MLK, Fuller Seminary, and Affordable Housing

this post is written by Naomi Wilson, who asked me to publish it here. 

It is the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and like many other Christian institutions of higher education, Fuller Seminary has taken the opportunity to post a reflection on Dr. King. It is my firm belief that many of the reflections published by these institutions are not written for the right reasons, whether it be that the institutions have a history of oppression that they have not yet reconciled, or that the institutions publishing these reflections tacitly approve of politicians and policies that are in direct contrast to the vision of Dr. King. The reflection published by Fuller, authored by Dr. Hak Joon Lee, is no exception.

You see, Dr. Lee references Dr. King with regard to Fuller Seminary’s upcoming move to Pomona. For many Fuller alumni, including myself, Fuller’s move to Pomona is a sore spot. The move has been framed as God’s hand at work. The Alumni Council even described it thusly: “During our visit we learned that Charles E. Fuller, the seminary’s visionary founder, attended Pomona College where he played football and met his future wife. In some mysterious way, Fuller moving to Pomona seems to be a part of God’s larger plan for the seminary—“far more than all that we can ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).”[i] The reality, though, is that the move is a result of severe financial mismanagement.

For those not in the know, Fuller has purchased at least five properties in Pomona, including a former Bob’s Big Boy and four other properties that they spent $6.6 million on.[ii] There has been much talk of Fuller partnering with the city of Pomona — so much so that the language has begun to sound like gentrification and colonization. Meanwhile, Fuller’s partnership with the city of Pasadena has been all but forgotten amidst the desire to glamorize the move to Pomona.

Meanwhile, the city of Pasadena is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Fuller already dealt a huge blow to the number of affordable units in Pasadena when it sold all of its apartments on Los Robles, the west side of Oakland, and one building on the east side of Oakland to Carmel Properties, in a desperate attempt to keep the doors of the seminary open. Fuller netted $24 million from the sale. The sale resulted in the loss of nearly 200 units of affordable housing in the city.[iii] While Carmel ultimately sold the properties to another developer, the apartments that have been renovated and are available for rent are by no means affordable. The developer who purchased the building at 296 N. Oakland Ave. (formerly Cornerstone) is renting one-bedrooms for $1,800 and two-bedrooms for $2,200. When Fuller owned the property, the rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Cornerstone was $950. However, Fuller’s real estate moves do not end here.

One of the next buildings that Fuller is planning to sell is Chang Commons, a set of four apartment buildings located at 261, 271, 281, and 291 N. Madison, in between Walnut and Corson and across from Fuller’s student services building. These buildings are quite new. Moreover, these buildings are unique in Pasadena in terms of how they were built and the exemptions that Fuller received from the city in order to complete them. Fuller completed construction on Chang Commons in 2005. Chang contains 169 units of affordable housing, in addition to 10 units of market-rate housing. Fuller had an agreement with the city of Pasadena that allowed them to circumvent several of the city’s requirements for new housing — an agreement that these units would remain affordable housing in perpetuity. For more information on this agreement, there is a legal document which can be accessed here: https://www.fuller.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Inclusionary-Housing-Rental-Agreement.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2AINWjaW5I2nMs6UAn1icf0Ihv3EQcTs2FAs1KDlfbjspXRnxJfqSpZQg.

Rumors suggest that Fuller is actively looking for ways around this agreement, to exploit loopholes that would allow them to sell Chang the same way they sold previous properties – to whoever will pay the most. The ones willing to pay the most will of course seek to make the most back, by charging well above the affordable threshold. Even if these rumors are unsubstantiated, we have seen Fuller’s track record in this area. Fuller must prove its desire to do the right thing, and prove us wrong.

In the months before he was assassinated, Dr. King was working as one of the architects of the Poor People’s Campaign. Access to housing for the poor was one of the central issues of the Poor People’s Campaign. “The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) was created on December 4, 1967, by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to address the issues of unemployment, housing shortages for the poor, and the impact of poverty on the lives of millions of Americans.”[iv] Moreover, Dr. King spoke often of poverty. In his Nobel lecture in 1964, he said:

“The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed.”[v]

In short, I am appalled that Fuller is appropriating the work of Dr. King to tout its move to Pomona, all the while leaving the city of Pasadena in the dust. An organization with any social conscience whatsoever would take steps to make sure that it stewarded the sale of its properties to developers or organizations working for the common good – and there are many developers who are dedicated to building affordable housing who can pay more than what Fuller needs to start fresh in Pomona.

To the city of Pasadena: You have power, and I hope you can choose to use it for good. Hold Fuller accountable. It is not your problem that they can no longer afford to stay in Pasadena. But it is your problem that you have given them so much, and in return they are selling it to the highest bidder. Peter Dreier frames it well, saying “City officials should not be allowed to roll over for Fuller Seminary, a non-profit institution that pays no property taxes but receives many city services.”[vi] I know that each city council member and the mayor himself are focusing on increasing the number of affordable units available in Pasadena, and this would be a great place to start.

To my fellow Fuller alumni: we all learned a great deal at Fuller, and it has formed us into pastors, missionaries, social workers, therapists, teachers, and leaders who care deeply about the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have fond memories of sitting in Dr. Chris Hays’ Isaiah 1-39 class, listening to him say, “If there is anything the eighth-century prophets want us to know, it is that God cares about social justice.” I took an online class with Dr. Chris Accornero about finding God in the city — a formative class which led me to seek justice within Los Angeles. We ought to now hold Fuller accountable to all it has taught us, and encourage them to deal justly with the gifts God has given them.

And finally, to Fuller, an institution that I used to love: if you are going to do harm to the city of Pasadena, please stop using the language of the Bible and of theologians such as Dr. King to glorify your move to Pomona. It is a misrepresentation of who Dr. King was and what he stood for at best, and cultural appropriation at worst. Turn instead toward the many students, alumni, and community members who flooded your campus today to demonstrate their dedication to Dr. King’s legacy and toward God’s justice in your dealings.

Follow their lead, and consider selling Chang Commons to an organization whose mission is affordable housing. It is what the buildings were designed for, it is what you agreed to use them for, and it is my firm belief that it is how God wants them to be used. Be good stewards of the gifts you have been given. Do not leave Pasadena worse than you found it. As Jesus himself said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Let Fuller’s move be good news to the poor – especially the poor here in Pasadena.

 

[i] AlumNews Email, October 2018

[ii] https://www.dailybulletin.com/2018/07/14/fuller-seminarys-purchases-in-pomona-include-bank-arcade-and-former-big-boy/

[iii] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/fuller-theological-seminary-wants-to-profit-from-gentrification_us_58fe9c92e4b0f02c3870edc7

[iv] https://blackpast.org/aah/poor-peoples-campaign-december-4-1967-june-19-1968

[v] https://mlk50.civilrightsmuseum.org/poverty

[vi] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/fuller-theological-seminary-wants-to-profit-from-gentrification_us_58fe9c92e4b0f02c3870edc7

 

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