Churches in the early 21st century have problems staying afloat. Mainline Protestant and most Jewish congregations have been shrinking for decades; the Catholic Church is closing parishes even in growing cities; and now even evangelical Protestants are starting to enter into same kind of decline. You can debate the causes, but religion just isn't playing the same role in community life in 2020 as it did in my parents' generation.
For lots of congregations, coronavirus has accelerated the financial reckoning that they've been facing down for decades. There's no parishioners in the pews, but the church still has to keep the lights on, pay the water bill, make payroll. And what's most depressing is, that there's no good way today for churches to use their most valuable asset: the land they sit on.
This is a shame. Because under today's laws, there's no good way for a church to get value out of the land unless you want to sell the property for redevelopment. The Archdiocese of New York did this - same for the Jehovah's Witnesses.
For most churches, this isn't an option. If the church closes, the congregation goes with it. All of the good works that a church does for the community - feeding the hungry, providing drug and alcohol treatment, sheltering the homeless - all that goes away too.
I'm not going to be a Pollyanna about this, because lots of churches are going to close regardless. But there's a good number of them that could be stabilized, if they could reduce their operating expenses and get some source of new revenues.
What if there's a way to get creative about this? What if you could do something that helps the community and keeps your congregation afloat at the same time?
Well, my modest proposal is: build affordable housing in the parking lot.
I'll show you how this would work. Follow me, if you will, to Sunnyvale, California. Sunnyvale, population 152,000, used to be one of the outer suburbs of San Francisco, but today, it's at the center of Silicon Valley. LinkedIn is based there; Google's HQ is four miles away; Apple HQ, 3 1/2 miles; Intel HQ, 4 1/4 miles. Sunnyvale is arguably the epicenter of the California housing shortage. The average house there is an unremarkable suburban ranch home that sells for $1.5 million. (In real person terms, you can't afford to buy there unless you make $250,000 a year.)
We'll focus in on St Thomas Episcopal Church, on Sunset Avenue. The current church was built in 1957, as part of the great postwar expansion that changed Sunnyvale from a sleepy agricultural center at the edge of the Bay Area to the suburban sprawl it is today. Like a lot of churches from that era, the church building is too big for its congregation. In 1968, St. Thomas counted 325 *families* among its congregation; in 2011, St. Thomas held a banquet for its 100th anniversary, and only 210 *people* attended. If you look at the pictures from the congregation's Easter vigil from six years ago, it looks a lot like the Episcopal church nationwide. There's a lot of grey hair. In fifteen or twenty years there might not be enough of the faithful left to keep the lights on. But for now, St Thomas is still there, spreading the gospel and doing good works.
There might be a way to kill two birds with one stone, to keep the congregation financially solvent and to do good works at the same time. Because St. Thomas has a parking lot. A big, empty parking lot which sits empty 312 days a year. This parking is required by the city, as religious institutions are required to provide 1 parking space for every 40 square feet of gathering area.
Doing a rough measurement using Google's satellite imagery, the parking lot is about 180' x 240' - that's a full acre. If you built at the lowest legal density for affordable housing, you get 35 units of affordable housing as well as a new source of revenue to support the congregation's mission. Basically, this would look like East Coast-style rowhouses.
So, I went down the rabbit hole. Out of sheer curiosity, I spent an hour or two Googling every church I could find in Sunnyvale, and took rough measurements of every church parking lot I could find. This also includes Jewish synagogues, Mormon churches, Hindu temples, and Buddhist monasteries. (I might have missed one. Don't @ me.)
Congregational Church of Sunnyvale: 1 acre.
Crosswalk Community Church: .85 acre.
Daesung Korean Presbyterian: .3 acre.
First Methodist: 0.9 acre.
First Morning Light Chinese Christian: .9 acre.
First Orthodox Presbyterian: none
Full Gospel Korean Assembly: .1 acre.
Heritage Baptist: none
Samoan First Assembly of God: none
San Jose Korean Presbyterian: shares parking lot with the Bay Area Hindu Temple
Silicon Valley Reformed Baptist: .5 acre.
St Thomas Episcopal: 1 acre.
Sunnyvale International Church: 1.2 acres.
Sunnyvale Presbyterian: 2.3 acres
Sunnyvale Seventh-Day Adventist: 1.65 acres
Triumphant Life Church: .1 acre.
Westgate Church: shares parking lot with the Bay Area Hindu Temple
St Cyprian: 1.1 acres.
St Martin: 0.9 acre.
Church of the Resurrection: 1.45 acres.
Sunnyvale Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: 1.5 acres
Bar Yohai Synagogue: .6 acre.
Bay Area Hindu Temple: 2.4 acres.
Sunnyvale Hindu Temple: .95 acre.
Chongwonsa (Korean Buddhist): .1 acre.
Chung Tai Zen Center (Chinese Buddhist): .5 acre.
The grand total: 20.3 acres. If you replaced every parking lot with rowhouses, at 35 units per acre, that's 710 apartments. That's 1900 people you could house in Sunnyvale alone without touching a single piece of private property, touching the church itself, or even building tall buildings.
There's only one problem: it's currently illegal to do this in most places because of the zoning laws. And it's why the law should be changed. (San Diego already did this.)