First Christian Church of Whittier, founded in 1895, has decided to turn over control of their property in Uptown Whittier to be repurposed for senior affordable housing. The congregation will exit the campus at the end of 2019, and the non-profit Christian Church Homes will work with the City of Whittier to establish almost 80 housing units for low-income seniors.
The congregation has been considering moving for about two years, according to Reverend Layne Beamer. “The campus is much too large and much too expensive to maintain for the benefit of the select few of us who get to enjoy it on Sunday mornings. Right now, we have a regular congregation of about 40 on Sundays, in a building that can house a congregation of about 1,000,” said Beamer. “Good stewardship demanded that we acknowledge we should turn the campus over to someone who could use it more fully.”
Because of the church’s long history in the City of Whittier, some of the congregation members were hesitant to let go of the landmark campus. “We have members that [are] 95 and have attended the church their whole life. The idea of splitting up the rooms into housing units is incredibly painful because of all the memories,” said Beamer. “A pretty clear majority like the idea and that [the Campus] would live on in a new way. People will see it become a really useful asset to the community. I think there’ll be a lot of pride in that. This will live on as a legacy.” The future of First Church’s congregation, once they turn over the premise to Christian Church Homes, is unclear, but Beamer is confident there are other worship spaces in Uptown for them.
“I, with everybody else, feel a dual feeling. I’m both sad and relieved. We’re not closing the Church’s doors because of money problems. It just takes so much time and energy to keep up a property of this size. I’m relieved because I think a lot of us are really tired, and we don’t have the young people to keep it in the shape it was in,” said long-time congregation member and proponent for the decision Judy Stockman. “We’re all looking forward to the next phase of what the congregation’s mission is. It won’t be here, but I’m choosing to see it as our next adventure.”
Land-rich and cash-poor, First Christian considered selling the property to another church but decided against it because of the extensive structural repairs that would need to be done in order to get the campus up to code. “Any congregation that might come in and buy this campus would also not be able to afford to preserve, maintain, and upgrade the building for another generation,” said Beamer. “This is all sort of ballpark, but the overall project is going to be 55 million dollars. A big chunk of that is bringing the building up to current safety codes.”
The project does not have a clear timeline, as Christian Church Homes has a year-long option or contract to do the due diligence with the City of Whittier to ensure the new project will fit into the Uptown Whittier Specific Plan. Beamer estimated that even after the congregation exits the campus in 2019, it will take another year or so for Christian Church Homes to break ground on the necessary repairs and upgrades to make the units liveable. Not all of the Church members are as hopeful about the project. BJ Kenworthy has attended First Christian for ninety three years and has reservations about leaving the property. “It depends a lot on the city of Whittier. We’ve tried before to do some things and they shut us down,” said Kenworthy. In 2011, the Church contracted the City of Whittier about converting two of the existing structures into housing but it was deemed that there would not be enough parking. “I’ve been going there since I was two years old, so it’ll be very difficult for me to leave. I met my husband there. If it works out, I think it would be a wonderful help — there are so many people that need it.”
Although the project is still a ways away, the need for affordable senior housing is already present in Whittier. Over the summer of 2018, the City of Whittier adopted a plan to address the homeless issue. According to the research collected for the homeless plan, there are only three permanent, supportive housing units for the whole city — the rest is all bridge or temporary housing. The First Christian Church campus will house seniors, who made up 19 percent of the area’s homeless population in 2017, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
According to Beamer, the church decided to partner with Christian Church Homes because of their shared denominational faith and belief that serving the greater community is a form of worship. Christian Church Homes focuses on senior services and housing, which Beamer thinks is a good investment because of the growing aging population in California. “We’re not in any way saying [senior housing] is more important than for any other group. However, as the baby boomers continue to age, we’re about 15 – 20 years away from a huge wave of people that are going to be looking for this type of housing. Low-income senior housing is going to be needed in our nation in a way that it’s never been needed before,” said Beamer.
Similar projects have taken place across the country, as churches face declining attendance numbers and rising costs of maintenance and upkeep. The Church at Clarendon partnered with Arlington County to create 70 housing units below market rate, according to CBS News.