Decades-long congregants were among those who turned out in the beating sun to watch the groundbreaking of an eight-unit housing restoration project. From left: Virgie Tillman, Alix Jennings, Rosialeigh Wilson. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Since the early 1990s, eight housing units on Stuart Street have sat decaying, molding and tauntingly empty.

Now, with a $1 million boost from the city of Berkeley, and oversight from the Bay Area Community Land Trust, the 101-year-old McGee Avenue Baptist Church will once again open up its rental property, to low-income tenants.

Relief and elation were in the air Monday afternoon as church congregants and City Council members braved the beating sun to stick ceremonial shovels into the soil outside the property.

“I’m dancing inside with joy,” Derrin Jourdan, church board chair, told Berkeleyside.

“It wasn’t just that it was difficult,” Jourdan said. “I thought it was impossible.” The 30-year church member has been pursuing the rental project for several years.

The church, at McGee and Stuart, bought the neighboring property in the 1970s. For years people lived in the small apartment complex and detached cottage behind it. In the 1990s the congregation ended those leases and made plans to convert the property into an expanded sanctuary space.

But right around that time, the church began to face financial hardship and put the project on hold. In more recent years, the African American institution has lost countless congregants, many of whom have been pushed out of the once-affordable neighborhood, and others who’ve sold family homes and left for the East Bay suburbs.

For many of the churchgoers experiencing the effects of gentrification on their community, it was extra hard to stomach the fact that eight apartments sat vacant on their own property. Many new and old neighbors weren’t too keen on the blighted building either.

The property at 1638 Stuart St. has been deteriorating for years. Now it’s on track to get restored. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

A few years ago, McGee Avenue Baptist Church linked up with the Bay Area Community Land Trust. The land trust typically purchases small buildings and converts them into permanently affordable residential properties, often cooperatives. The two entities devised a somewhat unusual project, wherein the church would retain ownership of its building, but the land trust would help it restore and manage the rental site, with a somewhat cooperative dynamic among tenants.

Proponents of the land trust model view it as a cheaper alternative or supplement to the construction of new housing complexes. These units already exist, and are often unused. But restoring a dilapidated building like the Stuart Street site still costs a lot.

The city of Berkeley initially gave the project a $50,000 loan, then ultimately awarded it the entirety of the brand new “small sites” fund. That $950,000 fund, fueled by revenue from Measure U1, was designed as a 30-year loan program for nonprofits that want to buy or rehab buildings and turn them into affordable housing. Cooperatives are prioritized.

On Monday, Rick Lewis, executive director of the land trust, called the McGee effort “the best possible project” for the 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,” Lewis told Berkeleyside at the groundbreaking ceremony.

The project also received funding and support from the Local Initiative Support Corporation and the Bay’s Future fund, and the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The complex will likely house people making up to 30-80% of the area median income. The local funding source gives the project more flexibility in how it spends the money. Lewis said there are still questions about how tenants will be selected, in part because the city has no guidelines for choosing people to live in cooperative scenarios.

Many in button-up shirt at podium gestures to dressed-up man sitting down with hands clasped.
Mayor Jesse Arreguín thanks Pastor Michael Smith, left, at the groundbreaking ceremony Monday. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The project planners are hoping people will move in a year from now. But first, the land trust has to hire a special contractor to tackle the trifecta of environmental hazards at the property: mold, asbestos and lead. Then general renovation work will begin.

“Needless to say, there is a lot of work that needs to be done,” Lewis said.

According to the director, the land trust was the only organization to apply for the first round of small-site funds. Even so, Mayor Jesse Arreguín told attendants at the church ceremony Monday that he intends to grow the fund and support more projects.

Both the mayor and Councilman Ben Bartlett, who represents the church’s South Berkeley district, told the audience they have personal connections to the project.

Arreguín spoke about experiencing eviction as a child in San Francisco.

Bartlett’s great-grandfather was a preacher at the McGee church.

“Housing is starting to mirror the way it looked 100 years ago for us,” Bartlett said, addressing the black 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.”

Five adults pose with shovels, sticking slightly into a dirt ground.
Officials and project leaders “break ground” on the McGee project. From left: City Council members Ben Bartlett and Kate Harrison, Bay Area Community Land Trust Executive Director Rick Lewis, Quency Phillips of LISC and Derrin Jourdan, church board chair. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Through all the tumultuousness, some McGee congregants have stuck it out. Some of the people who came to Monday’s ceremony have been attending the church since before Bartlett was born. Some said they’re thrilled to see the old building get new life — though some admitted they’d still prefer it to be repurposed as church space.

“It was an eyesore for a little while,” said Alix Jennings, a church member since the 1950s. “We had this albatross. It was bringing down the neighborhood. Now I’m very happy. This is my home church.”

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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,...