“Take care of thy neighbor” is a tenet of religions around the world, and it’s exactly what many churches in Pasadena are attempting to do through the construction of affordable housing on their own hallowed grounds.
As a community-oriented church located in the North Central neighborhood, Pastor Othella Medlock of New Life Holiness Church said her congregation is mostly single-moms or working-class people whose families have been part of the church for generations. In its heyday, locals could tune into New Life’s weekly radio ministry on Sunday mornings after finding a meal at its food bank.
“We used to participate in the Black history parade, and we had a carnival on the property every year,” Medlock said. “But as time has gone on, the membership has diminished significantly, mainly because people cannot afford to live in Pasadena.”
Luckily, her father had the foresight decades ago to purchase four parcels of land where she hopes to soon build affordable and senior housing for her congregation and the surrounding community.
“They’re in negotiations with a development partner, and they have their plan,” said Philip Burns, who works with The Arroyo Group to support congregations around Southern California who wish to build feasible affordable housing.
In total, there are nearly 50 churches in Southern California who have expressed interest in building housing on their lots, he added. “Unfortunately, the hang-up is zoning.”
Like many religious institutions in Pasadena, New Life Holiness Church is zoned strictly for commercial purposes, so no residential development is permitted onsite.
Under the city’s current laws, a church can house temporary shelters in its parking lots, but rent and other fees cannot be charged, and folks can only stay a maximum of 60 days.
California lawmakers attempted to address the problem last year through Senate Bill 899, which sought to allow religious institutions the chance to build 100% affordable housing projects through a process which wouldn’t require planning commission or city council approval, but it never was signed into law.
However, residents are putting their faith in Pasadena City Council members to make the change. After all, the council considered easing zoning restrictions back in October after pastors and members of the surrounding religious community met with City leaders.
Councilman Andy Wilson brought the matter to the council after it had been reviewed by the Planning Commission twice that summer. He called for a new law to allow for homes on church properties, but staff decided to incorporate such changes into the city’s blueprint for future residential development, called the housing element of the general plan.
Wilson said this week he still believes allowing homes on parcels owned by religious organizations would be a win all around.
Pasadena will be filing a new housing element with the state this fall, so hopefully the change is “imminent,” Wilson said. The proposal makes sense for a city that’s mandated to build 9,409 units of new residential units by 2029 to meet its assigned regional housing needs assessment.
“I hoped to have something occur more quickly, but it hasn’t been shared with council yet. Some of us were disappointed and wondered why we’re consolidating things if it seems like it could move more quickly by itself. But, we’re a few months away from having to file a housing element, so at this point I’m eager to see the specifics on how we can bring that option to life.”
As it currently stands, the draft housing element lists “create standards and a review process for the establishment of housing on religious institutions” as an objective. But the time frame to accomplish that is by 2025.
Burns believed the council was on the cusp of creating an ordinance last year, so he was surprised to see the timeline had been pushed back to 2025.
“We’ve been developing on city-owned land, which is great, but there’s only so much of that, and congregations are already social services-based institutions in the community that have extra space,” Burns said. “So, it’s the opportunity that makes the most sense.”
Burns said New Life Holiness Church’s development partner likely won’t wait for rule changes if the process doesn’t wrap up soon.
This has Medlock concerned the church would have to start the entire process from scratch if a decision isn’t made soon.
“It doesn’t make sense that we are willing, as Christians, to give and share this land that we have with the community, but we can’t,” she said. “We feel if we are given permission to do so, then we would be fulfilling the commission that we have been given by the higher power — that we serve while also serving the community at the same time.”
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