In late July, the Massachusetts House passed a bill that created new certifications for police and restricted use-of-force tactics. This follows the bill recently passed by the Massachusetts Senate, which would limit qualified immunity, ban the use of choke holds, limit tear gas use, license law enforcement officers, and require training in the history of racism.
Though these reform bills will hopefully lead to a reduction in police violence, they do little to address the day-to-day safety concerns of those living within public housing developments. In conversations about how to give the community greater control over their own safety, state leaders could learn from one historic Boston public housing development, Mildred C. Hailey Apartments.
Mildred C. Hailey Apartments, formerly known as Bromley-Heath projects, is a 779-unit Boston public housing development in Jamaica Plain. It was the first development in the United States to establish a tenant management corporation, or TMC. The TMC, comprised primarily of residents, including cofounders Mildred C. Hailey and Anna Cole, had full control of managing the complex from 1972 to 2012. It saw remarkable results.
Over the four decades of TMC control, the complex saw a turnaround in safety, quality-of-life, and improved police-tenant relations. That’s in part because, in the 1970s, Mildred C. Hailey apartments developed its own resident-led security force and later, its own police department. With their help, crime declined. The TMC-police partnership was effective because the power dynamics between the police and tenants differed from typical police-community relations — the TMC controlled officers’ paychecks.
One longtime resident told me that the TMC was so successful because “most of the people lived here, so they were a recipient of their services. They wanted everything to be nice.”
And they were not alone. From the 1970s to the 1990s, there was a national pattern of improved safety and quality-of-life under tenant management corporations. Though not a universal solution to public housing crises, many historic TMCs in cities such as Washington, D.C., Chicago, and St. Louis, saw improved conditions for the most vulnerable once community members had control.
The successes of TMCs show that reimagining public safety must not be limited to police reform. It must include giving increased control and financial and institutional resources to community leaders who have long played a crucial role in developing innovative methods for keeping their communities safe.
To be sure, Mildred C. Hailey Apartments has had its share of violence and safety concerns over the years, including in 1998, when over two dozen people, including two of Hailey’s relatives, were arrested during a drug raid at the development. There was a one-year takeover of the complex by the Boston Housing Authority as a result.
But by and large, the TMC was able to address residents’ safety concerns. In fact, safety at the complex seems to have worsened since the TMC disbanded in 2012, which was reportedly due to organizational mismanagement. According to a former TMC board member, “Mrs. Hailey got sick, and all the responsibility that she had, she let other people do it, and it wasn’t the same.”
Just a few months after Hailey announced her retirement, several people were shot within the span of two-and-a-half weeks at the complex. As a result, the Boston Police Department announced it would open an office at the complex, the BPD’s only outpost at a Boston public housing development. In May, the complex saw a double shooting on the second anniversary of a 2018 double homicide. In community meetings, elders have revealed that they carry knives for protection.
As concerns over safety, especially gun violence, persist within low-income communities nationwide, state and federal legislators would be wise to learn from this history. There needs to be increased funding for safety initiatives within public housing developments, focusing especially on resident-led community patrols and the establishment of new tenant management corporations. Tenant advocacy and review boards must be instituted to assess the effectiveness of public housing staff in addressing safety and quality-of-life concerns, including administrative staff, security, and police.
Achieving greater safety and quality-of-life in low-income neighborhoods is not an easy task. It requires calculated efforts to address the root causes of these issues, including lack of access to quality education, unemployment, and other inequalities that leave Black and brown communities vulnerable. But if history is any indicator, community leaders deserve more than just a seat at the table: They must also have control over safety initiatives if we are to ever see real, longstanding improvements.
Jasmine Nicole Olivier is a sociology PhD candidate at Harvard University. Her dissertation research focuses on historical and contemporary approaches to safety and quality-of-life issues at Mildred C. Hailey Apartments.