BY CHRIS FARAONE
with research and reporting by ZACK HUFFMAN
“Sidewalks, entrances, driveways, stairways, elevators or halls shall not be blocked by a Resident or used for any purpose other than for entering and leaving.”
The new rules for the Lenox Street Apartments in Roxbury went into effect last March, less than two weeks after long-awaited renovations commenced in the 285-unit community.
Another stipulation read, “occupants and guests are not permitted to play or loiter in public halls, stairways, walkways or any of the exterior landscaped areas.”
And, “Resident is not allowed to plant vegetables or flowers unless approved by Landlord.”
The reinvigorated Lenox regulations came down not from Boston Housing Authority (BHA) higher-ups, who historically oversaw the premises, but rather from the new property managers at Beacon Communities. Beacon completed $23 million in renovations at the neighboring Camden Apartments in 2020, and in 2021 the private real estate firm took over management of the nearly 300 additional apartments with nearly $125 million in financing from Bank of America—now the majority equity investor in the Lenox—and a mix of federal and state tax credits and development funds.
“This project, and the work we’ve recently finished at nearby Camden, are investments in the lives and futures of Lenox families,” outgoing Mayor Marty Walsh said at the time. “I’m proud of the work to improve the homes and lives of so many.”
In response to questions for this article, a spokesperson for Beacon wrote, “We work with partners in the public and private sector, navigating complex financing arrangements and finding ways to preserve and upgrade as many affordable homes as possible to serve our communities.” Regarding the new Lenox regulations, they added, “Our House Rules were developed over several months of collaborative work with a Resident Task Force and other stakeholders, in order to ensure a positive experience for all residents. In addition, our Community Engagement team works tirelessly to provide residents with services ranging from educational youth programs, fitness classes, resident events, and more, helping to foster an important sense of community.” (Read the full Beacon statement here.)
Ask people who have lived in public housing in Boston at some point over the past 50 or so years, and they will explain in explicit detail why such overhauls are overdue. Many of the constructs are architecturally octogenarian and lacking proper palliative care; developments like the storied Bunker Hill bricks in Charlestown are among the first experiments in public housing in America, most of them mortared between the world wars.
Years of neglect since have left many of these institutional relics terminally derelict, from cellars filled with roaches ramming up through every pipe and crevice, to temperature controls and windows that go unfixed through extreme weather. In 2017, the last year for which US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Public Housing Assessment System data is available, the overall BHA scored a “standard” 76 out of 100 points. Trends along with anecdotes from people who inhabit these developments indicate things have likely worsened in the time since, as that report marked slippage from an average 85 out of 100 points across all 70 BHA properties in 2014. (A BHA spokesperson said, “BHA is actively addressing work orders at all of its housing sites, including those that are in process of being redeveloped. This work is continual and ongoing.” Read the BHA’s full response to this article here.)
With so many deteriorating tenements, it may seem those living in the Hub’s broken projects would uniformly welcome improvements by any means available. But across town from Lenox and Camden, tucked behind I-93 where Dorchester blurs into South Boston, some residents of the Mary Ellen McCormack (MEM) houses, the first public housing project in New England (formerly known as Old Harbor Village), are ambivalent, even skeptical, about private entities taking over management responsibilities from BHA administrators (the authority’s head administrator is appointed by the mayor of Boston, but operates independently, in tandem with a vast network of resident advisors and tenant groups). They’ve heard about the new rules at places like the Lenox, which prevent people from congregating and hence from fostering the kind of mutual environs that many have relied on to survive poverty and other harsh conditions.
“Look at my fridge. Look at my stove.” MEM resident and mother of twins Sherfina Mercy addressed residents demonstrating outside the BHA’s McCormack office last fall. People gathered to bring attention to privatization and the disrepair that is prevalent as residents wait for the wrecking ball and subsequent neighborhood rehab. Mercy has been lobbying for fixes loudly since learning that one of her sons has dangerous levels of lead in his blood, probably from peeling paint in her apartment that she says flakes off like lizard skin. Her sign read, “Fight For Affordable Housing. We Don’t Want To Be Homeless.”
Mercy continued, “I have a metal bowl in my fridge for [collecting dripping] water. My stove, don’t even bother turning it on because it smokes. When it goes kaboom, that’s when they’re gonna do something. When someone dies and gets hurt, that’s when they’re gonna do something.
“They don’t live here, they don’t care.”
She turned to face the admin office, where BHA employees had the blinds drawn behind black steel window grates.
“Would you put your kids in here?”
Mercy shook her head.
“I don’t think so.”
In 2022, bureaucracies spanning the cannabis industry to Ivy League universities are redressing the impact that persistent racist policies have had on people of color. Yet the public housing sector remains punitive. Due to policies set by the federal 1996 Housing Opportunity Program Extension, or HOPE Act, for example, individuals with certain criminal convictions are barred from most publicly funded housing programs. That’s already the case when projects are fully public and run by housing authorities; a new sheath of private management edicts, public advocates contest, is a prescription for increased restrictions.
The stated intention of the HOPE Act, like the HOPE VI program launched under President George H.W. Bush four years earlier and later “evolved” under President Bill Clinton to “focus on broader public housing transformation,” was to “change the physical shape of public housing” by, among other tools born out of the so-called New Urbanism trend catching on among real-life monopoly men and their political puppets in the ’90s, “establishing positive incentives for resident self-sufficiency and comprehensive services that empower residents.” In practice, external as well as government audits show that while HOPE VI and likeminded approaches such as Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which “allows public housing agencies to leverage public and private debt and equity in order to reinvest in public housing,” have undeniably yielded some fruit, there have also been sour results. In real-world terms, that means homelessness, displaced families, or worse. (The BHA takes issue with this characterization. A spokesperson said, “the City and HUD all limit the fees that private developers can take in redevelopment projects,” and, “the BHA has a unique and demonstrable track record of ensuring families are housed during and after redevelopment.” Read their full statement here.)
While the Mass-based Beacon has taken over the Lenox and Camden houses, WinnResidential, a subsidiary of the Boston-rooted WinnCompanies, will oversee property management at MEM. And unlike Lenox, the financing for MEM isn’t coming from Bank of America or some other institution that played a hand in the 2008 mortgage and stock market catastrophe, but rather from the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust Corporation, whose affiliated member unions will participate in the construction of approximately 1,370 new units to replace the current 1,016 residences. The city of Boston also committed $50 million in funding. It’s the kind of public-private-labor love affair that thrills politicians and makes for perky press releases. Still, many tenants and activists worry that changes at MEM will follow the pattern of countless comparable prior partnerships, from Los Angeles to New York, where longtime tenants are evicted by entities that answer to owners and stakeholders, not municipal agencies with guaranteed renter protections.
“They say you can return [to a housing project after it has been redeveloped] if you’re in good standing, but a lot of people owe back rent,” Alonso Espinosa, an organizer with United Front Against Displacement, said at the aforementioned demonstration at MEM last fall. UFAD resists the privatization of public housing stock in multiple cities including the Hub, calling attention to the dangerous, horrid state of many buildings during what is often years of limbo and uncertainty during the planning process. MEM, for example, had its financing and master developer for the “repositioning of the 27-acre Southie site” in place in 2017. In the meantime, repair orders go unfulfilled by an agency that, as the BHA chief of media and engagement conceded in an email from last October obtained for this story, “simply [does] not have enough available units to accommodate all the households with urgent needs on our waiting list.”
Outside the BHA office at McCormack, Espinosa of UFAD added, “And why do [MEM residents] owe back rent? Because they’ve been spending all sorts of money fixing up their own apartment because BHA won’t do it. They’ve been replacing couches, clothes that have been ruined by floods, by rats, by roaches. BHA isn’t good for coming out to fix stuff, but they are good at sending out notices that say you owe back rent.
“When the companies take over, and BHA says they’ll protect you, do you really think people are going to believe that the BHA is going to protect them from a private company when they say, You owe back rent. We don’t want you here anymore?”
On paper, Winn is pledging: “All 1,016 deeply affordable housing units will be replaced”; “Tenant Rent will continue to be set at HUD regulated amounts (i.e. 30% of household income)”; “All existing residents will have the right to return in a newly-constructed unit with no rescreening”; “Residents will not pay for any relocation related expenses.”
And in response to questions for this article, Ed Cafasso, a WinnCompanies spokesperson, wrote, “In terms of the overall plan, the vast majority of tenants, non-profits, community members and stakeholders understand that recreating a 100% affordable 1,016-unit redevelopment is the opposite of the desired outcome. Best practices in urban development over the past 50 years are clear: Segregated, insulated, non-mixed income developments fail to provide the long-term quality of life, maintenance, security, and upward mobility of mixed-income developments. We cannot repeat the sins of the past. New developments should include a mix of incomes whenever possible to be true community assets. The BHA, as a public sector entity whose sole expertise is low-income housing, cannot be the owner and developer of a mixed-income development as effectively as a public-private partnership. That is a major reason for this cutting-edge redevelopment model. Our proposal allows the private sector to finance the market rate units; helps cross-subsidize the redevelopment of the low-income units so that every single tenant can remain onsite for the long term; funds social programming; and avoids simply repeating the current failed economic model of large-scale, physically segregated low-income-only communities.” (Read all the WinnCompanies responses to our questions here.)
Espinosa’s seen the bullet points, yet maintains doubt.
“If you look at the agreements that [cities] sign with private developers, there’s all sorts of loopholes, all sorts of clauses. … These promises are worth less than the pieces of paper they’re sometimes written on. This is a scam that has been in the works since the ’70s, and it’s only gotten worse and more intense.”
Old Harbor Village
Look closely, and there is clear neglect. But on the surface, from select sunny angles, the McCormack houses have a unique charm, even vibrance compared to some other developments with similar states of abandonment. Several stoops, windows, and yards are decked out for the holidays, while community gardens that are mostly maintained by Asian American residents add color and produce up to the first winter frost. The bones of the buildings, apartments broken up by row-style houses, appear sturdy. A lot of units even have new windows, but there’s not much hope or promise in the air outside of them. The few evasive signs of beauty—scattered door decor, extensive vegetation, multiple murals—come from the residents. On mornings in the warmer weather months and even as cold fronts set in and thaw, the yards are filled with people planting, shoveling, and picking—activities that, especially when done in groups, can come under attack when public housing turns private.
Any bright spots aside, a brief historical overview shows problems that surfaced at the start of the MEM buildout in the ’40s and ’50s were reinforced and compounded over decades. In its entry on McCormack, the Society of Architectural Historians summarize, “The result of a long contentious period of development, Old Harbor Village [MEM’s first name] was originally slated in the late-1930s as a slum clearance project for nearby land,” but “when public outcry over the use of eminent domain and the fair price for the real estate stalled the initial project,” it was moved to its current site, which was a vacant lot at the time.
The architectural archive notes the initial allure and demographics of the “1,106 apartments, mostly in three- or four-story brick buildings, relieved by limestone band courses between the first two levels and by balconies ornamented with crossed anchors and stars,” along with “152 row houses designed to evoke a New England coastal village, with differentiated doorways and porches fronting landscaped quadrangles or streets.” As should come of no surprise to anyone familiar with the area’s political past, “these units initially provided high quality housing to a group of politically well-connected, nearly poor South Bostonians.”
Traditions die hard in Southie and Dorchester, and MEM is the Bruce Willis of projects. In 1995, HUD investigators dropped a report on then-Mayor Tom Menino showing that the 152 McCormack townhouses had been kept whites-only for half a century. The feds even provided proof that there had been “intentional discrimination.” In his 2007 book, From the Puritans to the Projects, Lawrence J. Vale, the Ford professor of urban design and planning at MIT, traced the decline of funding and maintenance to this era:
By the mid-1990s, as state and federal officials engaged in new rounds of cutbacks for public housing funding, the BHA’s institutional recovery … seemed very much a thing of the past. Even though Boston’s public housing projects still contained thousands of whites on public assistance and thousands of nonwhites supported by gainful employment, the tensions of race permeated every discussion of tenant selection and assignment. In a society that remains uncomfortable with racial integration, public housing tenants bore the brunt of public policy initiatives while receiving few of the supposed benefits.
By the 2010s, nobody in power was willing or able to envision a way out of the woods without a private chopper dangling a corporate ladder. In 2014, the BHA introduced a “Five-Year Agency Plan that describes the Authority’s current fiscal and operating context and identifies strategic priorities,” all spurring from “federal funding shortfalls [that] have resulted in a structural deficit that is expected to continue for the long-term.” As part of the strategy, the authority solicited “proposals from qualified real estate development firms to optimize the value of BHA sites in high-market neighborhoods, as a means to preserve or expand existing affordable units.” The announcement continued, “The Authority is exploring preservation strategies … that avoid displacement of low-income residents while increasing sustainability of operations.”
In 2017, the BHA selected Winn over four competing bidders to level and reimagine MEM. According to a media release from the company, “The proposed redevelopment would take place over four phases … [and] calls for a total of approximately 3,000 new units, including replacement of all existing units, creation of workforce (middle-income) units, as well as market rate apartments and home ownership condominiums. … In addition,” the announcement promised, “all units, regardless of affordability level, will be of identical quality and integrated evenly among the newly constructed buildings.” According to a June 2021 letter of intent from Winn to the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), Phase 1 will yield “approximately 1,370 mixed-income residential units including 572 affordable units, up to 200 middle-income units (if funding is available), and approximately 600 market rate units.” A BHA spokesperson clarified, “There will be future phases to address the remaining 430+ public housing units, so that there is overall 1:1 replacement [of affordable units].” (Read the full BHA response to this article here.)
Phase I of construction is set to begin in early 2023. Which means for now, residents are stuck in underserved buildings. HUD data from 2018 shows MEM barely passed its most recent physical inspection with a score of 60 out of 100, down from 90 four years earlier. From 2014, the year the BHA first requested proposals, to the time those partners were picked, the McCormack worsened in every conceivable area, financial to physical.
One renter described the basements underneath the MEM buildings as cockroach colonies. They reside with their family on the first floor, and said (with camera rolls full of gnarly pics to confirm) that pests perpetually punch through cracks in their walls. While speaking for this story one day last fall near the BHA office servicing MEM, they shouted across the street to a handyman who recently patched a hole under their kitchen sink.
“I’ve been calling you for days. You did a horrible job; you fixed my sink, but you left a hole in my wall, and you know what lives on the other side of it.”
Since the 2017 selection of Winn to redevelop MEM, there have been more than two dozen public meetings, historical society updates, and countless steps in the slow-moving approval and licensing process. There has also been significant input from community members, namely those appointed to the MEM Task Force. The group has helped steer planning and asked hard questions before, during, and most likely after a final open comment period that ended on Jan 14. At a public hearing co-hosted by Winn and the BPDA last November, George Benner, a lifelong McCormack resident who runs the local nonprofit Round Table Trusted Servants, implored the developers to consider urban agriculture and food access, and was impressed to hear in response that they’re planning to put raised garden beds in the courtyards and on lower rooftops.
One MEM Task Force member who spoke anonymously for this article said their experience working with Winn has been positive overall, and that they’re holding out for the best possible outcome. But for many currently living at the McCormack, it’s hard to see the future while they’re fidgeting among the critters that have become more emboldened since minor excavations have commenced.
The pandemic has only made communications more strenuous.
“I haven’t heard anything [about] the upcoming remodeling of Mary Ellen McCormack since Covid was introduced into our lives,” one commenter wrote in the Winn project site feedback section. “I am disabled and have many concerns regarding relocating.”
Asked about that specific comment, Ed Cafasso, the WinnCompanies spokesperson, wrote,
“We recognize the difficulties that the delay in redevelopment has caused, especially for residents with disabilities. The good news is that proposed new buildings will dramatically improve accessibility bringing all structures up to modern standards. Elevators and laundry facilities will be included in each building, which will be a huge improvement over what residents face now.”
Nationwide favor bank
In March 2017, President Donald Trump nominee for secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson Sr., was confirmed by the US Senate. Less than four months later, Ben Carson Jr., a co-founder of Interprise Partners, a private equity firm with “expertise in Minority Business investment,” emailed Lynne Patton, one of his father’s regional administrators at HUD, with one of many requests he would make of the department.
Lynne, I would like to introduce you to Lawrence Curtis, Managing Partner of Winn Companies. They have met with the Secretary before and have over 100k multifamily units … I wanted to see if we could get a call scheduled early next week. … I think Winn Co would be a valuable addition to the round table conversations. Do you have some availability tomorrow or tuesday?
Patton, a contentious social media figure and avid Trump cheerleader, would later be fined and barred from federal employment for bending the rules of what government workers can do in service of political campaigns. The controversy stemmed from a stunt in which Patton, an appointed HUD employee, moved herself into public housing in New York for a month to purportedly expose “the largest housing crisis in the nation,” “the most inhumane conditions” of which she deemed “a humanitarian crisis.”
“There are obviously political benefits to shifting the conversation away from federal disinvestment and focusing on local management,” Nicholas Dagen Bloom, a New York Institute of Technology professor of urban affairs and housing policy, told the Washington Post.
“Bloom said Patton’s move could push New York toward the national trend of privatizing public housing,” the Post added, noting that then-NY Mayor Bill De Blasio was already on board with turning the management of 60,000 public units over to private firms by 2028.
Before that ambitious foray into reality TV-style governing, though, Patton replied to her boss’s son and his Winn associate in less than a day:
Thank you … Looping in my assistant … who is happy to coordinate with you to schedule. … Thanks all! Look forward to it!
In the years since, emails uncovered by the nonpartisan nonprofit American Oversight show then-“Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson allowed his family members to be involved in the operations of the department in ways that could benefit them.” Carson Jr., whose Interprise “provides capital and strategic support as an active holdings company” in the Mid-Atlantic region, was attempting to link Patton and Winn partner Curtis to discuss the latter’s “over 100k multifamily units … in Baltimore.”
Patton didn’t last at HUD, and activities related to her ruse in New York were found to be violations of the Hatch Act, but her push for privatization lingered, begetting a hyperactive version of the lucrative handoffs previously popularized under President Barack Obama. And while it’s understandable that a shrewd company would leverage encouragement from Carson Jr. to gain entry to a new administration, Winn was already in like Flynn with or without Patton’s assistance. Long before Trump and Carson Sr. came along, the Boston-based housing behemoth worked closely with Obama deputies. In one 2013 arrangement, Winn partnered with HUD on the president’s Better Buildings Challenge, for which the company “committed to reducing the energy used across its portfolio by 20% or more within 10 years,” earning it plenty of positive press.
In its hometown, Winn even has a proven track record from its work on the Mission Main development in Mission Hill; that project was famously redeveloped with an early HOPE VI grant and is now having another round of upgrades through state tax credits awarded in 2020. It’s also been converted from conventional public housing to the federal RAD program, which allows Winn far more flexibility in how it finances future improvements.
At a time when officials say there are no more public dollars to spare and that it’s private-side solutions or nada, Winn and its ilk routinely emerge as something between the lesser of two evils and the lord, hope, and savior of the subsidized sector. As the independent online urban journal Next City noted in 2014, “Despite the distress that deferred maintenance is causing for residents across the country, it’s become a politically toxic conversation to suggest meeting the capital needs of local housing authorities through direct federal appropriations.”
“With more than 300,000 units of public housing stock removed from 1990 to 2010 because of chronic underfunding,” writer and urban studies researcher Alexis Stephens wrote in that same Next City report on Obama HUD Secretary Julián Castro and RAD, the department’s “Favorite New Program” at the time, “the fact that only the more well-positioned buildings with more stable-income tenants could be selected for RAD conversion could mean a continued decline of the worst-off places.”
For more than 175,000 RAD conversions nationwide and an additional 60,000-plus units set to convert through initiatives currently approved in every state under Alaska, local housing authorities transfer control of public housing units to private companies, while tenants are transitioned from reduced rents that they pay to a housing authority to vouchers they can use to pay a private firm. Proponents of privatization point to civil rights guardrails included in RAD; critics contend that vouchers have fewer protections than former arrangements against market forces and unsavory landlords, and have protested the limitations of the program in places where there may not be adequate commercial or retail opportunities to lure in money and partners.
In prosperous Boston, where there is an urgent need for affordable housing, however one defines it, there is no shortage of mechanisms through which public plots can sashay into private arms. There’s even room for deals where RAD doesn’t apply, thanks to Democrat and Republican administrations alike aggressively relaxing rules pertaining to the demolition and renovation of projects. Under Obama, local housing authorities would need to demonstrate that units were beyond repair in order to wreck and replace them. Ben Carson Sr., with his son along for the ride, accelerated down the same road in a bulldozer. On his last day at HUD in January 2021, the outgoing secretary issued a memo that further lowered standards. Basically, it’s now easier to justify demolition and make millions off of vouchers while accessing local, state, and federal tax credits and other benefits to cover the cost of repairs and upgrades.
Locally, as of this writing, Mass municipalities have converted about 10% of the state’s total public housing stock, or more than 1,700 units, most of them in Boston, with nearly 2,000 more conversions in store. And that’s only counting RAD projects, among them a mix ranging from large projects to a smaller Lower Mills building for elderly residents. Through the HOPE VI program, meanwhile, the BHA has “completed over three-quarters of a billion dollars in mixed-finance public housing redevelopment projects over the past 15 years, producing more than 2,300 units of housing.”
Some might say it’s by design. Since then-Mayor Marty Walsh announced in 2014 the city’s manifest destiny to create 53,000 new units of housing by 2030, programs that help Boston bend toward that goal have been enthusiastically embraced. A single privatized project like MEM can add hundreds of new units in one maneuver; comparatively, in all of 2021, the BPDA approved 6,643 units of new housing, with just over 35% of those designated income-restricted.
The McCormack saga features many of the forces and facets that foster these trends from the Bay State to the Bay Area. At the same time, Winn’s move into MEM was but a ripple in one wave of an encroaching ocean of privatization.
Play to Winn
For those resisting the privatization of the McCormack, or for anyone really, Winn is a formidable foe. Beyond powerful allies from Carson Beach to ex-Secretary Carson, the company has cultivated an outstanding reputation via what appears to be a mix of clever public relations, demonstrable charity, and the sheer breadth of its reach and operation. Winn has consistently topped the NAHMA Affordable 100, an annual real estate industry list of “the largest affordable multifamily property management companies, ranked by subsidized unit counts,” while throughout the pandemic the company has taken commendable steps to “cut financial evictions in half by 2025 across the company’s apartment portfolio.”
By its own account, Winn “has helped more than 15,000 struggling households that normally would have faced eviction proceedings to stay in their homes … through a combination of interventions that include negotiating realistic and responsible payment plans, providing one-on-one help to secure rental assistance funds, and recalculating rent obligations based on a better understanding of household expenses for subsidized renters.”
In November 2020, the company also joined 52 other housing owners and operators in signing Gov. Charlie Baker’s “Eviction Diversion Pledge” to “keep over 57,000 Tenants and Families Safely Housed.” But similar to how that announcement was panned by housing rights groups for being a weak substitute for real renter protections and moratoriums with teeth, Winn has taken a shellacking from critics for some of its more controversial practices beneath the benevolent image. As they point out, the company’s former namesake CEO Arthur Winn pleaded guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance violations in 2011, those charges stemming from the channeling of $150,000 in improper campaign contributions to local, state, and federal candidates related to a pie-in-the-sky project in Back Bay that never materialized.
Groups like UFAD and tenant groups in other cities where they operate also decry some of Winn’s management practices. As Bloomberg reported, the company uses software to streamline eviction proceedings; “court papers show how WinnResidential used Click Notices over just two days in December 2014 to start evictions against more than 70 tenants at a single Annapolis [Maryland] apartment complex.”
“It’s a computer program that identifies people who they want to kick out,” said Ryan Costello, a UFAD organizer. He condemned city leaders for basically giving up on public housing and handing off responsibility to hand-picked corporations.
In response to questions for this article, a Boston Housing Authority spokesperson said that while “BHA does not have day-to-day management responsibilities, BHA does retain ownership of the underlying land, and the redevelopment entity enters into a long-term ground lease with BHA. The ground lease sets the key requirements that the development must adhere to, including ongoing affordability and other programmatic requirements.” (Read all the BHA responses to our questions here.)
UFAD plans on holding the BHA, Winn, and others to their word, even if few people outside of the projects are paying attention.
“We’re building up the movement here at the McCormack, we’re building it at Bromley-Heath [apartments in Jamaica Plain], we’re building it across the city and across the country to fight back against privatization and stop these sales and get [these buildings] fixed up for real,” Costello said. “Part of [Boston’s] strategy has been to say that the only way to get them fixed up is to sell them off, but that’s a bunch of bullshit.”
Using basic back-of-napkin calculations, Costello has a point. Consider the Lenox apartments in Roxbury. State exemptions and federal historic tax credits, among other pots of money, reportedly account for more than $100 million in work done on that project. Divided by the 285 units in the complex, that’s more than $350,000 per apartment. But instead of going toward ownership initiatives or programs proven to better secure long-term housing for residents, the funnel will spill back toward Bank of America. Or in the case of the McCormack, Winn and the AFL-CIO trust.
The larger picture’s far more complicated, and the fog of normalization can blur matters, but things begin to come into focus in light of past precedents. Public housing in Boston has always been about uprooting poor people so that someone—politicians, developers, and every other capitalist cog in the mammoth Mass development machine—can gorge on gobs of public money.
In his 2007 book about the history of Boston public housing, MIT prof Lawrence J. Vale quotes a 1939 editorial in the long-gone South Boston Tribune for the perspective that “the public housing concept nullified the widespread benefits of private-sector building practice and fostered greedy alliances among architects, contractors, and materials suppliers, in cahoots with politicians who know how to ‘take care of the boys.’” The local newspaper reasoned, “The same amount of money that was spent in South Boston for the housing project would have modernized every home in South Boston, so that all the 70,000 people there, not a chosen few, could have enjoyed better living conditions than they knew.”
Fast-forward to 2022, and the city hall and public housing apparatus the Southie Tribune once impugned has thrown in the towel. In response to questions for this article, a BHA spokesperson said the authority “will manage the relocation process, making available temporary relocation housing to all households and ensuring all current households are provided a right to return to newly constructed housing at the redevelopment,” plus “manage the relocation process and pays all associated costs, including the costs to move back to newly built apartments.” All important functions, to be sure. Nevertheless, they’re now middlemen between tax dollars and the investment interests increasingly receiving those funds via subsidized vouchers, otherwise removed from the equation. In their place are new earthmovers and shakers, like Winn and the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, the bromance advancing the McCormack project, with the former developing and managing tenants and the latter financing and swinging hammers.
The labor trust is based in Washington, DC, but has close ties to the Commonwealth. In addition to the 12.5 million-member coalition’s affection for former Boston mayor, union honcho, and current US Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, Stephen Coyle, who was CEO of the labor federation investment arm when the McCormack deal was struck, had formerly served seven years as the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (since renamed BPDA). From 2009 to 2017, before the announcement of its $1.6 billion backing of the MEM overhaul, the AFL-CIO trust had already invested close to $400 million in housing developments in Boston.
In 2017, the trust’s COO gushed in a statement, “The projects generated 3,300 union construction jobs, and created opportunities for graduates of BHA’s Building Pathways program to begin careers in the construction industry with the Boston building trades. The redevelopment of the Mary Ellen McCormack community will create similar opportunities.”
New projects, old approach
Current statistics, sights, and resident retorts considered, it’s hard to tell if much has changed since 2004, when researchers from the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution took an extensive look at the first decade of public housing under HOPE VI. In hindsight, researchers posit that program was a bridge connecting Columbia Point in Dorchester, where the transformation into Harbor Point through a public-private partnership in the ’80s is credited with helping catalyze the nationwide privatization boom, to the soon-to-be-bulldozed MEM houses five minutes away 40 years later. In evaluating the vast impact of HOPE VI, the Washington think tanks played it safe, presenting few concrete conclusions.
“Two of the biggest remaining areas of controversy concern the demolition of so much deeply subsidized housing and the appropriate targeting of limited affordable housing resources, particularly whether and how to serve the most troubled households,” Brookings and the Urban Institute found. “These debates involve fundamental values and reflect differing perspectives on the appropriate role for the federal government in providing assistance to needy households.”
Little has followed in the way of comprehensive analysis, largely due to an apparent lack of watchdogs, political will, and accountability measures. Six years after the federal government gave local officials the right to hand over housing stock to private contractors and management companies through the RAD program, in 2018 the Government Accountability Office reported to Congress that no participating parties had kept records that would show if the conversions had worked, or for whom they did not work.
“HUD’s ability to accurately assess private-sector leveraging is limited,” the GAO found. “HUD does not systematically use its data systems to track effects of RAD conversions on resident households (such as changes in rent and income, or relocation) or monitor use of all resident safeguards.”
Regarding tenant protections, the GAO found that despite “the program’s contracts with property owners containing provisions intended to help ensure the long-term availability of affordable units, the provisions have not been tested.”
It’s a familiar story, as proved by it having taken decades to unpack the impact of so-called Urban Renewal policies of the 1950s and ’60s that seeded development as we know it today. But while only years will yield sufficient data to evaluate these latest public-to-private conversions, residents are often willing to assess on the fly. As one observer of a prior Lenox makeover told reporters in 1963, “These so-called ‘slum-clearances’ as far as many people can see are … ‘a lot of hokum.’ The people the clearances are supposed to benefit get left out in the cold, as the rent is too high for them to meet.”
A New American Project was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism for distribution through its MassWire service and supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.