LOS ANGELES — She’s hands on when it comes to creating a home for her Jewish community. Melissa Balaban is the co-founder of Ikar, a synagogue in Los Angeles. “We are building a center, a campus here in Los Angeles. We are almost 20 years old and we have been thinking and dreaming about what we can build,” she said.
Ikar has grown tremendously over the past 20 years, but the building space they occupy has not. The synagogue rents out a space for weekly services in order to accommodate the congregation. However, soon they will break ground on a new campus. At the Ikar office, Balaban pointed to an architectural model that offers an idea of what the new space might look like. “The idea is that every space on the campus can be used in multiple ways,” she said.
Over the past few years, Ikar was able to purchase adjacent properties on La Cienega Blvd, which is where the new structure will go. However, as the congregation started planning their next steps, Balaban says they decided it wasn’t enough to just create a spiritual home for Ikar. They wanted to add housing for Angelenos in need.
“One of the foundation principals our rabbis talk about is b’tzelem Elohim, and that every single human being is created in the image of God. That means if you’re letting someone live on the street, it’s like our most precious object. The most precious thing in the world. What is our responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen?
Balaban said she, the congregation and other leaders at Ikar decided it was their responsibility to do what they could with the newly acquired space they had. So, along with planning for a sanctuary, offices, schools and event space, they have also incorporated 60 affordable housing units into the property. The units will be designated for formerly unhoused seniors. Ikar is one of several faith-based groups across LA reimagining what a spiritual space can look like.
According to a 2020 study from UC Berkeley’s Center for Housing and Innovation, faith-based groups in LA own 4,450 acres of land. The study also found that “land used for religious purposes tends to be located in higher opportunity neighborhoods.” That combination can make faith groups and affordable housing a perfect pairing says Tara Barauskas, executive director of Community Corp. of Santa Monica, a nonprofit that builds and develops affordable housing predominantly on the westside of LA. Community Corp. is working with Ikar to develop their project.
“The ability to work with faith-based groups is going to unlock a lot of land possibility especially on the west side where it’s hard to find land for affordable housing,” Barauskas said.
Community Corp. of Santa Monica builds in what they describe as high resources corridors or neighborhoods — areas with good schools, access to substantial public transportation and green spaces. “That’s what we consider a place where lower-income families should be able to live, so that they can also benefit from those resources,” she said. Barauskas explained that their ultimate goal is to break the cycle of poverty.
According to data from the LA County Housing Initiative, the county needs almost 500,000 affordable housing units to be added to the housing stock to meet current demand. Balaban says that’s why it’s important that everyone who can pitch in does.
“I feel like if every religious intuition in the city of Los Angeles that has extra space could build some units of affordable housing, we could probably solve the crisis in this city,” she said.