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Silicon Valley Churches Hit By Housing Crisis

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    Silicon Valley Churches Hit By Housing Crisis
    Ryann Vargas/NBC Bay Area
    Pastor Kaloma Smith at University AME Zion church in Palo Alto says his congregation has been affected by the high cost of living.

    Places of worship in Silicon Valley are not immune to the area’s housing crisis.

    Many neighborhood congregations say the high cost of living has meant less people in the church pews, less money in the offering plates and more worship leaders forced to live outside the area and drive long commutes to guide their flocks.

    “It’s hard to bring new pastors to area,” said Pastor Kaloma Smith, who leads University AME Zion church in Palo Alto. In addition to an annual salary, the church provides a parsonage, or a home for the pastor.

    Yet because the housing market is so high in Palo Alto, the house Smith lives in is in Santa Clara. He commutes roughly 15 miles every time he attends a church event.

    “There is something about living in a community,” Smith said. Many church activities happen at night or at times more convenient for members. Smith says as pastors move further away from their congregation, interaction with the church community becomes more difficult.

    “A lot of community events happen at night--how late can you really stay?” Smith asked.

    Church leaders are often recruited to city boards and neighborhood leadership positions. Smith said he has been asked to join a city commission and represent his congregation. Yet because he lives outside of the city, residential requirements prohibit him from participating.

    Smith has discussed the issue in detail with another religious leader miles down the road.

    Rabbi David Booth says his congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto is aging as younger families struggle to afford housing. The median Palo Alto home value is over $2.4 million, according to Zillow.com.

    “We see people moving to San Carlos, San Jose, moving further and further away,” Booth said. “There are some who say as much as a I love it here it’s too crazy and I’m going to try something else.”

    The rabbi says he has already seen a number of families leave the congregation. 

    “As it ages, it makes it harder to attract [younger] families because there are fewer of them,” Booth said.

    Housing hasn’t been difficult for the rabbi who moved to the area 11 years ago. He and his family were able to buy a home in the Barron Park neighborhood just miles away from the synagogue—a needed convenience for the weekly Sabbath, as Jewish law dictates that observant worshippers refrain from driving starting sundown Friday night until three stars come out on Saturday night. Living within walking distance allows him to still actively engage in activities.

    Yet Booth worries how the church would afford to recruit a new rabbi to the neighborhood if ever needed.

    “If we were to need to do that again with someone I can’t imagine--I have no idea how we would do it,” Booth said. “We’d have to be giving a million dollars in housing assistance. It’s insane.”

    Most of the synagogue’s kitchen staff and other employees live outside the area, mostly in the East Bay, 45 miles away.

    “I think we are becoming increasingly income segregated here,”  Booth said.

    Leadership at The Rock Church in Sunnyvale has seen a decline in membership in recent months. Assistant Pastor Gilbert Gomes says the church membership has fallen from 350 to roughly 160. While he admits there are multiple reasons why the congregation has gotten smaller, he and other church leaders are confident a major reason is the price of housing.

    Declining membership has led to less revenue for some of the congregations. Yet each congregational leadership says the housing crisis has forced them to find creative ways to support their membership.