More recently, it was an assembly site for floats in the Tournament of Roses Parade. Today it is the home of two Hispanic Protestant churches, which rent space for Sunday services in two buildings set on 1.3 acres. So when the site’s owners decided to sell the property, they called Raphael Realty.
David and Mary Raphael are real estate agents who deal only in church buildings. It’s a rare specialty. They could think of only two other real estate agencies in the country that do what they do, one in Texas and one in Northern California.
As they gave a tour of the sale property here, which is listed for $1.9 million, the couple talked about their calling.
“We’ve been doing only religious buildings since 1979,” said Mr. Raphael, wearing a windbreaker on an unseasonably cold and rainy day. “We tried houses, and we thought, well, some of these people are telling us things that aren’t the truth, so maybe we should try churches.”
The first church they sold was in Long Beach, to a Korean congregation that paid $250,000. “We became really good friends with the pastor,” said Mrs. Raphael, who is tall, with long graying hair and fashionable ovoid glasses.
The Raphaels met in a square-dancing class at Long Beach State University in 1971 and married the next year. They were both raised Presbyterian, Mrs. Raphael in Marysville, a small town near Sacramento, and Mr. Raphael in Bellflower, in Southern California. They have two children — a son who is a collegiate debate coach in Hawaii, and a daughter who is a public school teacher in Compton.
The church world in which the Raphaels were raised seems distant from the exurban sprawl of Azusa, filled with industrial parks and strip malls.
“Southern California, back in the 1950s, things were basically closed on Sundays,” Mr. Raphael said. “Maybe one gas station was open. Everybody went to church. Some of the congregations took it for granted you were there, and if you didn’t show up, they knew you were sick. They sent somebody to find out if you were O.K.”
But a lot has changed, including preferences in church architecture. “They don’t want the traditional look anymore,” Mrs. Raphael said. “They’re going for the industrial look.”
She said that because city ordinances require one parking spot for every three seats in the pews, parking is essential. In industrial spaces, “you can often get permission to use parking from adjacent lots on Sundays,” when the neighboring businesses do not require the spaces.
“Everyone wants something close to the freeway, with lots of parking and a lot of seating capacity,” Mrs. Raphael said.
In Azusa now, the growth for them is in immigrant churches — Asian and Latino, mainly. Churches serving African-American and white communities are closing.
“The younger people aren’t coming,” Mrs. Raphael said.
The Raphaels have six listings now, and while they say the market for church buildings has held up better than the residential market, times are still worse than they have ever seen.
In their first 31 years in the business, they say they never saw a church foreclosure. But in the last two years, they have worked with 10 churches on foreclosure issues.
“We’re getting calls like, ‘We can’t pay our loans, we have to refinance.’ And now you can’t even get financing at all,” Mr. Raphael said. “It’s always been hard, because for churches they want 30 or 40 percent down. But now even the Christian credit unions aren’t lending.
“The members are out of work,” he continued. “They’re not tithing, and the churches have gone through their reserves, and now they can’t pay the mortgage.”