Palo Alto Cracks Down On Neighborhood Churches

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — The Bay Area’s real estate affordability crisis has officially reached biblical proportions.

The city of Palo Alto is cracking down on churches that are trying to cut costs by subletting their space.

The clock is ticking for one church, which has been told all its tenants have to get out in a few weeks, or face severe fines.

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The First Baptist Church has been on the same street corner in Palo Alto, serving the poor and needy, for 125 years.

But after a brief, informal meeting with city code enforcement officers earlier this year, Pastor Rick Mixon suddenly got a sternly worded letter from the city, telling him he must cease all non-religious activities, and that his tenants, which include a music school, a psychologist, and the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, to get out by August 17 or face severe fines.

Mixon said, “In order to operate here, to keep it looking good, looking nice in a nice neighborhood, we need to rent the space. It represents about a third of our budget right now.”

For years, the church has rented the space on the second floor to music classes, choirs, dance clubs, and hosted dinners and weddings.

The problem is that the neighborhood is only zoned for residential use.

The city received many complaints about traffic and double parking, and decided all the tenants violated zoning laws.

Mixon said the definition of church has changed over time, and that it’s no longer what just happens on Sunday mornings.

What’s more, the church will lose about $120,000 from its budget and will likely have to shut down.

Mixon said, “So it’s a different understanding of church in 2017. So there’s this bigger issue the city has to come to grips with. Otherwise they’re going to be putting every church in Palo Alto out of business.”

One of the tenants getting kicked out is therapist Jill Cooper, who among other things, counsels teenagers struggling with thoughts of suicide.

She pays about $1,400 a month for her office, which is well under market, and helps keep her care affordable.

Cooper says she got six weeks’ notice to vacate, and tried to get an extension with the city’s lead code enforcement officer, saying the real estate market was brutal.

Cooper said, “And Mr. Stephens said he understood and he was sorry, but he could not grant me an extension. That was basically it.”

Chuck Fulanovich has lived across the street for 39 years, and admits there are some parking and traffic issues, but he wants the church to work it out with the city.

Fulanovich said, “I don’t know if the city and church officials talked about the situation and what could happen in the future, but it’s never too late to sit down and talk about things.”

The city said in a statement, “Our goal is to balance neighborhood concerns with our zoning laws, and to find a solution that works for everybody. We are asking the Church to apply for appropriate permits where possible, and to help relocate those activities that aren’t allowed in residential neighborhoods.”

The church says it will fight the order.

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