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Church properties in Napa and Atlanta reimagine affordable housing

It’s not often that you hear Atlanta and Napa in the same sentence – until now. In both cities, faith-based properties – churches –  are being turned into affordable housing units in an effort to address the national housing crisis. 

Atlanta community-focused real estate developers, former NLF player Derrick Morgan and Good Places co-founder Cherie Ong were speakers at the "Can we get an amen for housing," Napa Valley Community Foundation Town Hall Event (Submitted photo).

It’s not often that you hear Atlanta and Napa in the same sentence – until now. In both cities, faith-based properties – churches –  are being turned into affordable housing units in an effort to address the national housing crisis. 

Locally, the Napa First United Methodist Church, the oldest church in Napa, is turning a large portion of its property downtown into workforce housing. Last November, they announced the plan to build 46 rental units on 1.21 acres. In Atlanta, UMC submitted permits last month to build a 170-unit affordable housing tower. 

The church’s decision in Napa comes as the tourist-centric city struggles to meet the housing needs of workers, Napa County Planning Commissioner, Dave Whitmer said.

The average income of service workers in Napa is $35,000, according to data provided by the city of Napa.

“Many of our farmworkers, hotel workers are the backbone of what makes our city run are struggling Whitmer added. We do not have all the answers but we are stepping up."

Wine country Napa is reflective of the statewide homelessness crisis as California grapples with having the highest homelessness rate in the nation. 

Preliminary development plan shown at the "Can we get an amen for housing," Napa Valley Community Foundation Town Hall Event (Submitted photo).

“Yes in God’s Backyard” SB-4, which was passed by the California legislature in November 2023 and was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, allows religious institutions to utilize their land for affordable housing development. Simplifying cumbersome zoning regulations, it has streamlined the development process of building a new four-story housing unit in Napa with one-to-three bedroom apartments to rent to families who make under a specific dollar amount of income. 

A recent report from UC Berkeley’s Terner Center found that there are roughly 171,000 acres of land throughout the state that would be eligible for affordable housing under SB 4. 

“One of the chief obstacles to affordable housing development is that affordable housing developers must compete against market-rate developments for land. SB 4 opens tens of thousands of acres that affordable housing developers will have exclusive access to,” said Senator Wiener of San Francisco, who authored the bill. 

Pastor Marylee Sheffer from Napa First Methodist Church wrote in a press release that her church “believes housing is a basic human need."

"Without housing security, it is difficult for individuals to meet their other basic human needs. A roof over one’s head provides the stability and security needed to thrive, to raise a family, to work in local businesses, to ensure children can attend local schools and be part of our beautiful community.”

Across the country, mission-driven developers are also tackling homelessness with a similar paradigm of solutions. 

Atlanta community-focused real estate developers, former NLF player Derrick Morgan and Good Places co-founder Cherie Ong are referred to as pioneers in this realm. They have already been building innovative partnerships with church organizations that can contribute to fighting the rampant housing crisis across Georgia. 

Morgan has created a guide for churches that are working with property developers to build housing. 

At a town hall meeting hosted by the Napa Valley Community Foundation, Morgan and Ong were keynote speakers addressing Napa community members who wanted to understand the implications of the development project.

NVCF president Terence P. Mulligan addresses Napa County community members at the "Can we get an amen for housing" Town Hall Event (Submitted photo).

“Churches hold a unique place in the community, and I think that as a society, we do not want them to disappear,” said Ong, who works in equitable community development.

“A lot of times, churches cannot financially hold their properties the way they used to, so they have to quickly reimagine.” 

Part of the reimagining has been building a partnership with the United Methodist Church in Atlanta to house low-income families. Their partnership resulted in the development of 60 affordable housing units. 

Napa’s First Methodist Church soon followed.

It wasn’t as simple as the transformation sounds. Ong noted that in Atlanta  “we have to ask the church if they are truly ready to re-envision itself. Then we bring in key investors who are usually mission-driven, ask if our model is sustainable for the particular church and engage the community pulse.” 

The Napa church was ready to undertake “being a home” for the most vulnerable. 

In partnership with Burbank Housing, Napa Valley Community Housing and the Napa Valley Community Foundation, construction of the multi-unit project is expected to begin before the end of 2025. The cost of the development has not been announced. 

Preliminary community concept plan shown at the "Can we get an amen for housing" Town Hall Event (Submitted photo).

The church sanctuary, built in 1852, “known for its Sunday services, will remain untouched,” the press release stated. A community childcare center is also being considered as part of the housing development. 

“A lot of things are coming together, with SB-4,” Morgan, co-founder of KNGDM Group, a group of mission-driven real estate developers, said. “I want to take that legislation, copy and paste it to Georgia and Tennessee. 

“There is a trend of about 75 to 100 churches closing every week,” he added. 

The Guardian notes that this trend is rampant as the “younger generations of Americans abandon Christianity altogether – even as faith continues to dominate American politics.” 

Maybe affordable and sustainable housing may soon dominate many more communities.

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