Back housing by churches and by schools


California churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship, as well as educational institutions of all kinds, are often surrounded by large parking lots and other open space they own, much of it oftentimes underused.

When they seek to build the one thing California needs most — affordable housing — on that space, they are often shot down by the same kinds of bureaucracy-created restrictions that shamefully have prevented  multi-family dwellings from being built in cities all over the state.

Senate Bill 4 from Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, aims to change all that. The proposed legislation would allow religious institutions and schools to build affordable housing “by right,” a planning and political insider’s term that more and more Californians are coming to understand is key to getting us out of the twinned problems of homelessness and better housing for the less-than-crazy-rich in our state.

“By right” means that developers — in this case, nonprofits — can build what they want to without being limited by the many local zoning regulations and environmental reviews that cities and the NIMBYs that live there have set up in order to prevent more housing from being built.

They’ve got theirs, and the rest of us … don’t.

SB 4 is a great idea, with problems. But we sincerely hope that it, or some version of it, is approved in the very near term.

“SB 4 will unlock an enormous, and I’m not exaggerating, an enormous amount of land for 100% affordable housing,” Wiener said at a press conference announcing his legislation. He cited a two-year-old study by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation that found nearly 40,000 acres currently used for religious purposes could be developed, the Los Angeles Times reported.

One problem is that this is the third time around for Wiener’s effort to open up this treasure trove of available land. It has twice previously failed because of the truly regrettable efforts by Big Labor in the state to not allow the legislation to go through unless essentially all the workers building this new housing were paid very high union wages.

That’s precisely the kind of add-on that very quickly can turn what would have been affordable housing into the famous $600,000 apartments for the homeless that no longer are affordable by taxpayers building them.

The Times reports that one hope for the third time around being the charm is the deal that was struck earlier this year on two similar pieces of legislation that will allow the conversion of former commercial buildings into housing, post-COVID. Such potential for compromise has already allowed the California Conference of Carpenters to sign on as a co-sponsor of SB 4.

But the powerful State Building and Construction Trades Council of California remains opposed to the bill, saying they want it also to include provisions for a “skilled and trained workforce,” which demands that at least 30% of workers on the housing be not only union members but graduates of a state-approved apprenticeship program — run, of course, by the unions themselves.

Robbie Hunter, president of the council, told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year that “the trades took a particularly aggressive approach this year in response to ‘an absolute tsunami of bills from every direction’ giving builders the right to skirt environmental reviews, votes by local officials and other processes where unions can raise concerns.”

He says his hard line on the issue is partly because many affordable-housing developers are for-profit companies. Hunter doesn’t believe private companies should not be allowed a more lenient standard.

“We absolutely believe that they can afford to pay a worker enough to take care of his family,” he said.

But here with SB 4 we have a different situation. Schools and churches are not for-profit companies. They are doing, as many of them would have it, the Lord’s work by using their available land to house Californians.

Just as the churches and schools are doing, the unions need to get on board and get more creative in Californians’ mutual efforts to overcome decades of seeing over-regulation stymie the effort to get more people properly and affordably housed.


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