Plenty of Land, Just Not Enough Housing

Affordability Housing

            Marble Falls      Affordable housing is a crisis throughout the country.  The shortage has meant that housing prices are rising, even as interest rates and some inflation have made them less affordable and reduces sales to record levels.  And, as I learned to chant in Glasgow several years ago, Rents Are Bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S.  Developers whine about available land and zoning issues, but is that really true, or is it just that they can make way more money on the high end out in the burbs?

I thought of an urban planning study shared with me more than a decade ago by an architectural student from a high-flying Ivy League school.  He and his comrades had looked at San Francisco, which before the pandemic was ground zero for affordable housing scarcity for workers and low­-and­-moderate income families, with absurd rents to boot.  They found land aplenty by going higher and wider, building over streets and neutral grounds, and repurposing public lands.  I should quickly add that all of that was an academic exercise at the time, and likely even now, in no danger of implementation.

More recently, reading an article about unused land and the properties that might be available as various faith-based organizations have to right size given the precipitous decline of their adherents, it was clear that there is a lot more property that could be repurposed than what public authorities control.  For example, by the estimate of a community developer with the Good Acres program, “San Antonio [Texas] has just over 3000 acres of faith-owned property, a vast majority of which is underused…to house 100,000 families.”  Amen!  A pastor-developer added that “100,000 Christian church properties will be sold or repurposed in the next decade…a quarter to a third of all churches in the United States…Not all have property, but even if half do, that’s a huge number.” Preach, brother, preach!  Another report from California of all places finds that faith-based groups and nonprofit colleges own 172000 acres of “potentially developable land.”

I’m not saying any of this is easy, but anyone who has driven through cities and towns in America has seen huge big-box stores that have been repurposed as churches by largely evangelical congregations, so it’s not like they don’t know something about how to retrofit for other causes.  Sure, there’s rezoning and a different skill set involved, but given the housing shortage, it’s hard to believe that with the right package both banks and town fathers wouldn’t bless initiatives to provide more and affordable housing.

Some years ago, Jonathon Tasini, a labor activist and journalist, wrote a piece called the “Edifice Complex” about how much property labor unions had in their halls and offices.  His case was that they should convert it into cash to do more organizing.  Few have gotten that religion, but surely all of those sanctified could hear that call.  Providing housing might even save some of their churches, since parishioners can’t afford to stay in many of their neighborhoods either.