Why my synagogue is building a 55-unit housing development for the homeless

"Jewish and other faith communities can and should do more to address the systemic housing crisis that is driving hundreds of thousands of our neighbors onto the streets."

A general view of downtown Los Angeles and the Walt Disney Concert Hall the day after California issued a stay-at-home order due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Los Angeles (photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)
A general view of downtown Los Angeles and the Walt Disney Concert Hall the day after California issued a stay-at-home order due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Los Angeles
(photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)

When IKAR, the Jewish spiritual community where I serve as the director of community organizing, realized our long-held dream of buying land in Los Angeles so that we could build a home for ourselves, we invited the community to imagine what we’d like to see included as part of this new physical space. For many of us, and for our leadership, we know that what we build is a physical expression of our core Jewish values.

We knew we wanted our first-ever permanent home to be a hub with a prayer space that would inspire the spirit, classrooms that would facilitate learning, an early childhood center to instill joy, meeting space to foster civic engagement, performance space that will feature artists from around the world, and a cafe that will nurture through food and relationship-building. 

But overwhelmingly our community also told us they wanted this: to manifest our values by building homes for some of the tens of thousands of our neighbors who do not have a roof over their heads. So we formed a partnership with a nonprofit housing developer, Community Corp. of Santa Monica, and started working together on a financial arrangement to share our land and allow them to build a 55-unit permanent supportive housing development for formerly unhoused seniors on our site.

 A homeless woman (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90) A homeless woman (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

In Los Angeles, as in cities across the country, the price of housing, both to rent and to own, has skyrocketed in recent years, and neither wages nor the pace of building have kept up. As a result, we face a housing crisis of immense proportions, one that is borne most heavily by the people in our cities with the least financial resources: poor people, elderly, people with disabilities, women fleeing domestic violence, immigrants, and Black people, who have been systematically excluded. All are overrepresented among the unhoused. 

Our tradition calls on us to love the stranger, and over and over to remember that we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. We can think of no more important way to do that than to welcome those who have been cast out as “strangers” into homes of their own alongside our new communal home. 

And yet, as we began this effort, we’ve learned how difficult it is and why it is so expensive to build affordable housing in cities. While the two partners in our arrangement are eager to work together and solve problems, we’ve discovered the degree to which zoning regulations drive up costs and create uncertainties that can lead to delays and higher costs in a project like this one. 

In California, as in most states, local governments have the power to set all kinds of zoning regulations. That allows them to shape development in ways that may be intended to ensure safety or protect local residents, but which also have a long history of excluding people, especially poor people and people of color, from some neighborhoods, or even whole cities. 

RELATED: Los Angeles has a major homelessness problem. These Jewish groups are helping by opening their parking lots.

One of the rules that impacts us is the local city parking requirement for houses of worship. The rules would require us to build much more parking than we would choose to accommodate our community. Underground parking, which is all we have space for, costs upwards of $60,000 per space and can cost twice that much for each additional deck below ground. We’d rather build less parking and keep the overall cost of the project to a manageable level.

Last year, California passed a bill to make it easier for faith communities to build housing on existing parking lots. That law allows houses of worship to remove up to 50 percent of their parking spaces if they replaced them with affordable housing. Now, we are proud to sponsor a bill with Assembly Member Buffy Wicks to extend that flexibility to congregations that are building ground-up projects. Our bill, CA AB 2244, would excuse faith communities from up to 50% of their locally zoned parking requirements if they build affordable housing onsite at the same time. The bill would not reduce the required number of ADA parking spaces or electric vehicle charging spaces. 

For us, this is a matter of justice and equity, and of building our values into the DNA and architecture of our community. We want to open our home to people without homes, and reduce our reliance on private cars as a mode of transportation. We hope this bill will make it easier for and even inspire other faith communities in the state to build housing. 

Jewish and other faith communities can and should do more to address the systemic housing crisis that is driving hundreds of thousands of our neighbors onto the streets and millions more into financially precarious and unstable living situations. The scale of the problem and the obstacles to confronting us, however, sometimes keep us from dreaming big. We have the motivation; IKAR’s experience shows we also need to unleash the resources and the human capital to overcome the economic, policy and political hurdles in our own backyards. Right here in California, a recent UC Berkeley Terner Center study shows the tremendous potential for developing religious land for affordable housing. 

Abraham was known for his tremendous concern for offering welcome to strangers. We can follow his example by using our land to offer welcome to our neighbors too. 

All faiths teach the importance of hospitality and valuing the dignity of each human life. Building more homes for people and fewer spaces for cars at our houses of worship is one way we can help realize that shared vision for a society that centers human dignity and moves toward cities that are easier to navigate without a car. I envision a future in which our community gathers for prayer in our new home, heartened by the connection to our new neighbors, who are enjoying some measure of peace and security in their new homes as well. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.