By Matthew Rodriguez 

With congregations dwindling, many churches and religious institutions in Pasadena have ample land with no use for it.

“A lot of families were moving away, they couldn’t afford to live in Pasadena,” said Pastor Othella Medlock of New Life Holiness on why her congregation has diminished in the past few years.

“A lot of people tried to hang in there. For a couple of years, they tried to drive from the Inland Empire and San Bernardino. As the years went on and we got older people just couldn’t do it any longer.”

Medlock has been part of her congregation for her entire life. Her mother was the preacher before her and her father acted in an overseer type position. In its heyday, New Life Holiness church had 100 members helping throughout the community running food banks and other programs. Now it has a mere 30 members, but even with depleted numbers the church still seeks to help those in need.

After seeing members of her congregation leave because of rising housing costs Medlock hopes to reinvest into the community by building affordable housing on the unused parts of land that her church possesses.

“We could help the community with our land and having these units placed there,” Medlock said. “This opportunity would afford us the ability to do the benevolent work that we believe the lord wants us as the church to do.”

In the past few years, with the rising cost of housing in Pasadena, many have been forced to move away. While COVID-19 devastated other parts of the economy, housing in Pasadena continues to rise. According to the housing market website Zillow, Pasadena’s median home value is $887,355 an increase of 7.7% from last year. The value is projected to rise by 8.2 percent. This trend has been happening across the state as the affordable housing market continues to dwindle.

“Finding sites is one of the hardest things of any affordable housing [project],” executive director of Making and Community Happen Jill Shook said. “People are realizing this a huge untapped resource… churches are just like ‘we don’t have the members we used to, we’ve got these empty parking lots, we’ve got this underutilized building.’ It becomes a win, win, win for everybody; the community, the church and the city.”

While the idea of transforming church land into affordable housing is still in the works in Pasadena, it turned into reality in San Diego and Santa Ana. Before turning the land into housing, the city must first change the zoning codes to allow religious institutions to build.

When the idea of building homes on religious institutions’ land was brought to the city council in a previous meeting, the councilmembers seemed enthusiastic about increasing the housing stock.

“The fact that they would be willing to invest that land in providing affordable-housing sites is too attractive to pass up,” said Mayor Terry Tornek during a previous city council meeting.

“I’m strongly supportive, and delighted that Councilmember Wilson raised the issue in terms of making sure that this doesn’t get slow-walked and that it really gets the kind of attention that it deserves because there are very few opportunities like this.’’

To get the ball rolling, Medlock has been working with real estate developers. With the technical help from these consultants, she could continue to help the community.

“[Churches] have old buildings that need maintenance and they find it harder to make ends meet in terms of paying their pastors, staff, maintenance and all of those things,” said Arroyo Group principal, Phillip Burns. “Repurposing the land for affordable housing can be good from them in multiple ways.”

According to Burns, one of the biggest barriers for many projects such as the one Medlock hopes to accomplish is zoning and permits.

“The most obvious barrier is that some churches have zoning that does not allow for housing or only allows housing as an accessory,” said Burns. “Second one is related to the density of housing that’s permitted. Some churches are sitting on land where housing is permitted but only at a low density.”

Burns continues by saying that density and affordability are “inversely correlated;” the lower the density the fewer units to spread the land cost around, which in turn raises the cost of each unit. Burns said the range is to have 40 to 60 units per project.

The plan for Medlock’s church is to build a 52-unit affordable housing complex right on their property.

According to the church’s real estate agent Andre White, if the congregation chooses to build affordable housing units they will be locked into a regulatory period of 55 years. This period will also reset if the church uses the same program to refinance. Also, the units will be placed in a lottery for those searching for affordable housing.

“There’s a lottery, so a person just moving here can’t come in and say, ‘I want to live in this affordable housing complex,’” White said. “All of these affordable housing complexes have waitlists in the thousands.”

While the church could sell the land and make more money from that than building affordable housing it does not fit with their mission statement.

“We’re doing it because we have something to offer,” Medlock said. “We’re looking to share we’re not looking to gain this mass amount of money.”