Church launches affordable housing project with $1M city loan

The McGee Avenue Baptist Church
The McGee Avenue Baptist Church (L) and the fenced property at 1638 Stuart St. in Berkeley, Calif., that's set to be restored. |

A 101-year-old church with a history of activism and a dedication to people in need will now be able to extend affordable housing to its community in Berkeley, California, thanks to a $1 million grant from the city.

The McGee Avenue Baptist Church, has had some eight housing units languishing vacant since the early 1990s, according to Berkleyside, in a city where the average rent is $3,240.

Tenants previously lived in the property purchased by the church in the 1970s, but the congregation ended their leases with a plan to expand the church in the 1990s. Around the same time the congregation made that decision, however, the predominantly progressive black church started having financial struggles as congregants left for the suburbs.

Now with the help of the Bay Area Community Land Trust they’ll be providing housing for low-income tenants again through a creative partnership. The land trust which normally purchases small buildings and converts them into permanently affordable residential properties is allowing the church to keep ownership of the property but will help them restore and manage it.

“I’m dancing inside with joy,” said Derrin Jourdan, a church board chair and longtime member who thought the church would never be able to redevelop the property.

“It wasn’t just that it was difficult. I thought it was impossible,” Jourdan said, noting that the church had been trying to make the property viable again for years.

The loan for the church’s project was funded through Measure U1, which is a 30-year loan program for nonprofits that wants to buy or rehab buildings and turn them into affordable housing.

Rick Lewis, executive director of the land trust, told Berkleyside on Monday that the church’s project was “the best possible project” for their small-sites program.

“We had a project ready to go. It’s a project that clearly addresses gentrification and displacement, and it’s so based in the community,” he said at a groundbreaking ceremony.

Once the property is renovated within a year, it is expected to house people making up to 30-80% of the area median income.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he hopes to fund and support more projects and noted that he experienced eviction as a child in San Francisco. Councilman Ben Bartlett, who represents the church’s South Berkeley district and whose great-grandfather was a preacher at the McGee church, said his support for the project reflected his concern for housing in the city.

“Housing is starting to mirror the way it looked 100 years ago for us,” he told congregants. “Even though we’ve been priced out and moved out and displaced and kicked around, our churches are still here. We still own the land the churches are on.”

Alix Jennings, a church member since the 1950s who was still hoping for the church’s expansion said she was happy about the rental project because the building had been and “eyesore” in the community for too long.

“It was an eyesore for a little while,” she said. “We had this albatross. It was bringing down the neighborhood. Now I’m very happy. This is my home church.”

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