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‘His legend is so strong for the working class’: Mel King’s impact on Boston housing

Mel King in front of Tent City in May 1998.KREITER, SUZANNE GLOBE STAFF PHO

Walk into the main lobby of Tent City, and the spirit of the late Mel King is everywhere. Its foyer is named after him. Its walls are dotted with framed newspaper clips documenting the people power — led by King — that willed the mixed-income residential complex into existence.

The local civil rights icon, who died Tuesday at the age of 94, was a force in Boston. And Tent City, located at the edge of the South End, is a tangible testament to his legacy in the city.

“I call him the father of the affordable housing movement,” said Lewis Finfer, the director and community organizer for Massachusetts Action for Justice.

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As news of King’s death reverberated Wednesday, housing and political luminaries reflected on the impact of the former state representative’s advocacy.

“He deserves a statue,” Finfer said.

Byron Rushing, a former state representative, said King was among a few Massachusetts lawmakers who supported rent control and building more affordable housing. King, Rushing said, thought the state should strengthen resources “to make sure everyone had a decent house.”

“In that sense, he stood out,” Rushing said.

Today, Tent City is 270 residential units across the street from Back Bay Station, a working class oasis amid one of the richest neighborhoods in Boston. But it wasn’t always this way.

In 1968, when the building was just a vacant lot in the fast-gentrifying South End, King spearheaded protests to demand affordable housing. Developers had ideas for the plot of land, but King had his own. For one, he thought that lower-income people should share one of the best addresses in the city.

He also demanded an end to family relocation, land acquisition, and demolition, and the immediate construction of low-rent housing on vacant lots. He sought a South End housing committee that would “meet people’s needs instead of property needs” and proposed that the unemployed and underemployed build houses, schools, and other community facilities in the neighborhood.

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To drive their points home, King and hundreds of demonstrators — some say as many as 4,000 — camped out in the vacant lot in tents and makeshift huts and lean-tos. They called it “Tent City.” King put himself on the line in a very real way during the protests; he was among those arrested amid the demonstrations.

Nearly two decades later, Tent City, the housing development, opened to residents.

“One thing people should get out of this is no matter what the obstacle people face in any struggle, if the vision and ideas are sound, others will join you. . . . Soon you have a movement,” King said in an interview years ago. “Tent City was a movement.”

That mindset defined King’s politics and activism throughout his life.

As Finfer recalled, King hosted a Wednesday breakfast in the 1980s and invited the staff of nonprofits, city planners, and students to brainstorm housing ideas while he cooked grits, eggs, and bacon. Those breakfasts, Finfer said, brought policy makers and their ideas together.

As a state legislator in the 1970s and 1980s, King sponsored laws that made community development corporations — nonprofits that often foster affordable housing — possible, according to Finfer. King also championed a law that provides technical assistance to nonprofits that build affordable housing and child-care centers.

Michael Gondek, who worked in affordable housing in the state for more than 40 years, said King was “really responsible for creating the infrastructure for affordable housing and community development not just in Boston, but in Massachusetts.”

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Gondek thought King’s housing advocacy was rooted in his lived experience. King grew up on what was known as the “New York streets” area of the South End, and his home was demolished as part of urban renewal, said Gondek.

“That left an indelible impression on Mel,” Gondek said. “He was a social justice warrior. He didn’t like big government pushing people around.”

Indeed, in 1972, King compared the proposed Southwest Expressway — an 8-mile extension of Interstate 95 from Canton to the South End that threatened to displace thousands — to a “declaration of war against the community.”

Fifteen years later, his focus remained on helping those in need.

“People are still struggling daily for housing,” he told the Globe in 1987 while advocating for the city to use more of its land “to meet the needs of people with low and moderate incomes”

Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a Boston political consultant, said King “constantly fought for more low-income housing.” He was someone who “felt for everybody that was mistreated” and a champion of communities of color, she said.

“His legend is so strong for the working class,” she said.

Former Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh said during his first term that he would speak with King weekly.

Walsh considered King a mentor and a friend, someone who would give him honest feedback on the job he was doing as city executive. When the two would talk about housing, the conversation would often turn to Tent City, which King was “very proud of,” Walsh said.

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“His focus was really on keeping people in the community,” Walsh said Wednesday.

Joe Kriesberg, chief executive at MassINC, a local nonpartisan think tank, said King was among the city’s most important voices in pushing back against 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 also faced the wrecking ball.

Many of the current major players in affordable housing in the state credit King as a major influence, Kriesberg said.

“Mel believed that people impacted by policies should have a voice in those policies,” Kriesberg said.

John Nucci, a former city councilor, said King understood the power of organized movements.

Nothing exemplified that better than the Tent City development, which has been credited with planting the seeds for linkage fees, which require large developers to fund affordable housing. Additionally, the Tent City protests helped birth a half-dozen elected neighborhood councils that, for decades, enjoyed strong input into land-use issues in the city.

“Mel changed the dynamic from people wishing they had more affordable places to live, to demanding it,” Nucci said.

With the city and region in the midst of a housing crisis, much of King’s advocacy remains relevant today, according to housing experts.

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Heather Cook benefits from King’s legacy daily. The longtime Tent City resident on Wednesday called King “a beacon of light for the South End.”

“Boston is a better place because of Mel King,” she said.

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald.