They can offer a helping hand by providing free meals, emergency shelter, counseling, and referrals, food subsidies, advocacy, and friendship. Even as church people offer these ministries, they know that more is needed. Would it be possible, they wonder, for their church to use its resources—its members, money, buildings and property, and social standing—to resolve seemingly intractable problems in its neighborhood.?
One congregation that has answered the question with a dramatic “yes” is University Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Seattle. On May 14, 2016, this church and its community partners celebrated the completion of a long process that is giving birth to Arbora Court across 15th Avenue Northeast from the church’s historic building. Ground breaking is planned for this fall, and in early 2018 a new structure will provide living units for 133 households, with incomes ranging from zero to 60% of the area median income.
Apartments will range in size from studio to three-bedroom, with a strong emphasis upon families with children. They will live in the middle of the University District, within walking distance to grocery stores, restaurants, public library, community center, high-quality public schools, and transit opportunities. The estimated cost of Arbora Court is $41,000,000, with funding coming from several sources including Washington State Housing Trust Fund, and King County County Housing Finance Program.
University Christian Church has been the central player in this process. Since 1915, it has been one of the ecumenical Protestant churches that line 15th Avenue on the western edge of the University of Washington. Nearby residential neighborhoods are long-established and costly and tens of thousands of university students compete for places to live. Business establishments run the gamut of types one would expect near a major university.
And Seattle is one of the most expensive cities in the nation in which to live. Many people struggle with incomes and personal circumstances that make it impossible for them to afford housing.
University Christian Church has long recognized the need for affordable housing while it has also addressed its own need for parking. In the late 1980s, it used funds from its endowment to purchase two old houses across 15th Avenue and adjacent to the church’s small parking lot. The houses were reconditioned and made available to low-income university students, many from migrant farm families, who otherwise would not have been able to stay in college.
For one short period, the parking lot became the location for “Nicholsville,” a self-managed tent city community housing a tiny portion of Seattle’s homeless population. It was clear, however, that a more substantial effort to make long-term, affordable housing was needed and that University Christian had the opportunity to turn its “mission-to-the-community” energies in this direction.
Over the years a stable church committee with a gradually changing set of participants worked at this mission challenge. The church concluded that the best way forward—for the church and for its community—was to convert its small parking lot and the adjacent old houses into a new, multi-story apartment building with affordable rents and support services that would help residents respond effectively to life challenges they were facing.
The process turned out to be complex and daunting. Coalitions needed to be developed; the support of residents, businesses, churches, and community organizations had to be secured. A maze of legal and political issues—especially zoning–had to be resolved. Funding for this costly project had to be found. The active period of hard work has taken a decade, but the preparatory labor has been completed and Arbora Court soon will add to the quality of life in the University District.
University Christian Church has been crucial to this entire process. Its members and leaders provided the vision and constancy of purpose. The church’s stability over a multi-decade period of time kept the project going even though the membership of its planning committee has changed over time. The wide range of personal skills in dealing with the practical politics of urban life and political systems was invaluable.
Arbora Court is being made possible by a generous below-market sale of land by the church to a new corporation that will carry the project forward. Compass Housing Alliance will provide on-site support for the households transitioning from homelessness. The church will own 60 parking spaces in the building’s garage.
The project will include a prominent art installation honoring the legacy of University Christian Church. The most significant and long lasting monument to the church’s ministry in Christ’s name, however, will be the generations of families that will be blessed by living at Arbora Court in the decades that extend far into the future.