Cathy Mande surveyed the rubble of her former home on a recent warm day, a serene look on her face. A few days later, the rubble would be gone, cleared away to build what many hope will be a new model for affordable housing.
Months prior, when Mande first got word to pack up the apartment where she and her three children live in Charlestown’s Bunker Hill public housing complex, she didn’t bother. Like many who live in what is, at 1,110 units, Boston’s largest public housing development, Mande found it hard to believe the long-discussed redevelopment would ever happen. Now, she and her children are among 110 families who have moved to make way for the first phase of what will be a more than $1.4 billion, decade-long overhaul.
Even by the standards of large-scale real-estate development, the overhaul of Bunker Hill has been an epic saga, involving two development teams, three administrators of the Boston Housing Authority, and three mayors. When finished, the new complex of 2,699 units will comprise more than 25 percent of the housing stock in Charlestown.
A crucial element of the redevelopment is that more than half of the new units will be market-rate housing, the rents used to subsidize the low-income residences, the largest project of its kind ever undertaken in the city.
As Mande stood recently at the corner of Medford and Tufts streets, where a chain-link fence and asbestos warnings encircled rubble from which 102 new homes for Boston’s poorest will rise, the project that had never quite seemed real was suddenly quite tangible.
“When I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh, finally,’ ” Mande said.
She and her family are one of 62 families who relocated to other Bunker Hill units to make way for the construction. When they move back into the first all-affordable building by the end of next year, they’ll find a home that will be indistinguishable from the market-rate apartments that will soon sprout next door: in-unit washer and dryer and walk-in closet, exposed ceilings, tile backsplash, and quartz kitchen countertops.
Rehabilitating the 1940s-era Charlestown community has been discussed for decades, and launched by the BHA on Bunker Hill Day in 2015. Importantly, it will offer a template for redoing worn-out public housing across Boston — featuring a big role for residents.
Every big project that gets proposed in Boston undergoes rounds of community meetings and public comment, and resident groups form to weigh in. But few like this. At Bunker Hill, the Charlestown Resident Alliance hired its own attorneys, architects, and consultants — on the developers and BHA’s dime — and maintained a crucial seat at the table in one of the biggest real estate developments the city has seen in decades.
“We care about everybody. We care about how we live,” Nancy Martinez, the president of the residents group, said. “So if I could help anybody out there, anything that I could do, I would do it.”
It’s easy to miss this warren of low-slung brick, tucked between the back side of Bunker Hill and the Mystic River. Tourists and city dwellers alike march up to the famous monument, past the handsome red brick row houses closer to downtown, but rarely come down the other side. Yet the Bunker Hill complex is a vital part of Charlestown and Boston as well: thousands of people live in its 42 buildings, a community unto itself, where on a hot summer afternoon kids ride bikes while others play pickup basketball on the shared court.
This is where Aneudy Navarro and his husband, Edwin Ayala, were getting ready to host Navarro’s grandchildren from Kansas for the summer. One bedroom in their apartment features floor-to-ceiling Harry Potter memorabilia, hanging tapestries, and Pez dispensers, with Puerto Rican and Pride flags on display. Another features at least a dozen dream catchers, inspired by Ayala’s niece.
Navarro was in a shelter before arriving at Bunker Hill six years ago, and to him, the community is “paradise.” The couple work hard to keep their home clean, but still found mice droppings scattered across their bed about a year ago. They got a health transfer to another Bunker Hill unit, and have been happy and comfortable there.
“This is heaven, compared to the shelter,” Navarro said. “I have no complaints.”
But these buildings are 80 years old, with the World War II-era wiring and plumbing to show for it.
The BHA does what it can for upkeep — fixing a broken bathroom towel rod in Navarro’s and Ayala’s place, for example — but the age of the buildings is palpable: mice and mold, leaking roofs and windows, and minimal accessibility. Federal funding for public housing upkeep has dwindled, and state maintenance of its 43,000 public housing units is poor.
Upgrading Bunker Hill and Boston’s other public housing developments had long been a dream of Bill McGonagle, who grew up in South Boston’s Mary Ellen McCormack complex and went on to become the city’s public housing administrator. McGonagle retired in 2019 and died just a few months later, days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His loss still reverberates through the public housing community. But now his vision is finally coming to life.
It began in earnest in 2015, when the BHA issued a request for proposals to redevelop Bunker Hill into a substantial mixed-use neighborhood, using the proceeds from market-rate housing to redo the 1,110 public housing units. That fall, the BHA chose a team-up of Dorchester-based Corcoran Jennison and California-based housing developer SunCal to develop a 3,200-unit project with a mix of building sizes, including several high-rise towers.
But as with any big development, money was key too.
The BHA viewed SunCal, specializing in large mixed-use, master-planned communities, “as primarily a financial partner,” said former administrator Kate Bennett. But it was never able to square its vision for Bunker Hill with the financial reality of developing a project such as this. After years of planning, presentations, and a fair amount of community pushback, SunCal still couldn’t come up with a workable plan. It backed away in early 2018, leaving Corcoran with a quick turnaround time to find a new operating partner, or else start over.
“It was very scary when SunCal pulled out,” said CRA board member Karla Wert. “These buildings, you can’t fix them. There’s no Band-Aids that are going to fit on this place anymore.”
Enter Leggat McCall. The veteran Boston-based firm has developed university dorms and hospitals, but wasn’t exactly known for public housing. Indeed, when McGonagle first contacted Leggat McCall about the Bunker Hill project, company president Eric Sheffels didn’t think it would be up the firm’s alley. But Sheffels was taken by McGonagle’s pitch.
The BHA “had specifically set out to try and create a new paradigm for the production of affordable housing,” Sheffels said — one that would rely less on rapidly dwindling public resources, but rather “private market sensibilities and capital acumen.”
Typically these projects “had largely been stuck in a mode where it’s going to cost what it’s going to cost, and we’re going to have to bring enough subsidies or tax relief to enable this to happen,” Sheffels said. The Bunker Hill project was something of a conundrum: Not only must it replace existing affordable housing, but it also had to add much-needed market-rate residences to help tackle the region’s shortage of housing at any level.
The new development team, the BHA, and the CRA spent eight months educating each other about their goals for the project, forming the basis for a partnership they hope will be a model for public housing redevelopment across the country.
Public-private partnerships for redevelopment and rehabilitation of public housing, when a public housing authority partners with a private developer, isn’t a new concept. But taking resident input seriously can make the difference between success and something else, said Eric Shupin, formerly the director of public policy at the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association and now a top state housing official.
“It’s becoming a model that is necessary, because there aren’t enough resources being given to public housing,” Shupin said.
Leggat McCall invited the CRA to its office in Post Office Square early on, working to establish trust. Phil Wright, a CRA board member, was asked to be part of a construction committee and trekked to Suffolk Construction offices in Roxbury every Friday morning for a year and a half to hammer out details. The Leggat team offered tours to the CRA through different market-rate buildings throughout the city — both to give a sense of what the new buildings would be like, and to get a sense of preference, said Adelaide Grady, who’s leading the project for Leggat McCall.
Leggat McCall “struck us as extremely transparent. They struck us as problem solvers,” Bennett said. “We don’t always get to do the thing that is financially the best decision to make. We’re always thinking about our residents and what’s best for them. And they just seem to get that.”
Together, they came up with a plan for 2,699 apartments in 15 buildings — a combination of deeply affordable units and another 1,689 market-rate units, 7 acres of open space, new commercial space, and a community center. (Another 100 replacement units will be built elsewhere in Charlestown.) Crucially, the market-rate and affordable units will be mixed together, with no physical distinctions between them — a fact in which the CRA takes particular pride.
“That’s something to strive for, something to promote,” said Wright. “Because you know, we’ve been homeless. We’ve been down a lot. We’re very grateful that we have what we have, and we really want to see people all over America have the same thing.”
Terms were finalized in 2019, and by early 2020, the environmental reports were ready. The team was getting ready to hold community meetings — a key part of the city’s development-review process — when COVID-19 hit. The city, BHA, and Bunker Hill residents shifted into crisis mode, and public meetings that were supposed to begin in March 2020 eventually restarted in September, this time over Zoom.
This was always going to be a long process, Sheffels said, and Leggat designed the deal to account for shifting economic winds. But the company hadn’t imagined the winds would shift before the first buildings even went under construction, with interest rates spiking and materials costs escalating, putting the finances of the deal to the test. But it’s working.
“The core of the project is, how do you get 1,100 families into housing as cheaply and quickly as we possibly can, while simultaneously solving the affordability issues and creating more market-rate housing?” Sheffels said. “We’ve certainly more than had our share of challenges there. But I think we’re absolutely on the right track.”
The design team drew inspiration and color schemes from the picturesque row houses of Charlestown, and the buildings themselves will look similar to the many other new low-rise apartment buildings around Boston. What makes them stand out is primarily internal workings: each of the 15 buildings will be constructed to Passive House standards, a building standard that demands little energy for heating or cooling.
Designing a project that would appeal to a market-rate renter was critical, Grady said.
“The whole financial structure relies on the market-rate units cross-subsidizing affordable units,” Grady said. “You need to be able to bring in market-rate rents in order to do that.”
State Senator Lydia Edwards, who at the time represented Charlestown on the City Council, advocated for bringing children from the Bunker Hill community to committees and into the rooms where decisions were being made.
“They had a special perspective of what would bring them joy — what would make this a livable, proud, dignified place they would want to take their friends home to,” Edwards said. “None of us could have the perspective of a child who lives in the housing project to invite one of your friends from Boston Latin . . . to your home.”
Still, there was pushback at times. One group of neighbors worried that cutting down so many trees would do irreparable damage. Another was concerned about traffic, particularly for a neighborhood with limited access to public transportation.
And while the project is approved and underway, it will take at least a decade to complete. Which means there’s still time to tweak. Edwards, for instance, wants to see more middle-income units, and opportunities to buy, not just rent, which the developers have agreed to explore. But first, work has finally begun on the first new building at Bunker Hill in nearly eight decades: 102 deeply affordable replacement units, with amenity space for residents and open space for all. Demolition work is underway for the second building, a 265-unit mixed-income apartment.
The 15-building project will be built in 10 phases over 10 years. Grady aims for the development to knit Bunker Hill back into the Charlestown community at large — “so that it’s not ‘over there’ and ‘over here.’ ”
“This is a community that is not typically served with the highest quality, best of the best,” Grady said. “To be able to provide really high-quality housing, with dignity . . . that has been incredibly rewarding.”
Back at the corner of Medford and Tufts streets earlier this summer, that rubble pile Cathy Mande had overlooked was soon cleared for a formal groundbreaking ceremony. Holding court amid the dozens who turned out for the event was longtime Bunker Hill resident Betty “Big Mama” Carrington.
Carrington was president of the Bunker Hill Tenant Task Force — a predecessor to the CRA — when this project began, and helped choose the original development team of Corcoran and SunCal. She’s lived at Bunker Hill for more than 20 years. Her booming laughter resounding and her curls bouncing cheerfully, Carrington looked over the lot that until recently held two dilapidated apartment buildings — and now holds the promise of a new beginning.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Carrington said. “But to see that empty space — whew.”
She pressed her hands to her heart, closed her eyes, and smiled.