NEAR WEST SIDE — Community organizers and concerned neighbors are calling on the city’s next mayor to cancel a deal to turn public housing land into a professional soccer training facility.
The Chicago Housing Authority is leasing 23.3 acres of public housing land to the Chicago Fire pro soccer team, with Mayor Lori Lightfoot announcing Monday the federal government has signed off on the agreement for at least the next four decades.
The Fire plans to build a training facility on the site — even though the land had long been set aside to rehouse families forced out of the ABLA Homes public housing complex that was demolished two decades ago.
Don Washington, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, said at a Tuesday news conference that organizers have reached out to mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas in hopes of meeting about how the next mayor can push a last-ditch effort to “void this deal.”
Johnson has agreed to sit down with organizers, while Vallas’ camp has not yet responded, Washington said.
It’s not clear if the next mayor will have the power to stop the deal since it has gotten federal approval.
“Chicago has too long a history of not providing for the needs of low-income people and making political deals. There’s no reason to believe there’s ever been a real plan to actually house the additional people,” Washington said. “This deal is the abandonment of the public trust to house folks.”
Housing advocates at Tuesday’s news conference said tens of thousands of people have been stuck on waitlists for homes from the housing authority even while the agency has quickly moved to pass off land to a professional sports team owned by a billionaire.
Mary Williams, a resident of nearby low-income housing Loomis Courts, 1314 W. 15th St., said the deal represents the city’s “broken promise.” Less than a third of units for former ABLA Homes residents have been built, according to ProPublica.
“This land belongs to the people. There’s so many homeless people out here,” Williams said. “The soccer field is not needed. More homes are needed.”
Kevin Johnson, an organizer for Working Family Solidarity, said Mayor Lori Lightfoot “cut a backroom deal” with Fire owner Joe Mansueto. Lightfoot received $25,000 from Mansueto for her reelection campaign.
Lightfoot’s office did not return a request for comment.
The Fire plans to build a performance center and five and a half soccer pitches, and the team has discussed starting a youth mentorship program and an after-school soccer training academy.
Chicago Housing Authority spokesperson Matthew Aguilar said in a statement the deal with the Fire was backed by a local advisory council, and it will provide funding to rehabilitate nearby public housing.
Officials previously said the deal is expected to bring the Chicago Housing Authority at least $40 million over the next 40 years. But the fine print of the lease shows the total figure is not set in stone since future rent payments could vary depending on inflation and renegotiations. The lease also includes provisions that could extend the deal another 20 years to six decades.
The lease, now posted on the Chicago Housing Authority’s website, says the agency will receive $8 million in payments over the next decade, at least half of which will go toward green space, new parking and other improvements near the leased land. In addition, the Fire will make rent payments that start at $750,000 a year and then vary based on inflation and future appraisals. If the Fire sells naming rights to the facility, it can keep the proceeds, documents show.
City Council approved the zoning for the deal in September with pushback from some alderpeople and affordable housing activists.
Antwain Miller, housing organizer for the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, said he’s spent the past six months rallying support against the project, with most neighbors “having no idea this was happening in their community.”
“The city gets these new, shiny properties now, and it’s all ploy for profit,” Miller said. “We’re asking them to give back what they owe the people. We’re not going to let this land go.”
Officials said Monday that construction on the site is expected to begin this spring.
Derric Price, a representative with the Bethel Mennonite Community Church, 1434 S. Laflin St., said the Fire bought the land for “cents on the square foot.”
Many of the church’s members are former ABLA Homes residents who, through the deal, have lost out on new housing that could have spurred greater economic impact than a soccer facility, Price said.
Last week, neighbors protested outside the Chicago office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, asking the federal agency to halt the sale. It did not.
“It’s a dark day when the government abandons the people they’re intended to serve,” Washington said.
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