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The Good Word on How Faith-based Groups Are Turning Land into Homes

An in depth feature on Curbed.com details how mission-based groups, especially churches, are skilling up to turn their under-used land into affordable housing and other facilities their communities desperately need. And LISC initiatives in San Antonio, New York and the Bay Area are leading the charge. “Churches really feel the impact of the displacement issue in their communities,” says LISC Bay Area’s Laurel Engbretson in the article. “There’s a higher level of energy to get involved in this, because they understand the larger market context.”

The excerpt below was originally published:
Churches divine a new role: Housing development
By Patrick Sisson, Curbed

Above image shows a rendering of a proposed housing development in Oakland, California, part of a local LISC program working with mission-based organizations.

When Rev. Dr. Michael A. Jolla took over as pastor at San Antonio’s “Exciting” West End Baptist Church in 2011, he aimed to nurture the needs of the congregation of 75 on the city’s near northwest side. The 115-year-old church would be “renewed and reviewed,” according to his wife, Sandra Jolla, who works as the outreach coordinator, with major changes to the ministry, including more community engagement.

The church sits on Culebra Street a few blocks from the overpasses of Interstate 10, where a number of homeless residents of the city sleep. Over the last few years, many of them have spent their nights on church grounds, with roughly four to six settled in on the church steps each night.

“They’re coming to the Lord’s house to sleep, but the problem is, they loiter and leave trash,” says Jolla. “But it just didn’t seem right to call the police to have them removed. We thought, ‘There ought to be something we can do for them.’”

The church already held a food bank each Thursday, and collected used clothes and provided hot meals semi-regularly, but that didn’t seem to be enough. So last year, the Jollas began seriously thinking about turning the 7/8th of an acre of land adjacent to the church, which they’d accumulated by buying up vacant lots, into a shelter.

“Affordable housing is a technical field. We want to provide resources and support so they have the knowledge to make the best decisions for their land.”
— Laurel Engbretson, LISC Bay Area Program Officer

Initially, they planned to set up temporary trailers. They didn’t think they knew enough about zoning or construction to build something permanent.

Then, last fall, they found a partner that may be willing to help them break ground: the city of San Antonio. As part of what the city is calling its Mission-Oriented Development Pilot, housing officials are reaching out to churches, other faith-based organizations, and charities to help them convert unused land into affordable housing projects or facilities to shelter the homeless.

It’s currently a small test, with just $300,000 allocated to support up to 10 projects, which city officials are currently vetting. But its backers hope it can kickstart development and get more organizations engaged in affordable housing.

“When you consider there are seven or eight community organizations developing housing in San Antonio now, and there could be five more working by next year, that’s a pretty big resource,” says Leilah Powell, executive director of San Antonio’s chapter of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) San Antonio, a community development financial institution partnering with the city on this new initiative. “Churches are a nonprofit we haven’t relied on enough.”

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