Posted by: Mark Nielsen | March 18, 2008

Churches, Skyscrapers and Urban Renewal

 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”   Proverbs 31:8-9

The Mennonite church I attend, Reba Place Church in Evanston, IL, is in a semi-urban, working class neighborhood. The church has practiced a fascinating (but mostly un-recognized) “real estate ministry” for many years, a mission that truly inspires me. And in an era when urban gentrification and wildly shifting housing prices now have everybody in the U.S. asking tough questions, I think the model some of my fellow church members are using deserves a closer look.

In the face of rising rents and skyrocketing house and condo prices –which tend to drive the existing poor families out to the fringes of town, if not out of town entirely– the solution that Reba Place Fellowship sort of stumbled onto, in the Seventies and Eighties, was to BE the developer/owner, as a ministry. They bought a number of large apartment buildings, yet kept rents relatively low in comparison to other buildings around town. Why? Because profit was not their concern. Kingdom of God values like fairness and economic justice, not to mention racial equality, were their guiding principles.

Using this approach, ethical owners/landlords can help ensure that a certain amount of housing is kept affordable, and that a neighborhood remains both diverse and functional. Of course this takes capital, and commitment, for a church and/or its members to buy and develop large properties with little intention of making a “profit” in the long run. But it’s a decent approach to the challenge of gentrification, if we can pull it off in a few hotspots nationwide. Reba’s “urban plateau” model –carving out a safe, affordable plateau in one neighborhood, to somewhat share the wealth– is a good way to think about radical faith and urban living.

A drop in crime and increased social stability have been added benefits here, for the church gradually developed a reputation among non-members in the neighborhood as reasonable landlords and helpful neighbors. Plus, while Reba is still mostly white, it’s not composed of “rich folk” in the way many suburban megachurches are rich. Some of the Reba folks are clearly middle class (PhD professors, computer programmers, etc.), but intentionally live beneath their means, or else share their income with church “brothers and sisters” beyond their immediate family. They are remaining poor on purpose (poor by U.S. standards, anyway), in order to stay where they’ve been called and be a witness for Jesus in their community.

Certainly we’ve seen classic signs of gentrification sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, too. And maybe the affordable housing stand we’re taking is piddly compared to the overall supply around town, as prices continue to climb in this high-demand first-tier suburb. But 100+ affordable apartment units, in one concentrated area, is still a good contribution.

Up until the current economic downturn, a development frenzy had continued steadily for almost ten years all over town, as condo building after condo building went up in spots where little retail, one-story “mom & pop” stores used to be. But I perceive a shift now. Likeminded people, from churches black, brown and white (along with the unchurched), are now joining a fight our church has led for years. They’re finally figuring out that their neighborhoods and quality of life are in jeopardy, and they are starting to fight back.

Turns out the developers’ (and the city’s) greed may be their fatal flaw. The townies got motivated and organized finally, by creating a Coalition for Responsible Development which is trying to halt “The Tower”. It’s a huge, 49-story building that’s being proposed for smack in the middle of downtown Evanston. At present, no other building in town is even 10 stories high. So this monstrosity is clearly a strange move for the city planners to allow, especially since the city already seems congested anytime one needs to drive from one neighborhood to another. It remains to be seen whether the plan will go forward, but either way, it’s good to see lots of citizens finally trying to push against the attitude of more, bigger, and more expensive as the most popular approach to urban planning and housing.

Here, for example, is one item pulled from the coalition’s website:

Myth: The Plan Commission overwhelmingly approved the proposal.
Reality: The Commission narrowly approved the proposal by a vote of 4-3. The three commissioners who vehemently opposed the project exercised their right to publish their own “findings of fact” that will go to Planning and Development in early 2008.

A well-informed citizenry is always a good idea. Other myths, about tax revenues, or the benefit of bringing national retail chains like Old Navy to town (on the first or second floor of The Tower), also have to be battled. There are more ethical ways for a town to get tax revenue. We just need to think more creatively, and not just hand the keys over to people whose only interest is in getting rich themselves. But whatever happens, we have to take back our neighborhoods. And if we’re followers of Jesus, we have to advocate for the poor in our midst: the elderly, the racially oppressed, the addicted, the broken. They need a place to live, too. They’re part of the family of God. Therefore the Jesus people need to start advocating for them, because nobody else will do it in modern society, least of all the politicians and developers looking to line their pockets with big-time money. 

I hope this doesn’t sound like grandstanding. Not all development is bad, and not all poor people are saints . I just think it’s important to encourage practical, careful engagement –by churches and concerned individuals– with the economy that surrounds us. Otherwise, far too much stuff will just get swept under the rug, only to resurface as a bigger problem ten years later.


  1. Thank you for this post. It has brought some light and new ideas to a community activist in Seattle.

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