The housing projects Columbia Point and Commonwealth illustrate two different strategies the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) used to cope with the failure of post-war public housing. Public housing in the US has faced a unique set of challenges: the American ethos of homeownership; the particularities of American racism; and – the dark corollary of the American Dream – a suspicion that those with less do not deserve more than they have “earned.” In the first of a four-part Housing as History series being held at the Massachusetts Historical Society this fall, co-sponsored by the Joint Center for Housing Studies, MIT Professor Lawrence Vale opened last week’s event by examining these challenges in the context of Boston’s long history of housing “public neighbors.”
Vale divides the history of housing the poor in Boston between efforts to help those deemed the “worthy poor” and attempts to isolate and contain the remainder. The BHA, founded in 1935, envisioned public housing as a reward for the “best” families in need; those who conformed to acceptable family structures, eschewed “excessive” drinking, were citizens, and – for the most part – were white. Of the 25 public housing developments built in Boston between 1935 and 1954, only three were originally intended for non-white tenants. Commonwealth, at only 3 percent non-white, was considered “integrated” when it opened in 1951, and comprised 648 apartments arranged in 6-story towers and 3-story walk-ups set within a neighborhood context. Columbia Point, by contrast, was constructed far out on a spit of land in Dorchester that was already home to a city dump. At its opening in 1954, it was the largest public housing complex in New England, with 1502 apartments in its large towers. Placement in new public housing was sought-after, and both sites boasted waiting lists in their early years – which well-connected white tenants were often able to skip.
By the 1960s, a fight was underway at the level of legal and popular action to overturn the racially-biased practices the BHA used to select tenants. In 1965, the year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the BHA formally abolished its distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving,” but bureaucratic practices did not change overnight, and this legacy of discrimination would continue to plague the Authority.
Charlie Titus, who spoke at last week’s event, grew up at Columbia Point, and later came to work at the UMass Boston campus, constructed on the end of the Point, where he is currently Director of Athletics. As a child, he didn’t think about the isolation of the area. He recounted the excitement of moving into the apartment, with its new kitchen and bathroom, and his walk to school along the beach. The community was strong and organized. When dump trucks speeding through the development struck and killed a young girl in 1963, tenants occupied the street and refused to move until the dump was shut down.
Despite the site’s inherent challenges, Titus maintains that the development could have worked if the Boston Housing Authority had worked. After 1963, the community of Columbia Point began to split along racial lines, reflecting divisions in the wider city. The frustration of living in a deteriorating environment exacerbated tensions. The BHA had stopped providing basic maintenance; tenants took it in shifts to clean the communal hallways, until things got so bad that families started to leave. By the late 70s, occupancy rates had fallen below 30 percent.
By 1975, with the opening of the UMass campus and announcement of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the value of the land became more apparent, and attitudes towards the housing complex began to change. When the BHA was placed into court-ordered receivership in 1979, developer James Corcoran was brought in to turn Columbia Point into Harbor Point, a privately-run, mixed-income community. Jane Roessner, who also spoke at the event last week, is author of A Decent Place to Live, a book that tells the story of this transformation. The buildings were demolished or completely transformed, and the grid was reoriented to optimize the prime asset of ocean views. The mixed-income strategy was, proponents argued, a funding necessity – but it was also an ideological project. It was thought that attracting higher-income tenants would remove the stigma that had become attached to Columbia Point.
A coalition of tenants supported the redevelopment effort. The political establishment, Titus pointed out, wanted to tear everything down and be done with it. It was a question of saving something, anything, for the people who had lived there before. When Harbor Point opened in 1991, it included 400 subsidized apartments, with the remaining 873 at market rate. Commentators celebrated the profitable revitalization of the failing project – though Vale argued that it was better characterized as public housing replacement.
Commonwealth was a different story. Built in a blue-collar neighborhood with some proximity to downtown, it started out with the advantage of preexisting amenities. However, it was not immune to the problems of Boston’s public housing. Prior to the 1965 policy change, administrators had kept the percentage of non-white residents in public housing artificially low. The white neighborhoods that housed many projects did not react favorably to the subsequent increase in diversity, during a decade when the busing crisis brought Boston’s racism into the national spotlight. Eligible whites increasingly chose not to apply for public housing. Occupancy rates and maintenance declined, and rampant neglect caused significant deterioration. Commonwealth was one of the sites in the worst physical condition when it was chosen for redevelopment, but it benefited from strong tenant solidarity.
The value of land in Brighton led some tenants to fear that the site would be sold off, so the Commonwealth Tenants Association worked closely with the BHA to secure desired changes. The redevelopment, designed by Tise Associates, opened in 1985. The transformation was achieved in part by reimagining the landscape and architecture; apartments were reconfigured as townhouses with small yards, and a community center and play areas were added. Vale attributes the success of the redevelopment to a high level of respect among tenants and a collaborative approach towards management. The new standards of community conduct were not imposed from above, based on ideas of how “the poor” should behave, but generated by residents to hold each other accountable. Tenants’ organized action prevented the feared outcome: though now under private management, Commonwealth remains 100 percent public units today.
The next event in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Housing as History series will be Villa Victoria and the Fenway Community Development Corporation, next Wednesday, October 16 at 6pm.
Photo courtesy of Tise Design Associates.