The property at 1638 Stuart St. has been deteriorating for years. Now its owner, the McGee Avenue Baptist Church, wants to reopen the apartments. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The McGee Avenue Baptist Church celebrated its 100th anniversary this fall, and it did so in style. Congregants dressed up in their finest and feasted at banquet tables topped with bushy purple and yellow bouquets.

But those who’ve been involved with the church for a long time say it barely resembles the thriving African-American institution it was a few decades ago. The 75 people who regularly attend services today can’t compare to the 600 consistent members the church once enjoyed, according to Derrin Jourdan, board chair and a 30-year member of the church.

The church is on Stuart Street and McGee in what was historically a black neighborhood. Berkeley as a whole was about 19% black in 1990, around when Jourdan joined the church, double the current population. Congregants would often walk to Sunday services back then. But many have left Berkeley, some selling family homes and others forced out as house prices and rents have soared.

“Many people in the African-American community can simply no longer afford to live there,” Jourdan said.

But for some at the church, that sense of helplessness is paired with a feeling of guilt that they themselves could be doing more to alleviate the housing crisis. Next to the McGee Avenue Baptist Church is an apartment complex and cottage it owns. The buildings have sat vacant and declining for years.

Now the church is partnering with the Bay Area Community Land Trust in hopes of restoring the property and renting it out at below-market-rate prices. Money is uncertain, but if all goes as planned, the church will retain ownership of the buildings, and the land trust will renovate and manage the apartments.

The project is an atypical one for the Berkeley-based land trust, which usually purchases the properties it works on. All of the land trust’s properties have guaranteed long-term affordability, sometimes through limited equity cooperatives. Under that model, residents make collective decisions and own shares that can’t be resold for profit.

Soon a $1 million “small sites” loan program in Berkeley could expand the land trust model.

Restoring the odd vacant property and converting some complexes to co-ops won’t come close to meeting the crushing local demand for affordable housing. But the model has been heralded as a lower-barrier supplement to the costly construction of new buildings.

Moldy building ‘sat and sat and sat’

The McGee Avenue Baptist Church turned 100 in 2018. But the congregation has shrunk as housing prices have risen around it. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On a recent afternoon, Jourdan stood in the rain between his church’s six-unit apartment building and the small 2-bedroom cottage behind it.

Next door in the church social hall, congregants and volunteers were scooping hot lunches onto plates, chatting loudly with anyone who dropped in for a meal or to pick up donated clothing and Christmas gifts. The apartment buildings where Jourdan stood, by contrast, were empty and silent, windows boarded up, roofs covered with tarps, and white walls streaked with dirt. Overgrown shrubs lined the property.

The church bought the residential complex in the 1970s. When Jourdan became a board member in the early 1990s, people were still living in the apartments.

“We were having challenges maintaining them as rental units because that wasn’t our focus,” Jourdan said. “At the time, there was a thriving congregation and we thought the church needed space.”

The church closed up the apartments and planned to convert the buildings into an extension of the sanctuary and social hall. But soon after, the congregation and its financial resources began shrinking.

“The building sat and sat and sat for several years. We didn’t have the money to deal with it,” Jourdan said. “What we are doing now is focusing on trying to clean up the neighborhood eyesore for one, and above all else hopefully bring that building into use for housing, which is sorely needed in South Berkeley.”

Derrin Jourdan walks around overgrown shrubs to the cottage he hopes to renovate this year. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

A couple of years ago, the church approached Resources for Community Development, which referred it to the Bay Area Community Land Trust.

The trust agreed to work with the church and secured a $50,000 pre-development loan from the city of Berkeley in December 2017 to do a needs assessment and architectural drawings. Plans have been formulated.

“Now we need to get a much bigger chunk of change to do the renovation,” said Rick Lewis, executive director of the Bay Area Community Land Trust.

The nonprofit has applied for $900,000 federal HOME funds newly available through the city of Berkeley, but there are federal eligibility requirements the project might not meet. Non-profit developer SAHA has also applied for the funds for its complex at 1900 Alcatraz Ave. Berkeley’s Housing Advisory Commission will discuss the applications tonight.

Even with that big boost, the Stuart renovations would still need another $1 million, according to Jourdan.

The buildings, though they’re mold-riddled and falling apart, must be preserved, not demolished. Zoning rules have changed in the neighborhood, grandfathering in old complexes like the church’s but prohibiting the new construction of anything with more than two units.

Plus, the buildings are about as old as the church. “What that means is lots and lots of lead and asbestos throughout. You can’t just roll a crane in and knock it over,” Jourdan said.

From Lewis’s point of view, an existing eight-unit complex is exactly what the nonprofit wants.

“We feel it’s much more environmentally sound to use an existing building,” he said. “We can have these units fully renovated and have people move in within a year of closing funding. It’s critically needed housing in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.”

Ideally, said Lewis, the new tenants will have lived or currently work in South Berkeley. But the funding source — whether it ends up being local or federal, private or public — will determine how much discretion the landlords have. Under the current plan, units would be for tenants making 30-80% of the median income in the area.

The church and land trust will soon hold a community meeting about their project for neighbors.

Some already turned out to a “lively” public hearing — a condition of the city loan — in November, Lewis said.

Church members “are relieved that we’re finally doing something,” Jourdan said. “The congregation has been disappointed that we’ve let it languish.”

Land trust sees opportunity in housing market ‘guilt’

Vacant properties like the Stuart Street building are theoretically prime candidates for a land trust. But they’re often the trickiest.

Unlike with the church, owners are often uncooperative, Lewis said. Sometimes they’re nowhere to be found, are international investors or are wrapped up in years-long familial disputes. While serving on Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s housing task force, Lewis worked with Rent Board members to verify the vacant multi-family buildings in Berkeley. They found only a handful, most with complicated issues.

Instead, “We largely rely on people approaching us,” Lewis said. The land trust buys buildings below what they’d normally go for.

“It’s just this crazy housing market we’re in — a lot of people feel at least a little guilty,” Lewis said. “They bought this house 30 years ago for $35,000, and now the market says $1 million. They don’t necessarily want to donate it, but they’re willing to donate a substantial amount of the equity because they don’t really need it.”

The Bay Area Community Land Trust has a few cooperatives in Berkeley, including a collection of shingle houses on Ellsworth and Parker streets. Photo: Google Maps

But sellers are not only driven by guilt or altruism.

“Part of what we offer as a nonprofit is if you sell it below market, you can get a tax credit,” Lewis said. “Particularly for people who own multiple buildings, they probably have a tax liability and could make use of a tax credit and just be rid of it and let someone else take care of it.” One homeowner offered to sell the land trust her house for $1 million, below the $1.2 million appraised price. The IRS would consider that a $200,000 cash donation, according to Lewis.

In other cases, owners have willed their properties to the land trust.

“We’d be open to whatever deal,” Lewis said. “With the church, it’s easier, because it’s already a non-profit, community institution, which sort of makes it a good partnership. It’s more challenging with a private owner who’s basically in business to make a profit.”

The Bay Area Community Land Trust has a few properties in Berkeley already. They were mostly existing cooperatives whose tenants decided to partner with the trust for more oversight or to ensure long-term affordability.

Under church ownership, the Stuart site will likely operate as a more traditional rental property. The land trust still hopes to encourage self-governance, giving tenants the responsibility of landscaping and letting them make it feel like home.

Through a new Berkeley “small sites” program, nonprofits like the land trust can apply for loans to purchase more buildings to turn into affordable cooperatives.

Applications for the $950,000 available should open up later this month, said Jenny Wyant, community development coordinator.

The church project is already eyeing it.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...