100-Year-Old Black Church in California Wants to Turn Neglected Complex Into Affordable Housing

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.”

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Source: Berkeleyside