In Bunker Hill, Boston tries to reimagine public housing
Developers want to turn the Bunker Hill housing project in Charlestown into a mixed-income neighborhood. The current residents are wary about what might happen next.
On the back side of Charlestown sit eight blocks of low-slung buildings from a different time.
Built in 1941, the Bunker Hill Housing Development has the signature look of old-school public housing, precise rows of drab brick buildings around stretches of open asphalt and grass courtyards that sprout rows of standing clotheslines.
The trim and neat setting, where children play football and ride scooters and elderly women lug home groceries, belies the Bunker Hill complex’s role as a testing ground for a radical reimagining of Boston’s approach to housing its poorest residents.
After decades of segregating low-income tenants in aging projects, Bunker Hill is the start of a new effort that will move them into trendy new apartments, side-by-side with wealthier neighbors willing to pay 10 times the rent for the unit next door.
With little money and a daunting list of repairs and renovations, the Boston Housing Authority wants to leverage the city’s hot real estate market by partnering with a private developer to build new homes for Bunker Hill’s 2,600 residents. In exchange for razing and replacing the complex’s 1,100 units, the developer will be allowed to build as many as 1,600 more apartments, at rents more often found in higher-end apartment buildings.
If successful, the authority intends to replicate the model at other public housing developments across the city. It’s already seeking proposals at smaller sites in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and the South End.
“This is clearly the wave of the future,” Housing Authority administrator Bill McGonagle said. “If these large, older, urban public housing developments are going to survive, this is what we need to do.”
Four prominent real estate firms have submitted redevelopment plans to the BHA. Each would spend about $1 billion replacing Bunker Hill’s warren of low-rises and cul-de-sacs with open streets of bright, modern apartment buildings with a total of up to 2,700 units. Amenities in some proposals include new parks and other open spaces, stores and offices, and even a hockey rink.
One would extend the Freedom Trail through the site to mark the advance of British Redcoats during the battle that gave the project its name, inviting tourists through a place that today feels closed off to the outside.
One proposal suggests renting 700-square-foot units for $2,600 a month — comparable with those in the graceful brick townhouses of Charlestown’s tonier blocks. By contrast, tenants in the complex today, where the average household income is less than $15,000 a year, average $330 a month in rent.
“Those market-rate rents, quite frankly, will help subsidize my poorer families,” McGonagle said. “It’s pretty straightforward.”
Similar efforts to remake public housing are underway in New York and San Francisco. Chicago is 15 years into a $1.6 billion replacement of its legendary high-rise projects with new buildings that mix tenants of different incomes.
Many Bunker Hill tenants are trying to fathom the magnitude of change coming their way. Several said they’d love to see their aging apartments replaced with newer, nicer homes. But some are also wary of what the change will mean for them.
“I won’t lie. Some of it is welcome. The idea that they’re promising is an improvement,” said Nilaya Montalvo, who has lived in Bunker Hill for about eight years and works at an advocacy group for the homeless. “But also it’s extremely unnerving. It’s unknown.”
Montalvo was one of several residents who said recently they really didn’t know much about the plans, beyond what they’d heard in neighborhood chatter. The Housing Authority has held several public meetings, but those have been in the early evenings when many people are still at work, said Maria Santos, a mother of three daughters who has lived in the complex for a decade. The whole idea is unsettling to her.
“I’m just not very happy about it,” she said.
Conditions could be better — upkeep is a constant challenge, Santos said. But she likes living here: Her daughters can walk to school, and the sense of community among tenants is strong.
“I know people who have lived here for 30 years,” Santos said, while watching her daughters and some friends at a playground. “They’ve raised families here. They like it.”
Santos and other residents have reason to be worried about losing that sense of community, said Mark Joseph, director of the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities and a professor at Case Western Reserve University. Joseph spent seven years studying new public housing complexes in Chicago that, as Boston is proposing, mix poor and upper-income tenants. The atmosphere of the places changed dramatically, and not always for the better.
“Those who are low-income are still really cut off from their neighbors. In some ways, they’re in a worse position,” Joseph said. “They’d say, ‘Before I was being stigmatized by society. Now I’m being stigmatized by my next-door neighbor.’ ”
In Chicago — unlike the concentrated redevelopment that’s planned here — the new buildings were scattered across the city and included fewer low-income units in total than were demolished. That might have helped attract more market-rate tenants, Joseph said, but only 10 percent of the tenants who lived in the old towers moved into the new apartments.
“You’ve got these gorgeous new communities, but only a few get to come back to them,” Joseph said.
The Boston Housing Authority is promising that any current Bunker Hill resident who wants a spot in the new complex will get one.
McGonagle expects that some will choose to move on, but he is nonetheless aiming for a much higher return of tenants than Chicago — 50 percent is a broad goal. He’s also pushing to have the project built in several phases, so residents can relocate across the development instead of across the city during construction, keeping social connections, commutes, and schools intact.
That’s a good start, said Lawrence Vale, an urban studies professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said it’s also important to blend units and tenants across the entire income spectrum, not just create a community of rich and poor.
“When possible, it’s much better to avoid the completely polarized mix of incomes,” Vale said. “That doesn’t really foster the kind of connections you most want to see.”
Among the Bunker Hill submissions, two plans include so-called “workforce” housing, to rent at more modest prices to middle-income tenants. Such units will probably require government subsidies to build — $125,000 per unit, one proposal estimates.
The closest parallel to what the Boston Housing Authority wants to do might be in San Francisco, which also is partnering with private developers to rebuild aging public housing developments as mixed-income neighborhoods.
Like Boston, San Francisco has a strong housing market that can draw private money to the project, Vale said. And like Bunker Hill, the San Francisco projects have space to build new market-rate housing, which makes them more attractive to developers.
The city is part of the way through its first project, redoing San Francisco’s troubled Hunters Point complex into an 800-unit mixed-income development. And it’s working on more.
In Boston, the Housing Authority expects to pick a developer within the next month or so and begin construction within 18 months. The first phase could be done two years after work begins.
McGonagle noted that the four companies competing for the project — Corcoran Jennison, Preservation of Affordable Housing Inc., Related Beal, and Trinity Financial — all have experience building and managing affordable housing in Boston and elsewhere.
“These are serious, heavyweight housing development teams,” McGonagle said. “They all put forth very good, very thoughtful proposals.”
The four developers all declined comment, citing the ongoing competition.
Whomever the Housing Authority selects to build the complex will also manage it and run the waiting list for low-income tenants. When it comes to enforcement of day-to-day rules, Kathy Brown, coordinator at the Boston Tenant Coalition, questioned whether longtime low-income tenants will be on equal footing with the wealthier newcomers.
“People can have a lot of assumptions when you see youth hang out, especially people of color,” Brown said. “How you manage things like that will be really important.”
In many ways, Charlestown is an ideal place to launch such an experiment. The neighborhood has gentrified fast in recent years — its median household income today is more than $86,000, much higher than the city as a whole. Loft apartments up the street rent for as high as $4,000. Demand for high-end housing is strong.
Yet one in five people in Charlestown live below the poverty line, many of them today isolated in Bunker Hill. The development has a far higher share of children than the neighborhood as a whole, and fewer working-age adults. And the racial gap is stark: While 72 percent of the people who live in Charlestown are white, 76 percent of residents of the Bunker Hill development are African-American or Hispanic.
If a new project can better blend the two universes split by Bunker Hill Street — and if newcomers can feel safe in a place with a reputation for a high crime rate — it’ll be successful for all involved, said Nancy Roth, an agent with Hammond Residential Real Estate in Charlestown.
“We’re desperately in need of housing here,” Roth said. “If there’s a chance to elevate the quality of life for people who live [at Bunker Hill] now and to create more, that’d be great.”
That appeals to Billy Bent, a five-year Bunker Hill resident who describes the place as “depressing.” He likes what he’s heard about the new apartments, especially if they mean an end to the dark staircases and hallways that Bent says breed trouble. Any change that integrates the closed-off community into the rest of flourishing Charlestown, he says, would be good.
“It’s a whole different world across the street,” Bent said, gesturing to the picturesque blocks up Bunker Hill. “This place keeps you stuck. It’s hard to get out of here.”
That’s a relic of a different time. And if McGonagle has his way, it won’t be like that for much longer.