Exploring the Troubles with Boston Public Housing

Twice a week, every week, I make the trek from the Andrew Red Line stop up Dorchester St. and down Old Colony Ave. where I arrive at my PULSE placement. When I first started, I’d either have my eyes glued to the GPS (just to make sure), or be speed-walking with my eyes stuck to the clock on my phone due to yet another MBTA delay. It’s safe to say I did not give much attention to my surroundings. I did PULSE for two reasons: 1) to help others, of course, and 2) to see other parts of Boston. But up to this point, all I saw was my phone. I was being transported around the city, moving from BC to Southie and then back again. There was no city being seen. So, one day, I looked up.

In most Boston neighborhoods, like Allston-Brighton or West Roxbury, there are old, mixed-brick buildings crammed together. When I began to examine my walk more thoroughly, I expected to see the same designs along Andrew Square and Old Colony Ave.

That was not the case. Colorful townhouses with sharp, modern edges filled the busy intersection. They looked like they belonged on Miami Beach, not in the historic, blue-collar Andrew Square of Southie. Since they were right near the beach and a minute’s drive from the financial district, I figured they must be pretty pricey. It turns out, not even the rich could live there: it was Boston Public Housing.

Well, not technically. These were the Anne M. Lynch Homes at Old Colony, which were just recently renovated by Beacon Communities Services LLC., who now own the property. It was previously the largest plot of land BHA owned, but with the lack of government funds being allocated to affordable housing renovations, they independently sought out a private contractor.

I wondered what the BHA thought about this privatization, so I contacted Gail Livingston, the Deputy Administrator for Housing Programs at the BHA. She said the move was necessary, but not optimal. “We need one-to-one public housing,” she said with respect to the old and new developments, “but, the way they can manage to support those is to charge market rent for other units in that development.” The BHA is no longer allowed to monitor the housing, and the federal rule for public housing that limits it to 30 percent of income is not applied here. Although, Livingston said, the prices are almost identical.

After my new understanding of the modernized public housing at Anne M. Lynch, I wanted to explore the developments. So, the next time I went to my PULSE placement, I arrived early and decided to go straight down Dorchester St. instead of my usual left to see how long these developments stretched. A hundred feet or so past the intersection, I discovered while on Rev. Burke St. that I was on a divider between the past and future of public housing. On my right was the vibrant new development with manicured lawns and stone pathways, and to my left stood derelict, two-story brick blocks. These blocks make up the Mary Ellen McCormack housing project, the first ever public-housing facility built in the Northeast in 1936. It was home to Whitey Bulger and and his crime syndicate back in the 1970’s, and sadly aligns perfectly with the perceptions of public housing: unorganized, dirty, and riddled with crime. The number of drug busts and violent crimes that occured in the neighborhood force them to install cameras in the community for the first time in 2016. The poorly-lit, cramped design of the blocked-off buildings doesn’t help the crime rates.

When I looked across the street, I saw the answer to every problem the McCormack complexes faced: the buildings were gridded off so the front and back of each apartment—and they are apartments, not just rooms in a duplex—face a street lined with brightly lit light posts. The very cleanliness of the buildings is a crime deterrent itself. It also feels like a community, built with green spaces and a new learning center for youth and families living in affordable housing. It is the answer to the issues plaguing McCormack, and the BHA understands. They just signed a contract this past summer with WinnDevelopment Co., LP to renovate the old community and bring it into the 21st century. Ownership will be passed to WinnDevelopment, but that is a necessary sacrifice so that life can be injected into the aged, troubled area.

Across Old Colony lies another development that demonstrates the biggest problem for most affordable housing hopefuls—it’s name is Washington Village, a new set of apartments designed for young, working families. The contractor markets the building’s proximity to the beach, new bars, and downtown Boston. Fresh college graduates already populate the desired area that is shifting from its blue-collar roots. The Boston Planning and Development Agency does work with developers to create affordable housing within their projects, but according to Livingston, it all depends on how you define the term.

“When somebody says affordable housing, you need to ask them what that means for that particular development,” she said.

Typical affordable housing is for earners of 70-100 percent of Boston’s Area Median Income, which stands at $98,500. Washington Village is set to provide 110 units that are marked “affordable,” but not to those who need it most. Applicants for public housing earn about 15-20 percent of the AMI.

The renovations of these old housing projects are necessary and helpful, but the developers can only afford to build one new affordable space for each old one because there is an ever-decreasing amount of subsidies set aside for low-income workers. BHA also cannot expand into other parts of the city due to private developers like those at Washington Village. BHA simply isn’t provided a budget to rebuild—they’re only meant to maintain. According to Livingston, there are currently 40,000 families and individuals on the waiting list for the brand new developments and other public housing around the city.

Boston is one of the most forward-thinking, progressive cities in the country—but it does face a housing crisis, as I’ve discovered through my journey along the streets of Southie. I had heard about gentrification and all its issues, but the magnitude never reached me. That is, until I opened my eyes to what always looked back at me.

When I asked Livingston if she thought there was enough affordable housing in Boston, she answered bluntly: “No, of course not.”

Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor