Blog Post

Have You Heard? Hope in God’s Backyard

Rev. Dr. Penny Nixon

Last month I was on my way to a Non-Profit Housing Conference. I emerged out of the BART station at Powell Street in San Francisco and at the top of the stairs was a man sleeping/passed out/unconscious draped across an open suitcase as his pallet. Momentarily overwhelmed with powerlessness and hopelessness, I continued on to the conference a block away. I walked into a beautiful hotel and found myself in a crowd of almost a thousand people, all there because they care about homelessness and affordable housing. My first reaction was a feeling of despair because of the inequities and ironies of being in a beautiful, safe, expensive, clean, and inviting hotel working on solutions so that no one in the richest nation in the world would have to sleep in an open suitcase on the street. But I quickly moved from despair to hope. What gave me hope was that this conference represented just a small percentage of people in California who are engaged in the important justice work of solving homelessness and working to produce more affordable homes, particularly for low-income neighbors and residents.

My favorite definition of hope is engagement. And what really gives me hope, against what can feel like an insurmountable problem, is that faith communities all over the state are engaging at new and exciting levels, opening tremendous possibilities.

Many of you are aware that SB4, affectionately referred to as YIGBY (Yes in God’s backyard) passed through the senate and assembly with resounding success and then, just a few weeks ago, was signed by Governor Newsom. SB 4, authored by Wiener, rezones land owned by religious organizations and nonprofit colleges to allow for affordable housing on their property. Broad coalitions, including many faith communities, supported this bill and made its success possible.

All the latest research reveals that the number one proven solution to homelessness is to build more affordable housing, especially permanent supportive housing with wraparound services. This bill paves the way for that to happen. Now all we need is for faith communities, often cash poor but land rich, to explore the opportunities that their land might offer. As people of faith, we have done well providing food, blankets, water, medicine… but now, how about homes?

When I retired from parish ministry after almost three decades, I wanted to continue the justice work I had been doing – and I wanted to be able to do that full time. When I looked at all the justice issues I cared so deeply about, I kept finding housing justice at the center. So it was a natural segue for me to work in affordable housing. The Housing Leadership of San Mateo County contracts with me to do faith organizing for advocacy work, and the County of San Mateo as their Faith Communities Housing Liaison.

This didn’t happen in a vacuum though. Eight years ago, a few colleagues and I founded the Peninsula Solidarity Cohort ( We are a coalition of about 30 diverse faith leaders, and we unite for formation, reflection, and collective action. We ground ourselves in the common good and aspire to be a compassionate moral compass for San Mateo County. This work has transformed each of us. We address the most pressing social justice issues in the county and are led by those most impacted. Being the co-director of the cohort is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. And the work has enabled me to build deep relationships with faith communities all over the county as well as relationships with people from all different sectors.

Back to hope—as faith communities across the NCNC, we have an opportunity to be part of the solution to homelessness and to the crisis of housing affordability. California has one of the highest functional poverty rates in the nation, and that is due in large part to our high housing costs. Using our land to provide homes may be one of the best legacies we can leave. I am so proud to be part of a denomination that “gets it”. There are already a number of churches engaged in exploring using their land, and I feel confident that more will join in the momentum and that the NCNC can make an even greater impact going forward. No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, we all deserve a safe and secure place to live.

If your congregation is interested in learning more about creating housing on your land, please contact Rev. Dr. Penny Nixon at

One Comment

  • Great piece. My daughter, son-in-law, and their three children live in the Sunset in SF. I live in New York (Long Island) and my son lives in NYC where very similar situations, as you undoubtedly know, also exist. I get to SF at least a few times a year and recently visited Berkeley First Congregational (UCC). Best wishes in your vital, good work.
    Peace Whenever Possible,
    Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter
    Congregational Church of Patchogue
    Patchogue, NY 11772

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