Rev. Michael Evans Sr. choked up as he stood in front of the 113,500-square-foot apartment complex that stands as a beacon of hope among the long-neglected West Broad Street corridor.
The pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church didn’t fight back tears for the ribbon cutting for Bethlehem’s Pioneer Place, a 135-unit, low-income housing project.
And it wasn’t the past 10 years of rejections and challenges the congregation faced that stirred his emotions.
What got him was thinking about the generations that have come before him and paved the way for this moment. The 149-year-old predominantly African-American church has battled racism, segregation and exclusion. It’s today’s aging seniors who fought those battles and they are the ones for whom Pioneer Place was built, Evans said. The complex is exclusively for seniors ages 55 and up.
Hundreds huddled under the shade of the entryway on a hot July afternoon to hear leaders from the church, the city of Mansfield, Tarrant County as well as lawmakers from the state and federal level dedicate Bethlehem’s Pioneer Place.
“We stand on the shoulders of our foreparents,” Evans said. “No matter who you are, no matter where you are from, God has allowed us the opportunity to become the children of destiny. Together, we did dream a dream.”
The aptly named Pioneer Place offers below-market rent using government tax credits so seniors can have a luxurious home to live their golden years, Evans said.
“My generational group owes them,” Evans said. “I haven’t picked any cotton because my grandmother did. I didn’t have to go on the job and be called ‘Boy’ and take it because my grandfather did.”
The project has been a dream of Evans and others in the Bethlehem congregation for more than a decade. James Leggs recalled the first meeting of the Historic West Mansfield Texas Community Development Corp. board in 2008, the genesis of the project. They planned a one-story building with about 25 units.
“Watch God. Behind me stands a three-story facility with 135 units,” Leggs said. “Today, you bear witness to a senior living facility that will be the catalyst for growth on the west side of Mansfield, Texas.”
In 2015, Evans told Mayor David Cook to be on the lookout for any development opportunity that comes along. Cook recalled the day he got an email from Ellen Rourke, president of National Housing Advisers, who proposed a low-income housing project somewhere else in the city.
“I said, ‘I don’t know that the project that you’re talking to me about is a viable one but I know one that is,’” Cook said. “I placed a call to Pastor Evans to see if the two of them could meet. What a blessing it is to see what God has done. This is all about what Bethlehem has fought for and created after so many years.”
Rourke said she applied in 2015 and 2016 to see if the project would score high enough to be awarded $15 million in tax credits, which is necessary for a low-income housing project. Both were denied.
Rev. Leonard Hornsby said Rourke cried through every challenge they encountered. Finally, in 2017, the project did score high enough. So Rourke assembled an application several hundred pages thick and they finally won.
“I think she cried louder than we did when we found out that we’ve been awarded,” Hornsby said.
Looking at the project all these years years later, Rourke said she’s proud of what they accomplished.
“What an amazing quality product that is the same as any market rent product,” Rourke said.
The complex has one and two bedroom units all equipped with wireless internet. Common amenities include a fitness room, business center with computers, a wellness room for health checkups and a library. There are green spaces with walking paths, barbecue grills, gazebos and a community garden.
Residents started moving into Pioneer Place last month but there are still about 25 units available.
“For well over a decade, the completion of a high-quality affordable housing opportunity for seniors has been a goal of this church,” said State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie. “Accomplishing that ambitious goal today, what an important need you are filling in this community.”