Seattle Mennonite Church hopes to do with apartments what Jesus did with loaves and fish.
The church has entered into an agreement with Community Roots Housing to raze and redevelop its urban property to create about 255 affordable housing units in a pair of eight-story buildings.
The congregation has worked diligently for many years to live in community with its neighbors. As housing costs have soared in Seattle and many other high-density urban settings, gentrification has pushed vulnerable populations out. Seattle Mennonite saw it was surrounded by a need it could address with unique capability that was decades in the making.
The story begins not in the Pacific Northwest, but in Nazi Germany, decades before the congregation formed in the late 1960s. A German man conscripted into World War II became ill and credited a Mennonite woman with putting him on a train away from the front lines, saving his life.
“Many years later, remembering the kindness shown to him, the man looked up Mennonites in the Yellow Pages,” said Seattle Mennonite administrator Lee Murray. “He was living in a studio apartment in Seattle and had amassed wealth through investing in the stock market. He wanted to give us his money.”
His gift to the church, in the early 1990s, was $3.5 million. He wanted the church to use it to purchase and maintain real estate. The church had purchased an old movie theater a few years earlier for $350,000, but the space felt cramped. Remodeling had created classrooms, and the concession stand made for a decent galley kitchen, but office space and meeting rooms were lacking. Fortunately, a neighboring building had just become available.
“We paid off the loan on the theater building and purchased this property, which we remodeled, adding meeting rooms and offices for our use and leasing the extra space to nonprofit organizations,” Murray said. “We got that building and the parking lot. Then, a number of years later, an adjacent building became available as well.”
Today, the 1.3-acre complex of single-story office buildings and a former movie theater hugs the ground around a central plaza, while neighboring developments rise as many as six stories.
“We were not purchasing real estate to be magnates or to support our budget,” Murray said. “We were assembling a church campus with the idea that eventually it would be revealed to us how to use it to meet community needs. For 25 years we’ve been in this.
“It’s not like three years ago Seattle Mennonite said, ‘We should do some affordable housing.’ The stream was flowing, and we jumped in.”
The congregation saw an acute need at its doorstep.
“A parallel story is the other thing God set before the church: Humans were living on our campus, living outside the front door of the church,” said Megan Ramer, Seattle Mennonite’s lead pastor.
“This started another journey, with milestones along the way, of living with unhoused neighbors. That money allowed us to hire paid staff to lead our community ministry. We were acquiring property alongside developing relationships with people who are housing-insecure. Those two journeys converged.”
In Seattle Mennonite’s Lake City neighborhood, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,050 a month. Based on location, amenities and quality, similar units range from $1,600 to $3,200 a month.
As an affordable housing project with developer Community Roots Housing, average rents will be at levels affordable for households that earn up to 50% of the area median income.
The number of units to be built is still uncertain — somewhere around 255 based on how many one-, two- or three-bedroom apartments are included — but it is anticipated that rents will be half the market average.
“In gentrification, lower-rent housing is replaced by higher-rent housing. Commercial spaces coming in are more expensive, and it’s threatening the neighborhood character,” Murray said. “This is a pretty diverse neighborhood, which is wonderful, so our hope is that with our project we are able to preserve some of that affordability for people who live and work here.”
The congregation started doing more intensive planning around its property by hiring an architect in 2008. Peter Lagerway, chair of Seattle Mennonite’s campus redevelopment ministry team, said the group began looking at what was allowed under zoning regulations just after Melanie and Jonathan Neufeld were hired as pastors of community ministry. The relationships they built connected the church with its neighbors more deeply than any property developer could.
Affordable housing and similar initiatives often face not-in-my-backyard opposition. Melanie Neufeld held listening groups during the early days of the pandemic, building a foundation ahead of public input meetings.
“I’ve done a lot of community meetings in my life, and this was the only time that not a single person came and said, ‘I’m against this,’ ” Lagerway said. “It was pretty amazing. The credit goes to Melanie, who did most of the groundwork.”
Ramer added: “The church was able to pay her to be a community organizer for 14 years, which is an astounding thing. She wasn’t just a ‘listen to naysayers long enough to placate them’ person. She could turn would-be ‘enemies’ into some of our greatest advocates.”
While still in the planning and design stage, the goal with Community Roots Housing is for Seattle Mennonite to have a worship space, offices, classrooms and a kitchen it will own on the ground floor of a pair of buildings rising eight stories. The current structures will be bulldozed, prompting the congregation to find a temporary home during construction, which will likely take about two years.
“We as a church own a lot of air above the properties we’ve accumulated,” Ramer said. “Also, our movie theater is what they refer to in Seattle as ‘seismically obsolete.’
“To reinforce it for ‘the big one’ [earthquake] that is coming someday — that’s not what people are doing. Seattle is not reinforcing cinder-block-constructed buildings if they can go up seven or eight stories to create much-needed housing.”
The congregation is selling its properties to Community Roots Housing for $7.75 million — about $1 million less than market value — to support the affordable housing project. It’s still a net of about $3 million more than it cost to acquire the properties. But that doesn’t mean Seattle Mennonite is coming into a sudden windfall.
“That $7.75 million that we’re ‘making’ in this sale is going to be gone in a redevelopment of church space,” Ramer said. “That’s not because we’re building a gilded sanctuary; it’s simply the cost of real estate and construction in Seattle. Our sale profits will be gone with the build-out of our space, and then some.”
Planners will work with architects to maximize flexibility of the space.
“We are very interested in having versatile space that others can occupy,” Murray said. “We have been in conversation with a nonprofit tenant in one of our buildings. They do literacy classes, and they’ll need classrooms. Shared spaces are part of the conversations, along with a sanctuary that could be flexible — not only sacred space but also usable for larger assemblies throughout the week.”
The new buildings will straddle a central plaza. Lagerway said the sanctuary could have one side open to the plaza to be able to expand outdoors.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about light,” he said. “You need to be able to manage the light so you get enough natural light, but not too much. If we have a community kitchen, we want to be able to secure that separately from the church at times so it can be used by another group. The classrooms need to be able to access that without opening the whole church.”
The talk of reinvention and remodeling has been exciting. After meeting online-only due to the pandemic longer than many other churches, discussions have reenergized the congregation. Conversations about reinvention have gone much further than bricks, mortar and seismically obsolete cinder blocks.
Ramer said partnering with a developer has meant releasing control of some decisions as the congregation moves from being an owner to an adviser. Would the church like to include a community garden in the new project or relatively expensive environmentally friendly components? Yes. Will there be space and funds? Perhaps not.
“A lot of our conversations about letting go have been rooted in the Hebrew Bible concept of jubilee,” she said. “As we entered our 50th year a few years back, we engaged in a season of intentional discernment, with jubilee as our lens, seeking to listen to God and to one another.
“Humans are humans, and we’ll keep collecting things, and unjust accumulation will result. That’s why we need the forced interruption and hard reset of Sabbath, where things are redistributed, returned and liberated. We had great conversations about land, labor and capital — the three pillars of jubilee release. That’s partly how we got to this release of land and control. There’s a theological and biblical grounding to our discernment and shared work that we will continue to live into.”
Many of these congregation-wide conversations have been encouraged by younger generations who are embedded in Seattle Mennonite’s leadership group. They bring a passion for undoing white supremacy and oppression, such as the accumulation of wealth in majority-white communities.
“Sometimes it leads to tension and challenges in congregations,” Ramer said. “These emerging generations are bringing really helpful analyses as we think about resources and living faithfully. Our church found its way to a consensus that spanned all of our generations. That’s exciting.”