Arbora Court: How one church is helping low income people find places to live

May 18, 2016

Arbora CourtEvery urban congregation faces the challenge: to respond to the housing crisis that forces many people to live on the streets.

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.


Ride Around Clark County 2016

May 8, 2016

The first day of cycling summer in Clark County, Washington

RACC Metric CenturyWhere I live the summer cycling season begins with RACC—Ride Around Clark County—sponsored by the Vancouver (USA) Bicycle Club. It takes place on the first Saturday in May, which is well ahead of the official start of summer and explains why cyclists often ride through rain. Confirmation that summer has started in this part of the world was in full display at the Vancouver Farmers’ Market when I finished my ride: strawberries—real strawberries— were for sale in large quantity by several vendors.

This year cyclists rode through a perfect Pacific Northwest summer day: cloudless sky, full sunshine, and temperature near 60 degrees when we started and the low 80s when we finished. A light breeze refreshed the spirit without impeding the body.

The route is one of the most interesting century rides I know. It takes cyclists on a kinky, easily followed course through a semi-rural countryside in which country estates and hardscrabble cottages coexist in visual harmony. Unexpectedly churches appear in secluded rural locations and on the edges of residential developments. They represent a wide range of denominations, including Adventist, Catholic, Episcopal, unaffiliated, and Apostolic Lutheran (historically connected with Finnish immigrants).

Working farms and vineyards are interspersed with show places resplendent with flowering trees and magnificent shrubs, such as rhododendron, in full bloom. One large field had become a parking lot for people who were spending the day at a horse show. Only in three or four short stretches have suburban residential developments turned rural roads into angry thoroughfares.

Most of the route passes through countryside with second growth timber providing shade for cyclists. We rode through dappled sunshine with green fields and wild flowers everywhere.

The full 100-mile version of Ride Around Clark County travels across the northern part of the county, close to the Lewis River, and passes through the small communities of Yacolt, Amboy, and LaCenter. Knowing the challenging character of the Clark County hills in the region where I regularly ride, I was apprehensive when I first cycled in the county’s northern reaches, but was greatly relieved to discover that there are long stretches of gentle terrain.

In recent times, I am finding that the metric century (rather than the statute mile century) suits me, especially this early in the season. This was the route I chose again this year, although with two minor adjustments near the end in order to bypass late-in-the-ride hill-climbing challenges. When RACC veterans speak of the Felida Hill, it usually is with tremolo in their voices. Even my doctor knows this climb and suggests that it is one I should consider walking—which I hate to do on sponsored rides with the “whole world” watching.

My alternative route starts at the bottom of the Felida Hill and wanders along Salmon Creek. A friend whose family farm backed up to the creek once told me that in the early 1930s his dad would fish for salmon with a pitch fork. All year round everything in the creek bottom is intensely green, and this is especially true at the beginning of summer.

Despite the fact that registered riders number in the thousands, I cycled by myself the entire distance, but I was never alone. Always there was someone up ahead a quarter of mile or so and others coming up from behind. On these rides, there is a strong sense of comradery and riders are energized by being with others, even though most of the people around them are complete strangers. We find ourselves traveling with some of the same people all day and see them and talk as we ride along and stop at the rest stops or stand at quiet places to take photos or stretch a little.

At the rest stops, food, water, toilets, and bike repair stations provide support services for everyone, and we know that the volunteer support staff are ready to drive out into the country if we need help.

This perfect ride came close to disaster in Hazel Dell, about five miles from home, when I realized that my rear tire was half flat (the third time this tire has let me down in the last two weeks). Hoping for the best, I pumped it up again, and made it home in good shape. By evening the tire was flat, but I—showered, rested, fed, and weary—reveled in the peace of a wonderful ride on the the first day of this year’s cycling summer.