OMG YIGBY: How religious institutions are taking on affordable housing

OMG YIGBY: How religious institutions are taking on affordable housing


About five years ago, Harvey Vaughn, the senior pastor at Bethel AME, the oldest Black church in San Diego, heard a radio report about rising homelessness in his city. He wondered if his congregation, which owned a roughly 7,000-square-foot lot around the corner, could help. 

Today, the lot is a construction site for a new housing complex that will offer 25 one-bedroom apartments for low-income seniors and veterans. It’s the first of what advocates hope will be many such projects in San Diego, led by a group called YIGBY, which stands for Yes in God’s Backyard, a spin on the pro-housing Yes in My Backyard movement. 

In a country with a shortage of affordable homes and a surplus of religious institutions grappling with rising costs and declining memberships, developers are looking to partner with churches, temples, and synagogues to build new housing. And amid a thicket of local land-use regulations that complicate the construction, some elected officials are looking for ways to nudge these efforts along.

The YIGBY idea — working with faith-based groups to help address the housing crisis — originated from local advocates who knew homeless people eager to move from the streets into housing but unable to find any. The San Diego Association of Governments estimates San Diego County has a shortage of roughly 100,000 homes.

Local funders dedicated to solving homelessness helped bring the YIGBY concept to life, and new zoning laws approved in 2019 helped streamline the process further, removing requirements that developers first seek approval from local planning agencies or elected boards to build.

“Here in San Diego, yes, we do have concerned neighbors and anti-development people who are concerned about the ‘character’ of communities and all that stuff, but the city has really made a lot of development [easier] in the last five years,” Evan Gerber, the housing project manager for YIGBY, told Vox. 

Now this model is poised to spread across California, helping to address the state’s severe housing shortage.

Last year California’s legislature passed the Affordable Housing on Faith Lands Act that, like in San Diego, streamlines approval for new projects on land owned by churches, so housing can no longer be blocked by zoning or environmental objections. This first-of-its-kind YIGBY law took effect in January. 

The Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley estimates that, across California, there are more than 47,00 acres of land owned by faith-based organizations that could potentially be developed into affordable housing.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco who spearheaded the statewide YIGBY law, said California doesn’t yet have data on how the new law is being utilized, but he often hears from interested people who say their congregation is preparing to do it. 

“Even if just 10 percent of the plots of land identified by Terner did it, that could lead to a massive increase in housing,” Wiener told Vox. “Overall it’s very, very popular and you can really build a huge diverse political coalition around it.”

The enthusiasm for the YIGBY idea Wiener identifies is real. The model seems not only to offer communities a way to tackle their housing and homelessness crises, but also a way for faith-based institutions to practically embody their religious teachings while managing declining memberships and rising costs. 

In 2020 just 47 percent of Americans reported belonging to a house of worship, down from 50 percent in 2018 and 70 percent in 1999. Americans are becoming less religious overall, and even among those who still identify with a faith, many permanently switched during the pandemic to remote and online services. Meanwhile overhead for managing grounds and buildings on religious property has increased, with higher costs today for repairs, insurance and utilities. To boot: Donations are down. One survey found 65 percent of US churches have seen a decline in contributions since Covid-19.

Experts predict up to one-third of all these emptying houses of worship in the United States will close in the next few years, or upwards of 100,000 churches, synagogues, and mosques. In hot real estate markets, some religious institutions may sell their properties for millions of dollars in cash, but in many other locales, finding buyers isn’t so easy. A flood of large, vacant buildings could add real blight to communities, especially in smaller towns where the structures long served as central civic anchors. In Gary, Indiana, for example, there are 67,000 residents and 250 empty churches.

While San Diego coined (and trademarked) the YIGBY term, the idea has been spreading across the country, sparking interest from local, state, and federal governments.

In March, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown introduced the Yes in God’s Backyard Act in Congress to help support these projects nationwide. The legislation would provide religious institutions and local governments with technical assistance, and would create new grants to remove barriers to housing development.

“This bill is a commonsense solution — families need more housing they can afford, and churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations want to put their faith into action by developing housing on land they already own,” Sen. Brown told Vox. “By helping these institutions cut through red tape, we can lower the cost of housing and expand options for families in Ohio and around the country.”

A ripe moment for a good idea 

Providing shelter or building housing on church property is not a brand new idea, but it’s picked up steam over the last half-decade due to a confluence of trends.

“There’s a long tradition in the United States of Roman Catholic churches and other Christian churches trying to provide for those without housing, but where you see something different in this moment is there’s a larger societal conversation in the US about housing access and the lack of housing writ large,” said Rev. Patrick Reidy, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and co-director of the school’s Church Properties Initiative.

Carolyn Brown, a DC land use attorney, told the real estate publication Bisnow that declining church membership has really accelerated interest from faith-based leaders in housing. “It becomes more of a breaking point,” she said. 

Today more cities and states are looking to support these YIGBY housing projects. In 2019, Washington state passed a law incentivizing affordable housing development on property owned or controlled by religious groups, and local governments in Atlanta and San Antonio have started offering technical assistance to religious institutions interested in developing housing on their land. In Detroit, the city’s housing commission recently funded new affordable units on church property, and lawmakers in states like Hawaii and New York say they hope to follow in California’s footsteps with a YIGBY law. 

Some religious institutions want to build housing as a new way to welcome strangers and care for poor people in their midst, while others are thinking more about their overall institutional legacy, especially as their membership continues to shrink. 

“Obviously some faith communities continue to serve their communities and are looking at housing as a way to bolster their social justice missions, but in other cases the faith community itself may no longer be there in the way that it was 20, 30, 50 years ago and leaders want to use their legacy of presence, charity, and ministry to translate the land into a new use,” said Rev. Reidy. “I think this is where the federal government could make a difference, with HUD or a presidential commission creating resources and intel to provide faith leaders.”

Despite the enthusiasm for the idea, YIGBY still faces hurdles in realizing its full potential.

Restrictive zoning codes are barriers in most communities to unleashing the full spectrum of housing development on faith-based property. Sometimes projects can be delayed for years due to court challenges or community opposition, and earlier this year in a small town in northwestern Ohio, a pastor faced criminal charges for offering homeless people shelter in a facility that wasn’t zoned to allow people to sleep on the first floor. The projects can also be architecturally difficult, especially compared to converting old retail stores.

“Land use and building codes regulating parking, utilities, sewer, stormwater, fire safety, signage, accessibility, curb cuts, and the like, can make even a well-zoned property nearly impossible to reuse or redevelop,” said Rick Reinhard, a housing consultant.  

Some advocates of YIGBY-like development have floated more unconventional legal strategies to get around burdensome regulations.

Rev. Reidy, of the University of Notre Dame, has argued there is likely more room to push back against restrictive zoning codes through religious liberty lawsuits. “We have this federal religious land use statute, and I think it’s actually pretty clear that it offers protections to churches trying to do something like this,” he told Vox. There hasn’t been a test case of this legal theory yet, though Reidy notes many people would prefer to go the state-level preemption route instead. 

In a May report published by the right-leaning Mercatus Center, researchers found more examples of towns with convoluted zoning restrictions that could impede YIGBY development, and they noted that some local zoning risks incentivizing faith-based housing in areas that are ill-suited for healthy residential living. They recommended exempting YIGBY construction near industrial zones, military bases and airports.

Co-author of the Mercatus Center report Salim Furth doesn’t expect YIGBY development to ultimately represent a massive part of how the country will solve its housing supply crisis.

“There’s not that much land that’s developable, religious institutions are already tax-exempt, and frankly I’d like churches to stay churches,” he told Vox. “I don’t want cities to only look at the decline of religious institutions as a way to solve their affordable housing problem.”

Plus, Furth added, faith-based housing could come with certain preferences for its own members, or certain requirements that do not sit well with everyone seeking housing — an issue that has come up with some faith-based homeless shelters that require things like mandatory church attendance.

Still, for those who do pursue the option, advocates are excited about the potential to revitalize congregations and local communities, improve housing access for those who need it, and even improve relations between people of faith and secular Americans.

“I’ll say this as a Catholic priest who went to Yale Law School, there are people who are suspicious of organized religion, and it’s been really moving to hear people say, ‘I don’t know how anyone couldn’t get behind this idea,’” Rev. Reidy said. “You’ve got local governments looking for land they can’t provide themselves. You’ve got many faith communities willing to share it for affordable housing. It’s a win-win-win.” 

Update: June 18, 2024: This story originally cited 2020 research from The Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley that there are roughly 38,800 acres of land owned by faith-based organizations that could potentially be developed into affordable housing. The piece now references Terner’s updated 2023 analysis, finding more than 47,000 acres available.


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