Los Angeles diocese set to develop affordable housing on 25% of church-owned land

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Oct 18, 2023

Tom Johnson, junior warden, left, the Rev. Barrett Van Buren, rector, and Ned Bergert, senior warden, stand on the 3.8-acre lot at Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Placentia, California, where a $33-36 million senior citizen housing project is underway. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] Lack of affordable housing has long dominated the conversation at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Anaheim, California, and has figured into the pastoral care provided by the Rev. Juan Jimenez in the 23 years he’s served the congregation as vicar.

“These are poor people who mostly work in the service industry, in hotels, and they need a place to live,” he told Episcopal News Service during a late-summer conversation in his office.

St. Michael’s Church is in a quiet, primarily single-family residential neighborhood about two miles from Disneyland. Jimenez serves families mostly of Mexican and some from Central American descent. He has watched families leave the area because they cannot find affordable housing, particularly post-pandemic, as Sunday attendance has decreased from 400 to about 160.

St. Michael’s, along with its partner church, St. James’ in Newport Beach, is working with Habitat for Humanity to build 24 affordable 1,500-square-foot townhouses at a projected cost of $10 million.

“You have to take care of your neighbor, or what are you doing,” Jimenez said. “Not only am I trying to meet their spiritual needs, but also their material needs. I live, every day, the housing situation.”

The Rev. Juan Jimenez has led St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Anaheim, California, for 23 years. With its partner church, St. James’ in Newport Beach, St. Michael’s is working with Habitat for Humanity to build 24 affordable townhouses. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

The project at St. Michael’s is just one such affordable housing project underway in the Diocese of Los Angeles, which extends from the Pacific Ocean to the northern tip of Santa Barbara County, east to Needles on the Arizona border, and south to the San Diego County line.

The region was “in the teeth” of a housing crisis when the Rt. Rev. John Harvey Taylor became bishop in 2017, and it was “vital,” he said, for the diocese “to find a role where it could add value.” Over two years, a diocesan housing task force studied the crisis and key players’ response. One player, the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the bishop said, led the way with its “housing first mantra,” which stressed the need to be housed before secondary issues could be addressed, such as addiction, mental health and children’s education.

The diocese determined its two best value-added responses were rooted in the “essential local nature of parochial ministry,” Taylor said. “We’re in 133 communities and 5 1/2 counties. Every single one of those communities is part of one or more political jurisdictions.”

First, well-versed church leaders can work with elected and other officials to navigate political complexities and reduce barriers to building, whether they be zoning or density ordinances, or citizen backlash. And “the second thing,” he said, “more basic is to just go ahead and build it.”

The bishop’s vision is to build affordable residential units on 25% of the diocese’s 133 church campuses serving low-income families, seniors, refugees and homeless people. The diocese’s churches are working with development partners to build and maintain apartment complexes on land held in trust by the diocese that’s being leased to its various partners.

The diocese is working with partners in Placentia, Buena Park, Anaheim, Claremont, Downey, Garden Grove, Gardena, Rialto, Riverside and others.

What is driving the diocese’s affordable housing goal?

Housing is deemed “affordable” when the occupant pays no more than 30% of pre-tax income on housing costs, including utilities, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. More generally, it means after paying for housing costs, households still have money to pay for necessities like food, transportation and health care.

Over the next decade, California needs to add 1.2 million affordable homes, according to a 2022 report by the state Department of Housing and Community Development. In recent years the state has added an average of 19,000 affordable units a year. In February 2023, bishops representing the state’s six Episcopal dioceses and 370 congregations sent a letter to the state Senate in support of the Affordable Housing on Faith Lands Act. The bill would make it easier to build housing on land owned by religious and higher education institutions. It was among a package California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed on Oct. 11 to simplify and expedite new housing.

Omar Tenorio, a senior superintendent for affordable housing developer National CORE, goes over plans for the 66 senior apartments at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Buena Park. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

Several factors have contributed to the region’s affordable housing crisis, including two decades worth of population growth outpacing new housing construction, displacement of long-time residents from low-income communities undergoing gentrification and cost of living increases that have outpaced income growth. The lack of affordable housing also has exacerbated the Los Angeles area’s homelessness crisis.

Churches – collectively, across denominations – are the largest landholders in Los Angeles County. Black churches have led the way in addressing Southern California’s housing crisis by building affordable housing on church-owned land.

The focus on affordable housing also is a way to address the church’s existential crisis.

“All of us in The Episcopal Church in various ways are dealing with kind of the prevailing pessimism about the future of the church,” Taylor said, a pessimism based in budget and attendance numbers. “The housing initiative gives us the opportunity to say, wait a minute, we actually don’t need me to be that pessimistic because we are very rich in a resource that the world puts an awful lot of stock in, namely, real estate.”

In July the diocese announced Episcopal Communities & Services had hired the Rev. Michael Bell to serve as director of housing and business development, a new position created to oversee housing development, interacting with developers, service providers, interfaith advocates and government leaders addressing the current crisis-level lack of affordable housing across the six counties within the diocese, where statistics indicate that at least 85,000 people are now unhoused.

Episcopal Communities & Services, an institution of the Diocese of Los Angeles established in 1923 to care for priests’ widows, now provides housing, services and healthcare to older adults of all faith backgrounds.

Bell’s focus is to work with churches to identify opportunities to build affordable housing for senior citizens, low-income and working-class families, and others most at risk of becoming homeless on their properties and to navigate political, financial, cultural and social complexities.

For example, he said, when a higher-density, low-income or permanent-supportive housing project is proposed, it might raise neighbors’ concerns.

“That’s not a new challenge, it’s been true for decades, if not generations. People might think that the opening of low-income, subsidized, what people think of as ‘public housing,’ lowers property values and increases crime in their neighborhoods, but data doesn’t suggest that is true when the new developments are done by reputable developers with long-term interests in the success of the project over decades,” Bell told ENS.

“What is true is that when you bring new people into a neighborhood that may not be used to having neighbors who are less affluent, less-resourced, and/or might have need of specialized mental health support related to chronic homelessness, et cetera, this is an opportunity to come to know and love your neighbor differently,” he said.

When Bell engages with parishes and missions interested in affordable housing, he asks if they and their neighbors are prepared to embrace and welcome new neighbors in a godly way that can become a source of meaningful mutual ministry.

Gloria Ramirez, John Alvarado and the Rev. Mary Crist on the property of St. Michael’s Episcopal Ministry Center in Riverside, where a 50-unit supported housing complex opened earlier this year. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

The Rev. Mary Crist is leading the way. She began serving food and providing makeshift housing to homeless people out of St. Michael’s Episcopal Ministry Center in Riverside a dozen years before a 50-unit apartment complex opened to formerly unhoused and other very low-income residents earlier this year.

Crist described St. Michael’s Apartments as a “pioneer project,” in that it provides permanent supportive housing along with case management.

A mural adorns an exterior wall facing the street at St. Michael’s Apartments in Riverside, California. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

From the start, Crist’s ministry at St. Michael’s, which doesn’t have an active congregation, has been about meeting the needs of people living on the margins of the community. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” she said.

Gloria Ramirez, who now directs St. Michael’s feeding ministry, once lived across the street in her niece’s garage with her two grandchildren. After she walked her grandchildren to school she would go and sit in the garage with the door open, until the day she walked across to St. Michael’s. When it became clear they needed a cook, she stepped up and never left. That was 10 years ago. Ramirez now lives in a nearby affordable housing complex.

John Alvarado, who helps maintain the property, moved into an apartment when the complex opened. He and his wife, who has since died, found themselves on the street when the house they were living in with their daughter was sold by the relative who owned it.

Alvarado doesn’t know where he’d be without Crist and the people at St. Michael’s. “We’re all like a family,” he said. “We take care of each other. When one of us is down, we try to lift them up.”

Some 4,000 to 6,000 seniors added their names to the list to be chosen by lottery to live at Santa Angelina, two senior housing complexes under construction at Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Placentia, California. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

On either side of Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Placentia, which is nearer to Anaheim, somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 seniors have added their names to the list to be chosen by lottery to live at Santa Angelina, two senior housing complexes with 62 affordable units on the church’s property.

“There are a lot of people in Orange County forced to live with their children,” Tom Johnson, the church’s junior warden and long-time construction industry veteran, told ENS.

Blessed Sacrament operates a learning center for children ages 2 to 5. Bringing affordable housing for seniors into the mix expands the church’s mission and outreach to the community.

For Johnson, serving children and seniors represents the “simple fulfillment of Christ’s mission to put others before ourselves.”

“We have children, we have elderly people in need that are being taken care of,” he said. “The benefit for this congregation, for this church is that it starts with the children and ends with the adults’ well-being.”

When we talked to the vestry and the congregation, “Many could see themselves in that need,” senior warden Ned Bergert said.

“This is a ministry that we’re talking about. Senior citizens have such an incredible need for low-cost, affordable housing,” the Rev. Barrett Van Buren, Blessed Sacrament’s rector, said.

The project preceded Van Buren’s arrival at the church. “If it wasn’t for the leadership of these two men [Johnson and Bergert] and their countless hours and dedication, and the for the vision of the vestry …,” said Van Buren, in tears. “It takes a village.”

In August, groundbreaking took place for 66 senior apartments at St. Joseph’s in Buena Park. Orchard View Gardens will transform 1.76 acres of underutilized church land into apartment homes for seniors 62 and older who earn less than 60% of the area median income, with eight units reserved for seniors who have been homeless.

“St. Joseph’s has long desired to be part of the solution to Orange County’s housing shortage,” the Rev. Cindy Voien, St. Joseph’s rector, said at the groundbreaking. “Only adding housing stock at the affordable end of the range of rents can provide relief, and this is what our partnership is doing. We look forward to welcoming new neighbors right next to our church.”

At St. Peter’s Church in Rialto, a working-class exurb, the congregation’s dedication to affordable housing pre-dated the January 2022 arrival of the Rev. Jennifer Hughes, vicar.

“The community,” she said, “was clear in its vision all along that it was something they wanted to do.” At the time, however, to her understanding, the city’s low-density zoning ordinance hindered developers’ interests. That’s changed now, with the region’s increased sense of urgency. To Hughes’ knowledge, St. Peter’s is the only church in Rialto that’s working to become part of the city’s development plan. With the city’s and the diocese’s approval, Episcopal Communities & Services is working to find a development partner.

The congregation is “compassionate and caring,” Hughes said. “They see this project as extending that care to the larger community. They spent the early part of 2023 engaged in a weekly forum studying biblical acts of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick. “[The forum] was a way of continuing to make a connection with what is a large administrative, bureaucratic project.”

-Lynette Wilson is the managing editor of Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at lwilson@episcopalchurch.org.