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Could churches help solve Arizona’s housing crisis? What to know about ‘Yes in God’s Backyard’ bill

In World
March 06, 2024

A bipartisan group of lawmakers seeks to put Arizona’s affordable housing crisis in God’s hands, but skeptics view the plan as manna for developers.

Nicknamed “Yes in God’s Backyard,” House Bill 2815 would allow thousands of land-owning churches and other religious institutions in Arizona to develop their extra land with fewer zoning restrictions. The same law passed last year in California.

It’s one of several bills winding their way through the Legislature that may help the state’s housing shortage. Experts say the shortage is partially driven by strict zoning requirements and “Not in My Backyard” attitudes on higher-density developments.

The bill would allow more density in residential neighborhoods as a “use by right.” Churches and other religious institutions would be allowed to build up to 20 dwelling units per acre without a need for additional zoning reviews or government approval.

Half of the residential units in the development would have to be for people with moderate incomes, 40% would have to be composed of low-income housing and 10% could be used for church staff or other workers. The bill would leave it to the state Department of Housing to define those income levels.

“Ancillary businesses” like child care facilities and services for the “recreational, social or educational” benefit of the development’s residents could be included in the neighborhood housing projects. Standard zoning setbacks and open-space requirements wouldn’t apply for the projects.

In areas zoned for commercial use, religious institutions could increase that density to 30 units per acre. There, any sort of business operations could be developed on church land as long as the area’s current zoning already approves the use.

The bill passed the state House on a 38-21 vote last week, with the chamber’s 28 available Democrats voting “yes” along with 10 of 31 Republicans. It has now moved to the state Senate, where it first must pass a committee hearing before a full Senate floor vote.

“This is but one tool in the toolshed,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Marcelino Quiñonez. “We’ve got a unique opportunity to combine religious institutions and state policy that allows for something that’s going to be of benefit to the community.”

But Phoenix neighborhood activist Mary Crozier pointed out that churches can already sell off part of their land and develop it according to normal neighborhood zoning regulations.

Crozier, president of the North Central Phoenix Homeowners Association, fears passage of the bill would mean a feeding frenzy for developers. She believes it would help the religious institutions build money-making housing and commercial units that would feature minimal parking spaces, projects that she said don’t make a good “fit” for neighborhoods and inattentive landlords.

“The state should not get involved in local zoning at all,” she said.

Churches, developers like the plan

To proponents in the religious community, House Bill 2815 could solve two problems: reducing obstacles to providing low-income housing for people who need it, and offering churches the chance to put their excess land to productive use.

About 40 million fewer Americans attend church regularly than they did 25 years ago in a trend known as The Great Dechurching, leaving places of worship with empty parking lots and extra property they don’t need for expansions.

Leaders in the Valley Interfaith Project, a coalition of dozens of liberal-leaning religious organizations, brought the California concept to Arizona. The nonprofit, nonpartisan group held a news conference last month to show support for House Bill 2815 and another bill that would renew the state’s low-income tax credit. The latter bill, House Bill 2576, never received a committee hearing but could be reintroduced this year as a strike-all amendment.

The Rev. Hunter Ruffin, rector and senior pastor at Tempe’s Church of the Epiphany, said his church and other Valley Interfaith Project members view affordable housing as an “extension of the mission of the church to care for our most marginalized neighbors.”

The so-called “Yes in God’s Backyard” idea sprang from a recent meeting of clergy leaders, nonprofit institutions and affordable housing developers who want to address the housing crisis, he said.

“It certainly generates some income for a church, if they are doing a land lease or are themselves a developer and go on to continue to be the actual landlord,” he said. “For most churches, it’s not as much money as people would think.”

His church’s campus isn’t suitable for development, meaning “there’s no motivation in my involvement” besides the hope to make a dent in the crisis, he said.

The bill would give flexibility to the institutions in return for making the projects work. Some would become landlords themselves, while others would enter into leases with developers. Both land owned by religious institutions and affiliated nonprofits could be used. Numerous nonprofit companies in Arizona and elsewhere that specialize in affordable housing complexes could take advantage of a 9% federal tax credit to construct such projects.

Once the property is developed, the project would no longer be subject to an exemption of property taxes available to churches. The institution could sell the property after it’s developed, but a mandatory deed restriction would keep the 40% affordable housing requirement in place for at least 55 years.

Ruffin understands the so-called “NIMBYism” sentiment from some opponents, but wanted to remind critics that Christians live by the edict to “love your neighbors even more than yourself.”

“We all should be working towards improvement of the communities,” he said.

Christian Solorio, a former Democratic state lawmaker, spoke in favor of the bill last month in the House Appropriations Committee. An architect and developer with the multistate Architectural Research Team company, he hopes to work on new affordable housing projects if the bill passes.

Among the problems the bill would address is the “clustering” of affordable housing units due to zoning rules that create barriers and stigma for the people who live there, he said. Instead, low-income units could be built in safer communities with better schools by removing that zoning, he added.

“It cuts through the red tape and allows for these creative partnerships” between development companies and religious institutions, Solorio said.

Opponents warn of potential problems

The bill’s passage could affect a large number of communities across the state. According to CauseIQ, a website that tracks data from nonprofit companies, Arizona has at least 5,344 religious institutions.

Crozier said churches own about 100 acres of land in her Phoenix neighborhood, which is zoned for no more than 3.5 residential units per acre. The allowance for 20 units per acre would be lucrative for churches and developers, but possibly “detrimental” to neighborhoods like hers, she said.

Crozier recalled a previous battle with one of the churches in the neighborhood, the 40-acre North Phoenix Baptist Church, which wanted to build a high-rise senior center on property it owned in 2016. Her homeowner association helped stymie that project and remains wary the church will leap at the chance to make money with the relaxed zoning rules if House Bill 2815 passes.

She’s worried the bill doesn’t mandate sufficient parking for residents of new housing projects and that other residents in the area would have little idea who to call if nuisances arose.

“There’s no accountability, there’s no consequences and you don’t really know who is running that affordable housing complex across the street,” Crozier said.

Most Republican House members voted against the bill.

“This is not a ‘God’s backyard’ bill,” said Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix. “This is a developer’s backyard bill, and they’re using the cloak of religious institutions to secure entitlements.”

Gress said he has personal experience with church developments: A developer built 42 residential units next door to him after a church sold its property, he said.

“What will happen is you’ll see some complex real estate transactions where the churches will do whatever they need to do in order to sell their property to a developer,” Gress said. “I think it could have pretty significant consequences for neighborhoods across Arizona.”

Inside the opposition: Planned Arizona developments with ‘affordable housing’ labels quickly become targets

House Majority Leader Rep. Leo Biasiucci, a Lake Havasu City Republican who co-sponsored the bill with Quiñonez, told The Arizona Republic he voted “no” on his own bill last week out of concern for the lax parking mandate.

“I didn’t want only street parking” for the potential projects, he said. But he added, as did Quiñonez, that the bill was still a work in progress and would likely be amended.

Arizona Legislature considers other housing bills

The state House passed two bills in recent days designed to provide more housing.

House Bill 2720, sponsored by Buckeye Republican Rep. Michael Carbone, would allow residents of counties with more than 75,000 people to build one or more accessory dwelling units on their properties.

The occupant of such a unit would need to be a family member of the owner or have a preexisting business relationship with the owner. The bill passed the House on a 46-14 vote on Monday.

House Bill 2297, sponsored by Biasiucci, would allow commercial properties like offices to be remade into residential developments without normal zoning regulations. It passed the House on a vote of 36-23.

Both bills have moved to the Senate.

Another affordable housing idea, House Bill 2721 by Carbone, failed on a 28-32 vote Monday after opposition by both Republicans and Democrats. It would require cities to accept “duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, fiveplexes and townhomes as a permitted use on all lots zoned for single family residential use.” The bill could be brought back to the House for reconsideration.

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Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 480-276-3237. Follow him on X @raystern.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona House advances ‘Yes in God’s Backyard’ affordable housing bill

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