’s bill would shorten the overly cumbersome approval process for affordable housing developments built on land owned by religious institutions and other non-profits. This would include allowing these developments to be built “by-right,” which reduces the cost of development by creating a more efficient and predictable approval process and limiting discretionary reviews. And SB 899 would exempt developments from restrictive zoning laws that make it nearly impossible for new homes to be built within the majority of our city. Most recently, the bill was added to the Senate Housing Package and was passed in the Senate on June 26 with a 39-0 vote.

There are a multitude of San Franciscans experiencing homelessness whose survival depends on bills like this one. Fortunately, there are also many religious institutions in San Francisco in possession of an abundance of land that are looking for ways to better help our community. If this bill passes, more affordable homes will be built leading to a more affordable city overall. We need to move our city in the right direction by making it possible for everyone who wants to live in San Francisco to have a home here.

Lucie Bacho is a student at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco and an intern at SF Housing Action Coalition.

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