Members of the Bethel Mennonite Community Church and the Working Family Solidarity organization hold a prayer vigil for “Justice at ABLA Homes” on Chicago's Near West Side July 20, 2023. Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Public housing activists had to speak over the din of bulldozers as dust from construction work swirled around them. 

But they gathered Thursday at a former public housing site to deliver a message: They’re not done fighting to stop a billionaire-owned sports team from taking over the Near West Side property.

In prayers and speeches, the activists also called on Mayor Brandon Johnson to fulfill his campaign promise to end the selloff of public housing land for sports facilities and other non-housing developments.

“I’m asking you, Mayor Johnson, to make this into housing, because we need it,” said Donna Thadison, who grew up a few blocks away in the ABLA Homes public housing community.

For the last two years, Thadison said, she has seen a homeless man sleeping behind her church, Bethel Mennonite Community Church, which is right next to the 23-acre site where the Chicago Fire soccer team wants to build a new training facility.

“We don’t need a soccer field,” Thadison said. “We just need more housing.”

Though work on the site is underway, the activists said it’s not too late for Johnson to stop a deal between the Chicago Housing Authority, which owns the land, and the Fire, the city’s major league men’s soccer team. 

ABLA resident Laura Donaldson speaks at a prayer vigil for “Justice at ABLA Homes” in Chicago on July 20, 2023. Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Block Club Chicago

Located just southeast of Roosevelt Road and Ashland Avenue, the property was long reserved for housing, including homes for low-income families. But former Mayor Lori Lightfoot engineered a plan to let the Fire take it over

Under a lease agreement signed this spring, the team will pay the Housing Authority $8 million plus about $750,000 a year for at least 40 years.

ABLA was once home to 3,600 families. But much of the complex was demolished as part of the CHA’s citywide Plan for Transformation, an initiative to replace old public housing with mixed-income developments. 

As bulldozers stirred up dust nearby, activists called for new housing rather than a Chicago Fire soccer facility at a Near West Side site that used to be part of the ABLA Homes public housing development. Credit: Mick Dumke/Block Club Chicago

At many of its sites, the agency has failed to fulfill its promises. The CHA outlined plans to turn ABLA into a new development, Roosevelt Square, with 2,441 new and 455 rehabbed units. Nearly two decades later, it has produced fewer than half the new homes it promised. 

The Fire is owned by billionaire business leader Joe Mansueto, the founder and executive director of investment research firm Morningstar. After Mansueto approached city officials about finding a site for a new team training facility, Lightfoot offered several properties owned by the CHA. The Fire chose the ABLA site on the Near West Side. Mansueto later made a $25,000 donation to Lightfoot’s campaign fund.

In June, a group of housing advocates and residents sued the CHA and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in U.S. District Court, alleging the government agencies violated federal civil rights and fair housing laws by approving the Fire deal. 

“If not stopped, twenty-three acres of land held in a public trust for the benefit of public and affordable housing will go to a billionaire soccer owner to build a sports training complex,” the suit stated. “Without intervention by this Court, the ABLA land will effectively be permanently lost as a site for public or affordable housing, at a time where sufficiently sized, available, properly zoned land in an opportunity or gentrifying area is increasingly scarce.”

Activists called for new housing—and “justice”—during a prayer vigil at the ABLA Homes. Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Block Club Chicago

The Chicago Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have declined to comment on the pending lawsuit. CHA leaders have said they still intend to build the promised housing at ABLA. 

On the campaign trail, Johnson criticized the CHA’s practice of selling or leasing its land for non-housing uses. And in June, his transition report called for a “freeze” on those CHA land deals.

The mayor has not weighed in on the Chicago Housing Authority’s land deals, including the Fire lease, since he took office in May. Spokesperson Ronnie Reese said the mayor’s office couldn’t comment on the deal with the Fire because of the active lawsuit challenging it. Earlier this week Reese said that the Johnson administration is committed to “creating equitable and affordable housing for all.

Housing activists say the mayor could still stop the deal with the Fire, even though bulldozers have started environmental remediation work at the site. They say that work would need to be done anyway to prepare for new housing.

Leone Jose Bicchieri, one of the organizers of the vigil Thursday, said he first met Johnson years ago and noted the mayor’s progressive background with the Chicago Teachers Union. 

“I still think he’s a good guy,” said Bicchieri, executive director of the community group Working Family Solidarity. 

But Johnson needs to publicly call for an end to selling off public housing land, Bicchieri said: “We need Mayor Johnson to be as vocal now as he was in his election campaign.”

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