A small congregation in Chicago is doing what it can to save neighborhood land reserved for affordable housing from being given to a local billionaire.
Bethel Community Mennonite Church lost about 12 families from its congregation of 40-60 attenders two decades ago when roughly 36,000 people were forced out of the massive Addams-Brooks-Loomis-Abbott (ABLA Homes) public housing complex. The church sits next to 25 acres that were demolished to make way for new housing.
“This church has been here for more than 70 years, but when the buildings are gone, the families are gone also,” said Pastor Tony Bianchi, who came to Bethel 25 years ago. “It forced a chunk of our members living in the housing projects to move out of the area, and some to other states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, but there was a promise they could return.”
Despite letters of support from past leaders and federal grants, a 10-year plan to transform housing across the city fell flat for lack of funding. Less than a third of the promised housing units were built, and some of the land remains vacant. Black and Hispanic residents were disproportionally affected.
ProPublica and WTTW News reported in June that more than 30,000 people are on Chicago Housing Authority waiting lists, and the city’s housing commissioner said the city needs at least 120,000 more affordable units.
Last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised the biggest parcel of the ABLA housing land to Joe Mansueto, a wealthy business leader who founded the Morningstar investment firm and owns the Chicago Fire, a Major League Soccer team. Their deal calls for the housing authority to lease about 25 acres to the team, which would construct a training facility and offices at the quickly gentrifying site.
The Bethel congregation feels the economic impact of a soccer facility and parking lot is minuscule compared to the redevelopment plan the church’s investment and construction team presented to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Chicago Housing Authority over the past five years. The housing authority’s CEO is appointed by the mayor.
Details of the lease deal have not been disclosed to the public, raising the church’s suspicions. Numerous written appeals have been sent to HUD, which must sign off on any plan to dispose of public housing land. Fair housing and justice advocates have come together with Bethel to challenge the mayor’s office and hold HUD accountable.
“The space was reserved for affordable housing so these people could return,” Bianchi said. “Mansueto claimed he had community engagement, but he does not. Bethel never received an invitation to be part of any discussion or plans for the area. Over two-thirds of the residents did not know of or agree to the plan to build a soccer field on the land instead of rebuilding and addressing their housing concerns.
“When the issue was brought to a vote before the Chicago zoning committee in September, most of the aldermen or commissioners rejected it 7-5. Then, early the next morning, the mayor got the vote to be recast, and it was suddenly approved.”
The Bethel church has been hosting community town hall meetings on Sunday afternoons after worship since the deal went public last summer. Former Gov. Pat Quinn and candidates running against Lightfoot in the city’s Feb. 28 mayoral election attended, along with prominent attorneys and community leaders. The church itself did not endorse any candidate but served as a forum for the community to get information, voice their concerns and come together to be a part of the transformation they desire.
Congregational chair Zenobia Sowell-Bianchi said the church, which is adjacent to the site, is not in danger of being forced to move. However, she and others have heard that a politician who voted for the soccer project feels threatened by the church’s opposition, leading to concerns within the congregation.
“I’m told my name is coming up quite often,” said Sowell-Bianchi, a member of Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board, “so this is something we’re praying about and keeping before the Lord.”
Bethel Community Mennonite Church feels a biblical mandate to be a beacon of peace in the neighborhood and — like the early church of the New Testament — provide for the daily needs of the body’s members.
“Some of our parishioners are homeless or residents of the Chicago Housing Authority,” Bianchi said. “Over the last 20 years we’ve done prison reentry programs to provide training and a seamless transition for people to come into the community and become productive citizens.
“In doing that, we realized that housing was top on the agenda if we were going to provide a good platform for people to transform their lives. It’s a vision of preaching the gospel. We have employers willing to give them a second chance.”
Sowell-Bianchi said the congregation has a history of being intimately connected with its neighborhood, offering safe haven, hope and healing, especially to youth and young adults.
“We taught them how to dream outside their immediate environment. A lot of them had never been farther than a half mile from their homes,” she said. “We would take them to downtown Chicago, the zoo, Great America Amusement Park, museums and plays, to the lake to swim, just to stimulate and encourage them to dream bigger outside their small world.
“When the housing projects were still there almost 23 years ago, we had as many as 120 youth for activities on New Year’s Eve. They felt that the church was a safe place to bring in the new year and be with their friends. With so much violence in the area, many have seen their siblings and family members killed within a half a block of the church. Funerals happened way too often.
“The church has been a safe haven from the violence through the years. With gunshots going from school to home, children and youth could stay at the church until a parent could be around and it would be safe for them to go home. Although gun violence still occurs, for the most part the area has changed for the better. However, the wealthy would like to overtake this prime land, claim it for themselves, disregard and flush out the poor and marginalized.”
If the city were to recommit to its affordable housing promise, the people who live in the community would have an opportunity to be part of the fresh start promised so long ago.
“We thought it was unacceptable that the mayor could just lease out the land to someone else and gentrify the place, forcing out people who have a history here,” Bianchi said. “It’s a slap in the face to the church and the people of the community.”