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With federal funds in hand, public housing also at play in Mayor Wu’s agenda

Tenish Wheeler (left) with her father, John, and sister, Tia, in front of their rat-infested apartment at Mildred C. Hailey Apartments in Jamaica Plain.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Conditions at the Mildred C. Hailey housing complex in Jamaica Plain, one of Boston’s toniest neighborhoods, have become so dire that some residents count the number of rodents they’ve personally killed. They have caulked doorways and stairwells, doing anything to keep the rodents out. And while nearby apartments often sell for more than $1 million, residents here long for basic repairs, new windows, fixes to busted appliances and straining plumbing systems in units that, in some cases, were built more than 70 years ago.

“When are you actually going to do something about this?” John Wheeler, a former Boston public school teacher and minister who lives there, asks management again and again. He raised two daughters there over the last three decades as a single parent and always found a sense of community. But “lately,” he said, “it hasn’t felt like home.”

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Such is the challenge the fledgling Wu administration is facing as it explores ways to confront one of the deepest affordable housing crises in the country. She’s armed with millions of dollars in one-time federal funds, courtesy of Congress’s COVID-relief legislation, and has vowed to pump the cash into big-picture solutions, including supporting home-ownership programs and building housing units.

But the far more difficult question is how to preserve and sustain the existing, dated public housing system, which experts say is a crucial part of any solution to Boston’s dilemma.

The competing needs raise questions over how much the city can and should be investing in an aging public housing system amid a steep decline in federal support, but one that has served as a rare anchor that allows low-income residents to remain in Boston as housing prices skyrocket.

“It’s the only thing that’s guaranteed as affordable,” said Alonso Espinosa, of the United Front Against Displacement, a nationwide group that has been organizing public housing tenants in Boston.

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City and federal governments should be investing in and expanding such government-run complexes, he said, arguing that they provide a sense of community that privately held units do not.

“The government could be putting money into this, but it chooses not to,” he said. “It’s a deliberate thing.”

The Boston Housing Authority manages roughly 10,000 public units in complexes such as Mildred Hailey, a number that does not include roughly 16,500 subsidized rental vouchers to live in private housing. Twice as many people are on the waiting list for vouchers or a slot in public housing.

Most families in public housing make less than $15,000 a year, and they pay an average of $392 per month for rent, according to Boston Housing Authority figures. The fair market rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Jamaica Plain, by contrast, is $3,375 a month, according to the Housing Authority’s calculations.

Media and others were present for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu's announcement related to affordable housing outside the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments in Jamaica Plain in January.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In January, Wu committed $50 million in city and federal funds to repairs at the Mildred Hailey complex, the largest financial commitment to preserving Boston’s public housing stock in recent years. By all accounts, it’s hardly enough to address what’s needed at Mildred Hailey and across the entire system.

Try $1 billion overall, according to some housing advocates.

“Boston needs to be looking at a long-term strategy,” said City Councilor Kenzie Bok, a former senior adviser of policy and planning for the Boston Housing Authority, who suggested the $1 billion figure as a decade-long capital investment in public housing.

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“That sounds like a lot of money, and it is — but it’s not unfathomable,” she said. “It is genuinely worth it, as a public infrastructure investment.”

Wu has already said she would direct “the bulk” of remaining federal COVID funds the city expects to support homeownership programs and construct housing. The city recently said that roughly $300 million in federal funds remain undesignated.

But what remains unclear is how much financial support the city will devote to public housing programs. The Housing Authority calculates — using figures from the federal Housing and Urban Development agency — that costs for operation and maintenance over the last 25 years have been underfunded by more than $99 million. The neglect and backlog of repairs have led to a need for $1.5 billion in capital spending.

Officials in the Wu administration would not say whether more support for public units would be part of the city’s new housing agenda, noting only that they recognize the lack of steady federal funding.

“There should be that investment every single year in housing,” said Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of housing and development. “It’s just a significant issue in most major cities.”

Kate Bennett, head of the Boston Housing Authority, which operates independently of the city, said her office has been committed to preserving public housing units as funding allows, recognizing the role such housing plays in allowing Boston’s most vulnerable — its senior citizens, families, and people with disabilities — to remain in the city. Wu’s $50 million commitment to the Mildred Hailey will fund plumbing, window, and kitchen fixes in more than 500 units.

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“We need to have a way to invest in these buildings to serve another generation,” she said.

But Bennett said the authority has looked to other federal programs, including voucher programs, to help subsidize rents in privately owned units, saying such platforms often provide more funding for individuals, and with greater protections.

Even if the authority built more public housing units, she said, it would need the funding to preserve and maintain those units.

Bennett proposed expanding voucher programs, while preserving and maintaining the public housing units the authority already operates, calling them the only foothold low-income families can use in a competitive market. Because of the decline in federal funding, she estimates that the authority will eventually be financially capable of maintaining ownership of roughly 6,500 housing units, while supporting other families with voucher programs.

“Public housing in Boston is part of the history of every neighborhood, part of the fabric of every neighborhood, and it’s critical to the future of every neighborhood,” she said. The units, “are always going to stay part of the Boston Housing Authority profile.”

Affordable housing advocates say the loss of public housing units is a national crisis; more than 10,000 units of public housing are lost across the country each year, because of obsolescence and disrepair. The housing systems are in need of $70 billion in repairs to existing structures, according to HUD’s estimates. Although low-income families may still have access to vouchers, advocates say, those programs often lack the sense of community and support services that housing complexes can provide.

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“The biggest benefit is that it provides stable housing to those who need it most,” said Diane Yentel, of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Unfortunately, the federal government has left it in the situation it is right now.”

Yentel and other advocates said cities such as Boston are increasingly required to commit resources of their own, and they are at a pivotal moment to make meaningful investments.

John Wheeler raised two daughters in his home at the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments. “Lately,” he said, “it hasn’t felt like home.”Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

“Nobody houses vulnerable populations like public housing does,” said Sunia Zaterman, of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, a coalition that researches and advocates for affordable housing policies.

“There’s no place in the [private] market for them, particularly in a place like Boston,” she said.

Tia Wheeler, 36, who lives with her sister and father in Mildred Hailey, said she saw a sense of community growing up in the complex, with residents quick to support her father as he struggled to raise two daughters as a single parent.

“At points, we’ve had it tough, but we’ve had it where people in the community were looking our way,” she said.

Now, she said, the apartments are in disrepair, and no one seems to take responsibility.

“People are more distant, keep to themselves,” she said. “There’s a lot of hesitancy.”

She remains hopeful that there will be a new commitment to Mildred Hailey and other housing complexes. But she said: “We’ve heard a lot of promises from many different mayors. There’s a lot of people who believe all of those promises aren’t for them, [that] they will be chased off to bring in people from the outside.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.