In 1968, a Boston revolution began.
A group of protesters — most estimates pegged the crowd to be in the hundreds, although some say there were as many as 4,000 — camped out in a South End lot in tents and makeshift huts and lean-tos. They called it “Tent City.” And they weren’t going to move until they got their way.
At the time, Boston, much like the rest of the country, was undergoing urban renewal, a process that often displaced people of color from neighborhoods a city deemed to be blighted. The West End’s residential core was gutted in the 1950s in the name of urban renewal progress, displacing thousands of Bostonians. Parts of the South End were also targeted with a wrecking ball. Years prior to Tent City, the city had leveled brick row houses in the fast-gentrifying neighborhood and reportedly planned to build a parking garage on the site — or luxury housing, according to other reports.
But the occupiers, led by local civil rights icon Mel King, demanded the city instead build a low-cost housing complex.
Eventually, the spirit of the demonstrators won. It took two decades, but the subsidized, mixed-income complex now known as “Tent City” opened in the late 1980s — a living symbol of the idea that lower-income people should share one of the best addresses in Boston.
”Tent City was a movement,” King said years ago.
But nowadays some tenants say it’s anything but the working-class oasis protesters sought to create. Once a symbol of equity and progress, Tent City is now rife with the maintenance problems and tenant misery common to many other rental properties. History has run headlong into claims of neglect.
Complaints by tenants are numerous and various. One tenant speaks of having to slip cash to maintenance workers to get a leaky bathtub and broken garbage disposal fixed. Others say mold is an ever-present health hazard. Some even complain that workers took so long to remove a dead rat from a patio that it was decomposed by the time someone showed up with a shovel to deal with it.
In short, critics say the property’s manager, Peabody Properties of Braintree, is allowing their homes to fall into disrepair; the company acknowledges that the property needs improvements but says a planned refinance of the property should help with much-needed upgrades.
”Here we are, how many years later, and the children of the elders who helped to make Tent City what it is are in the fight to protect and preserve its legacy,” said Heather Cook, a 48-year-old lifelong resident of the complex.
”It feels like everything is coming full circle,” she added.
Today, interviews with a dozen Tent City residents paint a grim picture of a place where appliances don’t get fixed and maintenance problems languish. Tenants say they fear retaliation if they complain, and, after a November homicide in the courtyard, question whether the complex is safe.
Those who run Tent City frame the various complaints as coming from a small contingent of residents, with Peabody and Tent City’s board officials saying they had first heard of some of the issues when notified by the Globe. Peabody said that residents’ safety is a priority and that repairs are made as the company is made aware of problems.
“Regarding maintenance issues, any residents experiencing the abovementioned issues are encouraged to notify management,” the company said in an e-mail.
Disputes over the maintenance of rental complexes are common, but at Tent City, tensions are particularly high.
By the fall of 2021, tenants say conditions were so bad that four dozen of them had signed a petition demanding answers from Tent City officials to more than 60 questions, ranging from why a faulty HVAC system had yet to be repaired to whether there were any attempts underway to sell the property. The chairwoman of Tent City’s board of directors, which is currently composed of residents, and Peabody officials said there are no plans to sell.
Still, more than a year later, Cook, who spearheaded the petition effort, said there are still outstanding questions.
Meanwhile, Peabody and Tent City’s board of directors said they answered questions from the petitioners last October and offered to meet with the group to discuss their responses. That invitation, according to the board and Peabody, remains open.
”I don’t want anyone on this property to feel unheard,” said Vanessa Saulsberry, chairwoman of the Tent City’s board of directors, during a recent interview.
Currently, 75 percent of the roughly 270 Tent City residential units are income-restricted, and the remaining are market-rate. A regulatory agreement means Tent City must maintain that residential make-up, according to authorities who run the place. Still, with Boston in the grips of a brutal housing crisis, some of the more than 800 residents who live here worry, saying they feel like management is trying to make life so miserable that they will move out.
“The way they’re running Tent City, it’s not right, they don’t care for us as tenants,” said one resident who, like others interviewed for this story, did not want to be named out of fear of retribution from Peabody. “We are paying the rent and we get nothing.”
Some tenants said water leaks are a consistent problem that don’t get properly addressed. When one resident complained about mold removal, Peabody started questioning her about the status of her tenancy, the resident said. How long had she lived there? What were the specific circumstances of her living situation? Those questions were immaterial to her complaint, the tenant said.
“Maybe there was a miscommunication between the two parties?” said a Peabody spokesperson in an e-mail. “We are happy to review further/address with additional specifics.”
Cook, the Tent City resident who organized the 2021 petition, said she was forced to hire a lawyer that year after Peabody sent her a cease-and-desist letter for reporting some of the 28 outstanding issues in her unit to the city’s inspectional services, according to an e-mail shown to the Globe.
“They did everything they could to make it feel like we’re not at home,” Cook said.
The Tent City building is owned by a resident-run nonprofit corporation. The Boston Planning and Development Agency owns the land, while Peabody runs the daily operations of the complex.
Cook, who has contacted the state attorney general’s office with her concerns, is pushing for an audit of the development’s finances. Peabody, meanwhile, says the property is already subject to regular audits.
Last year, Tent City’s board of directors and Peabody commissioned a study to assess necessary renovations, a plan that may include “refinancing and city cooperation... to meet the property’s immediate, short-term needs and proactively address future long-term capital needs and improvements,” Peabody said in its statement.
This week, a Peabody official said he expected a refinance for the property to be completed this summer, which would allow for a stem-to-stern upgrade of the property. Adam Kenney, Peabody’s executive vice president of operations, acknowledged that Tent City is a “dated property” that “needs TLC.”
“It needs a large injection of cash and we’re extremely close,” he said recently.
In the meantime, frustration continues for some residents. “They fix nothing,” one said.
Others said they do not feel safe at night and think the personnel who work at the complex too often dismiss their security concerns. Tenants complain that homeless people and those struggling with addiction sometimes walk the halls of the residences.
In December, there was a small memorial in the main courtyard of the complex for Jason Murray, a 39-year-old South Boston resident, who was gunned down there in November. Cook said that street lights in the courtyard were off at the time of the late-night shooting. And while the complex has security cameras, she asserts they are not functional and did not capture the incident.
“It shouldn’t take a life to get the lights on,” Cook said. “All they had to do is change the light bulbs.”
Peabody said that all lighting at the complex is currently working, but a walk around the courtyard at night in mid-December showed that at least 10 lights were out, though visibility was still fair.
The company maintained that the courtyard was well-lit at the time of the shooting and that the surveillance system had “some level of function” when Murray was killed. The Peabody spokeswoman said she did not know if the slaying was captured on camera. Citing the ongoing homicide investigation, Boston police declined to speak about that detail.
In its statement, Peabody said a full upgrade of the complex’s security cameras is being reviewed.
At Tent City, some residents are custodians at local universities, cleaners at TD Garden, and public school teachers. Some are retirees. Some are immigrants who speak English as a second language. These are the kind of residents who were envisioned for the complex during the demonstrations of the late 1960s. Still, some who call Tent City home say they feel ignored.
Starkia Benbow, 42, who has been living there for almost 20 years, has complained that her living conditions are unhealthy. There is a persistent mold problem in the bathroom that she feels hasn’t been adequately addressed. She had to get a court order for a maintenance crew to take action, and even then, they just wiped down the wall that had the mold instead of replacing it, she said. The mold, she said, has exacerbated her asthma.
Another headache: a leaking showerhead. When she requested a new one, property management said they did not have any in stock.
“It used to be a family community, family-oriented, and now it’s not,” she said.
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.