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Bay Area churches build tiny homes for their homeless neighbors

Lending new meaning to the phrase “love thy neighbor,” Bay Area churches are turning their parking lots, backyards and other bits of unused land into tiny homes for the homeless members of their communities. And one local nonprofit has made it its mission to help.

Firm Foundation Community Housing, co-founded by a Presbyterian pastor, walks churches — and some secular land owners — through the daunting process of designing a tiny home community, securing city permits, applying for funding, and finding a contractor. So far, the organization has helped open tiny home villages on parking lots and extra land owned by churches in Livermore and Castro Valley, and on an Alameda County medical campus in unincorporated San Leandro. Another 14 projects are in the works in Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano and San Joaquin counties, and the Firm Foundation hopes to spread its reach even further, potentially down the Peninsula and to the South Bay.

Tiny homes appear to be the wave of the future when it comes to homeless housing, and cities from Oakland to San Jose are embracing them as safer, more dignified alternatives to dorm-style shelters. New state legislation has helped by removing red tape and making it easier to build villages of these studio-sized micro-homes, which, when they’re Firm Foundation projects, include bathrooms and small kitchens. But finding available space to build them is a challenge. Experts say faith-based organizations — which often have large properties they’ve owned for decades and no longer fully need — could be part of the solution.

To Taryn Sandulyak, who co-founded Firm Foundation with Pastor Jake Medcalf of First Presbyterian Church of Hayward, building homeless housing is a logical move for any religious organization.

CASTRO VALLEY, CALIFORNIA – June 03: Firm Foundation Community Housing co-founder Taryn Sandulyak poses for a portrait in front of tiny homes located in the parking lot of First Presbyterian Church of Hayward on June 3, 2022, in Castro Valley, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

“Caring for your community is what churches really are called to do,” she said. “That is what we are all called to do. To care for our fellow humans.”

Sandulyak and Medcalf launched Firm Foundation in 2017 to build six tiny homes as transitional homeless housing on 12 parking spaces at their church on Grove Way in Castro Valley. It took the nonprofit two years to get the necessary permits — no existing rules allowed for groups of tiny homes, so county officials had to change their general plan and zoning rules.

But once the permits were secured, construction took less than two months. They opened the tiny homes in 2020. So far, 13 residents have gone through the program and graduated to more permanent or more supportive housing.

After that site opened, Sandulyak and Medcalf reached out to other faith-based organizations to see if they could help guide anyone else through the process. They were flooded with interest.

“Within just a few months, we were getting calls from way more people than we expected,” Sandulyak said, laughing as she recalled how quickly business blew up.

One of Firm Foundation’s current projects is a six-unit tiny home village in the parking lot of Grace Presbyterian Church in Walnut Creek. Membership has been shrinking since the church bought its large property in 1958, and its congregation has been aging — meaning fewer people drive to worship. The 130-member congregation no longer needs its entire parking lot, said Rev. Mark Burnham.

“We don’t have expertise in housing or property management, and that’s not something that we as a congregation can take on,” he said. “But having these partners who can do it, our contribution can be this space, which is very valuable and which we weren’t using.”

Nonprofit Hope Solutions will manage the site and make sure residents have access to all the services they need.

Sandulyak hopes to start construction this summer and finish in late fall or early winter. Each unit will be 252 square feet and have its own bathroom and small kitchen.

A 2020 report by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation found that roughly 38,800 acres of religious land in California — about the size of the city of Stockton — has the potential to be turned into housing. But churches face “significant challenges” in developing homes, including limited financing options, regulatory barriers and limited real estate knowledge, according to the report.

That’s where Firm Foundation comes in. The agency walks religious leaders through the entire process, even doing the wonky, grueling research of figuring out which bills can speed up the permitting process for a particular project. Legislation such as Senate Bill 9, which lets developers subdivide small lots, SB 35, which streamlines permitting for certain projects, and Assembly Bill 2162, which expedites some affordable housing projects, are all part of the puzzle, Sandulyak said.

As payment for its services, Firm Foundation charges between 8% and 12% of a project’s total cost.

The nonprofit has plans in the works for nearly 200 tiny homes across 14 different projects that are now in various stages. Most are on land owned by churches, but not all. In Vallejo, Firm Foundation is working with private landowners Richard and Emily Fisher to built 48 modular units. The Fishers, who launched a homeless aid organization called 4th Second, refinanced their home to purchase the land. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom awarded the city of Vallejo $12.1 million in Homekey funds to help finance the project.

Firm Foundation also is working on building 10 tiny homes on a strip of unused land, overgrown with weeds, behind First Presbyterian’s south Hayward parish.

Once it’s complete, formerly homeless residents will pay one-third of their income in rent, and can live there as long as they need — even forever, said Aaron Horner, director of community outreach for First Presbyterian Church of Hayward and the South Hayward Parish. Horner feels deeply the importance of helping his unhoused neighbors. But with no construction experience, he’d be at a loss for how to do it without Firm Foundation.

“What they’re doing,” Horner said, “is they’re paving the way for faith communities to be able to do this.”

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