St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Santa Cruz, Calif., had a big reason to celebrate last fall with the grand opening of its St. Stephen’s Senior Housing facility on Oct. 20. In Santa Cruz County, consistently ranked as one of the top 10 most unaffordable places to live in the country, the facility provides housing for low-income, independent-living people over the age of 62.

The start of this housing project goes back to 1960 when Ella Bostwick, a member of St. Stephen, donated some land to build a new church for the growing congregation. The building, including classrooms and offices, was soon built, but for 50 years the 1.79-acre lot adjacent to the church sat vacant.

In 2000, when the affordable housing crisis reached a peak, Jim Lapp, pastor of St. Stephen, led the congregation in helping start a faith-based community organization to address the crisis. The group, known as Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action (COPA), was officially formed in 2003.

During this time, a young family from St. Stephen was evicted from their home because their rent was raised beyond their ability to pay, despite both parents working. They contacted the congregation council to see if they could live temporarily in a trailer on the church parking lot, which they did for three months. Shortly after this, the idea to use the church’s vacant land for affordable housing was born.

After much work with county leaders and staff through COPA, St. Stephen decided at a special congregational meeting in 2010 to use its land for affordable housing. Through the relationships they’d formed in COPA, the congregation contacted a nonprofit, Mid-Peninsula Housing, to help them achieve their goal. After securing county funds and a successful vote of rezoning the church property, St. Stephen entered into a ground lease with Mid-Peninsula so they could fund, build, manage and maintain the housing facility.

“The congregation of St. Stephen had many discussions, some heated, about how the land should be used. But in the end, we decided low-income senior housing was the best use of this generous gift to our congregation,” Lapp said. “Several of the senior residents have been attending services and participating in church activities since the opening. As time goes by, we hope to welcome many more into our midst.”

Ron Buswell, St. Stephen’s treasurer, said, “This was a long and arduous process, but it was well worth it.” And Herb Schmidt, a retired pastor and member of St. Stephen, said, “It turned out even better than we thought it would—a genuine surprise.”

The housing development has four studios, 32 one-bedroom units and four two-bedroom units. Of the 40 units, five are reserved for veterans who were previously homeless and five are for seniors who have physical challenges. Extensive supportive services will be provided to those residents in collaboration with the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System and other local organizations.

“This was a long and arduous process, but it was well worth it.” — Ron Buswell
“It turned out even better than we thought it would—a genuine surprise.” — Herb Schmidt

The facility also includes a community room, computer lab, exercise and wellness room, a bocce ball court, outdoor exercise station, barbecue area, community garden boxes, and front and rear courtyards.

Carol Booth, a retired registered nurse, was delighted when a friend suggested she apply with the housing authority for a spot in the soon-to-be completed St. Stephen’s Senior Housing facility. She and her dog, Daisy, are now able to live near her sons.

Due to housing costs, Booth had previously moved to Boise, Idaho. But she missed her family and came back to Santa Cruz, where she lived in an $885 per month studio that had no heat or cooking facilities. At St. Stephen’s facility, Booth pays less for a spacious one-bedroom apartment with an outdoor patio. The rent is based on 30 percent of each senior’s monthly income.

“I cried when they told me what I was going to pay,” she said. “There are so many wonderful things here to be thankful for; I can’t name them all. However, recently I experienced a severe bout of vertigo while in the bedroom. I was able to press the red emergency button and someone came to help me.”

Booth added that she loves the community room, where she recently was able to host her family for lunch.

Mark Holmerud, bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod, gave the benediction to close the formal program at the housing facility’s grand opening. Of the synod’s 193 congregations, he said St. Stephen stands out as one that has worked hard to create opportunities to work collaboratively with local congregations to be a voice in the public square for those in need, and to alleviate a serious housing shortage.

“When I visit other congregations, I tell them about St. Stephen Lutheran Church using their talents and urge them to look and see how they might be good stewards of God’s bounty,” he said.

Edita McQuary
 McQuary, a former church secretary and newsletter editor, is a community reporter and writer in Watsonville, Calif. 

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