Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Small Churches Equal Big Opportunity

Across the country — in communities large and small, urban and rural — churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples are woven into the fabric of residential neighborhoods. In some cases, the congregations (and institutions) that worship in these buildings have changed as their neighborhoods have changed. In many others, though, a dwindling number of congregants, most of whom have long since left the neighborhood, regularly attend services. Given the right circumstances, shrinking congregations present a big opportunity to put a dent in the undersupply of housing.

Consequently, this spring and summer APA is shining a light on the growing interest in redeveloping faith-based buildings and land for housing. In May, Nadia Mian and Richard T. Reinhard reported for Planning that "Transforming Empty Churches Into Affordable Housing Takes More Than a Leap of Faith." In the July issue of Zoning Practice, "Using Faith-Based Land for Affordable Housing," Don Elliott, FAICP, and Maggie Squyer explore the potential for zoning to support the redevelopment of parking lots and other surplus land owned by religious institutions for housing.

Don't Rely on RLUIPA

Perhaps the most significant nonconstitutional federal limit on local zoning authority comes from the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law states that local zoning may not "substantially burden" the free exercise of religion, but left it to the courts to determine precisely what that means. This creates an opportunity for churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples to claim that providing housing is a way of practicing their faith. But as Elliott and Squyer point out, courts have not consistently supported these claims. In cases where the religious institution intends to sell excess property for housing, RLUIPA may not apply at all.

The upshot is that cities, towns, and counties probably can't rely on RLUIPA to provide political cover for converting houses of worship to housing units or developing new housing on underutilized faith-based land. The local zoning code must explicitly allow new residences on these properties. And the applicable zoning standards must be flexible enough for residential development to "pencil out."

Catch the Wave

In many communities, though, the conversation about converting faith-based land to housing is already well underway. Mian and Reinhard and Elliott and Squyer all point to the momentum behind groups like the nonprofit Yes in God's Backyard (YIGBY). Planners just need to catch the wave to help diagnose and remove the barriers to successful projects.

There are already several examples of cities, including Seattle and San Diego, that have adopted targeted zoning reforms to clear the way for new housing on faith-community land. And, as Elliott and Squyer highlight, there are many examples of faith communities and developers that worked with planners and local officials to untangle regulations blocking specific housing proposals.

Using Faith-Based Land for Affordable Housing.

Each issue of Zoning Practice provides practical guidance for planners and land-use attorneys engaged in drafting or administering local land-use and development regulations. An annual subscription to ZP includes access to the complete archive of previous issues.

Subscribe Online

Top image: Getty Images

About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.

July 10, 2023

By David Morley, AICP