Senator Wiener Introduces New Legislation to Allow Affordable Housing on the Land of Religious Institutions and Nonprofit Colleges


By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Sacramento, CA – They are calling it YIGBY legislation—“Yes in God’s Backyard.”  On Tuesday, Senator Scott Wiener along with Inglewood Assemblymember Tim McKinnor introduced SB 4, the Affordable Housing on Faith Lands Act.

The law would allow faith institutions (such as churches, synagogues, and mosques) along with nonprofit colleges to build affordable housing on their property by right, even if local zoning prevents this housing. SB 4 re-zones the property and ensures neither CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) nor local political processes can be misused to stop these affordable housing projects.

The caveat is that the legislation only applies to 100% affordable housing.

SB 4 was introduced as SB 899 in 2020 and passed the Senate 39-0.

“California has a deep housing shortage, and we need every available tool to create the housing we so desperately need,” said Senator Scott Wiener. “Low income and working class people have the greatest need, and religious institutions and colleges have enormous excess land that can and should be used for affordable housing. Let’s make it easier for these nonprofits to build these critically needed homes.”

California is currently facing a severe housing crisis spurred by a shortage of 3.5 million homes. This shortage drives up housing costs, making California the most expensive state in which to rent or buy a home.

According to Senator Wiener’s office, “Many faith and charitable institutions have excess property – for example, overly large parking lots – on which they can build affordable housing. Faith communities have, for a long time, partnered with nonprofit housing developers to build affordable housing on their land.”

However, “current zoning laws in many cities prohibit the building of multifamily apartment buildings, or any housing at all, on this property.”

In addition, Wiener’s office said, “getting this land rezoned and getting a project through the approval process can be difficult or impossible, and incredibly expensive – often due to CEQA lawsuits and appeals. It’s not unusual for it to take three to four years and millions of dollars to resolve a single lawsuit, while appeals regularly take six months to resolve.

SB 4 ensures that churches, faith institutions, and nonprofit colleges will be able to build affordable housing on their land “without having to go through an expensive and difficult rezoning and discretionary approval process.”

Wiener’s office added, “Any organization building this type of streamlined affordable housing must maintain the affordability of these homes for a minimum of 55 years for rental properties and 45 years for properties that can be owned. Additionally, density and height restrictions must align with what is deemed appropriate for affordable housing by housing element law.”

Senator Wiener is concerned with the housing crisis and has introduced several bills over the years—a number of them controversial—to address the shortfall.

His office stated, “Young families are leaving California in search of cheaper housing, kids can’t afford to live where they grew up, and evictions and displacement are spiking. Our homelessness crisis is worsening, and people are sleeping on their streets and in their cars in higher and higher numbers.”

They added, “SB 4 will allow churches and other nonprofit colleges to help alleviate this crisis by building affordable housing on their own property. These institutions already serve deeply important and central roles in our communities, and they should be able to provide housing to those who need it.”

Already there is opposition to the measure.

The State Building Trades and Construction Traces Council is “strongly” opposed to the bill as “currently draft.”

They ask “for worker protection and training standards that include both prevailing wage coverage and skilled and trained workforce requirements…”

“We acknowledge the inclusion of prevailing wage coverage in SB 4,” a letter stated.  “However, we must remain opposed unless amended because simply paying workers fairly does not ensure that workers will be treated fairly.”

In 2020, the Terner Center at Berkeley noted, “The research shows there are opportunities to support the goals of faith-based organizations as they grapple with the best use for their underutilized land and make progress towards California’s goals in building more housing, expanding access to opportunity, and reducing commute-related greenhouse gas emissions.”

They conclude that “state and local policy action is needed to overcome the land use, financing, and capacity barriers facing faith-based organizations.”

“Californians are demanding that we build more affordable housing and SB 4 opens the door for community faith leaders to help us address our housing shortage,” said Abram Diaz, Policy Director of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California. “The Affordable Housing on Faith Lands Act delivers a unique opportunity: to support the social mission of religious institutions and build stable, safe, affordable homes for our neighbors in need. We are excited about this broad coalition effort to house more veterans, seniors, people with disabilities, and other community members who need support.”

“This bill will help nonprofit affordable housing builders partner with religious institutions that have deep relationships in local communities and, just like our members, are mission driven,” said Frank Martinez, Policy Director, Southern California Association of NonProfit Housing (SCANPH). Those extremely local roots will ensure success, not just for the new affordable housing residents but for the whole community. We strongly support this bill and look forward to the pathways it will open up to build more affordable housing throughout Southern California.”

In contrast to the building trades, the Carpenters Union is supporting the bill.

“We are honored to co-sponsor SB 4,” said Jay Bradshaw, Executive Officer of the NorCal Carpenters Union. “Currently, thousands of construction workers suffer from wage theft, health insecurity, crushing commutes and substandard housing.  Workers who build housing deserve jobs that provide living wages and family health care. By requiring payment of prevailing wages and family health care coverage coupled with apprenticeship opportunities and the strongest labor enforcement tools in the country, this Bill will help construction workers rise economically.”

“We applaud Senator Wiener on introducing SB 4 and taking the necessary steps to find solutions to the housing crisis here in California,” said Pete Rodriguez, Executive Secretary-Treasurer/CEO of the Southwest Mountain States Regional Council of Carpenters. “As with the recent signing of AB 2011 that ensured strong labor standards to be upheld when building affordable housing on commercial corridors, the language in SB 4 is another example of how prevailing wage is becoming the new standard for how to get housing legislation passed while protecting the workforce that will be building a better California.”

“This legislation is crucial for building the 100% affordable housing everyone agrees that we need for low-income residents facing housing insecurity,” said Nadia Rahman, San Francisco Political Director at YIMBY Action. “Religious organizations have traditionally played a significant role in supporting families facing difficult times or seeking refuge and this bill will make it easier for them to do so.”

“These institutions see the pressure the housing shortage is putting on their communities every day. They are community anchors, working to support people in crisis,” said Laura Foote, Executive Director of YIMBY Action. “California needs to let churches and religious institutions support their communities’ housing needs by saying yes in God’s backyard.”

“Churches, synagogues, and other places of worship are natural allies for building low-income and affordable housing on their land – but our cities have made it impossible to do so,” said Brian Hanlon, CEO of California YIMBY. “We’re proud to stand with Senator Wiener, the carpenters, and the affordable housing developer community to overcome these barriers and make California more affordable for everyone.”


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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