One day in 1963, when Ray Mariano was in the seventh grade, he walked about a mile — from his family's apartment in Worcester's notorious Great Brook Valley housing project to a leafy street of single-family homes — to play with a friend from school. "His father came to the door and he was very nice," Mariano recalls. "He asked me where I was from, and when I told him, his face changed. He said, 'Just a minute' in a deep voice. And I could hear him on the other side of the door saying to my friend, 'Tell him you're busy. Kids like that, he's going to end up in the same neighborhood that he's in right now. He'll never amount to anything.' My friend came out, looked at the ground, and said, 'I've got homework to do.' He never even looked up."
This is a story Mariano, a four-term former mayor of Worcester and today the executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority (WHA), has told in public before, and it always ends the same way: "I guess his father was right" about staying in the projects, he says with a chuckle. "The only difference is, now I have the keys to all the apartments." What Mariano doesn't usually add is that the walk to his friend's house felt like 10 minutes, but the walk home, his face burning with shame, felt like 10 hours. "It was about as humiliating an experience as you can imagine," he says.
Over the years, run-ins like that gave Mariano a chip on his shoulder, he admits — "a big one." But a half century later, they are also having a significant butterfly effect: Those memories helped inform a WHA policy that the 64-year-old Mariano recently introduced and that Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito has vowed the Baker administration will take statewide. It's called A Better Life, and Mariano rolled out its latest — and most forceful — version in May at a press conference attended by Polito, state housing secretary Jay Ash, and other political heavyweights.
Like test programs in other cities across the United States, A Better Life, or ABL, provides support to public housing residents to go to school or work, get their driver's license, learn English, and more. But there's something different about ABL, too, and it's something big: It requires at least one adult from each of the WHA's 393 state-subsidized family public housing apartments to either work 1,200 hours a year (about 23 a week) or attend school full time . If they don't get with the program, they'll be asked to get out.
There are exceptions. Residents can combine work and school. Disabled residents and those over 55 — populations that make up 60 percent of Worcester public housing — are also exempt. Single parents are not, and must arrange their own daycare, though some will get state vouchers to help pay for it. Any residents who don't meet those exemptions and don't comply with ABL's requirements risk being evicted.
A Better Life has ruffled feathers among some tenants and housing advocates, but that's not a problem for Mariano, who is on nothing less than a mission to remake public housing. "Look, the current system is by any standard an abject failure," he says. "What we know is that 70 to 80 percent of residents in Worcester family public housing are unemployed. Forty percent [of 18-to-24 year olds] don't have a high school diploma or GED. Some have been here three, four, five generations. The intergenerational poverty this creates is almost criminal. Helping people in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in has been the cause of my life, and I make no apologies for that."
Mariano figures that if completing his mission means a few scuffles along the way, so be it. His scrappiness is another legacy of growing up in the projects. "You get picked on enough . . ." he says, trailing off. "When the mission is critical and you know with every fiber of your being that you are right, you fight for it."
Public housing got its start as a concept in the United States in 1934 as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal; by 1937, it was made a reality through the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act, which allotted $500 million in loans for building projects in urban areas across the country. Massachusetts got involved in the 1940s, constructing housing for veterans returning from World War II. That's why Ray Mariano's story begins in Worcester's projects.
"My father was disabled in the war and couldn't work much," he says. "He couldn't see out of one eye, couldn't use one hand, and had a number of other ailments." Mariano's mother worked occasionally as a salesclerk, but for the better part of two decades she had children in diapers — Mariano is the oldest of nine. He remembers wearing his cousins' hand-me-downs as a kid and sleeping on a mattress on the floor. When the family was hungry, he was the one sent to the food pantry. "My parents were ashamed to go and I was a child, so they sent me thinking that a child wouldn't be embarrassed," he says. "They were wrong."
After 20 years in public housing, Mariano's family moved to "affordable housing," which he describes as merely "half a step up." But all of his siblings eventually went on to successful careers, starting families and buying their own homes.
Mariano's success was the most public. As a lifelong liberal in heavily Democratic Worcester, he was a popular enough mayor that he became the only one in the city's history to serve four consecutive two-year terms, from 1993 to 2001. He then spent two years working as a marketing and business consultant. By 2003, Mariano was back in public life, having been named head of the housing authority, which oversees 24 properties with more than 6,600 units (split between public housing and leased apartments covered by Section 8 and other voucher programs). He and his wife, Antonia, a public school teacher, live near Indian Lake and have three grown children. Looking back, Mariano says his parents and grandparents were the role models for hard work and personal responsibility that helped him and his siblings get where they are today.
He acknowledges that public housing in 2015 is different than it was when he was growing up in the 1950s and '60s, with higher rates of single parenting, mental health issues, domestic violence, drug use, and gang activity. But the core problem, he believes, is that life guidance is missing for many families. "People who live in public housing are more likely to know someone who's been arrested than someone who has a four-year college degree," he says. "In no other neighborhood is that acceptable."
When he started at the WHA in 2003, his priority was to clean up the projects. A great believer in the broken-windows theory of urban renewal, he added police details and made sure his custodial staff caught up on work orders. "When I got here, we had abandoned cars, sofas, garbage all over the place, graffiti, and crime out of control," he says. "I would go out with the police at ten, eleven, midnight, and we would run out of handcuffs." He recalls as many as six arrests a night, almost always of non-tenants. "People said, 'You can't do that.' I said, 'Guess what? Call anybody you want. I'm going to make this place nice.' " Over time, he says, the changes helped cut overall crime by 60 percent.
Even today, Mariano walks the halls of his buildings with colleagues and tenant leaders once a month. But he's always had higher ambitions than merely spiffing up the infrastructure. To try to break the cycle of dependence that he says public housing policy encourages, he beefed up the school-work program, adding, among other things, credit counseling, savings encouragement, job-search help, and parenting workshops. By 2011, the various components came together in A Better Life.
ABL was originally meant to be voluntary, but that didn't really pan out. About 1,500 families would have been eligible in both the state and federal subsidized apartments the WHA oversees, but only around three dozen signed up (and some of them dropped out almost immediately). So, on to Plan B: Those on the long waiting list for housing would be given admissions preference if they applied to ABL. Mariano sent out 559 letters, but fewer than 7 percent enrolled. "The other 93 percent said, 'I've been waiting a long time and I'll wait a little longer,' " he recalls. " 'I don't want to go to work.' " He tells of a "strapping" young man interviewed on the local television news who said, " 'We were just homeless and now they want me to go to work? That's just rude.' "
"I thought, that's the problem," Mariano says. "He has no expectation of work."
Eventually Mariano decided the only way to get tenants to agree to enter A Better Life was to require it. Last fall, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development approved his request to enforce that mandate for the WHA's 2,607 federally funded apartments. But months after approval and hours after the program's official launch, the agency reversed course, saying Worcester lacked a necessary pilot-initiative designation. The federal apartments were suddenly off the table.
Mariano soon secured the Commonwealth's approval to try the program in the nearly 400 state-funded apartments, and would pay for it with roughly $600,000 in grant money from the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts. But first, he would offer a few words on why the feds changed their minds. "One explanation is they're incompetent," he told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. "The second explanation is they're cowards, because they got some phone calls and some pushback."
Mariano admits he could sometimes choose his words more carefully, though he doesn't show any sign of doing that. He's not about to let up on his core criticism that the system is broken and its administrators are unwilling to change it. "People in Washington are lazy or cowardly," he says, "because the easiest thing to do is put more money into a system that exists. They're afraid someone might say, 'You don't sound like a Democrat' or 'You sound paternalistic.' Get a spine."
Between the work and school requirements and the threatened evictions, Mariano has made a few enemies among the tenants, several of whom declined to speak on the record. The loudest voice among them is from Wanda Alvarado Eaton, who calls him a dictator and has accused the WHA of neglecting repairs in her apartment and others and of treating some tenants unfairly. In May, she wrote on Facebook, "This is a war against the poor and single parents and in most cases minorities." (Up to 80 percent of tenants in WHA family housing are Latino.)
Mariano waves the allegations off as absurd. "Shame on you and anyone else who feels that way," he says of his program. "It's about poverty, not race. It's about education, not race. There's sexism, too; should we not educate our young girls? Everyone faces barriers. Our job is to lift them up."
His face reddens in anger when he recalls the time a housing advocate told him he shouldn't force tenants to work or go to school until they were ready and that it should be their choice whether to try to save money. "I said, 'Excuse me, I couldn't disagree with you more,' " he recalls. " 'This country was built on high expectations for everyone except the poor. Why should that be?' "
Mariano may not always sound like a liberal, but he counts plenty of supporters on both sides of the aisle. That includes not only Republicans in the Baker administration, but also prominent Democrats such as Senate President Stanley Rosenberg of Northampton, Senate President Pro Tem Marc Pacheco of Taunton, and Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler of Worcester.
"He can be abrasive in his approach, but he really is sincere in what he's saying," says Thomas Connelly, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing Redevelopment Officials. "Down inside, when you get away from all the gruffness and abrasiveness and ego, he really does care. He truly doesn't see this as being punitive; he sees it as trying to establish a pathway for folks to get back into the mainstream."
The Citizens' Housing and Planning Association, an advocacy group headquartered in Boston, filed written testimony in July on a bill introduced in the Legislature that would bring Mariano's program to five housing authorities around the state. Executive director Brenda Clement cited questions about cost and the need for more study, among other concerns, as well as mentioning the dangers of proposing self-sufficiency programs as a requirement. "The goals are right," she says, "but to say you've got to force them to do it because they live in public housing does feel a little wrong to me. What worries me is that if they don't do it and lose that stable base of housing, then what happens to that person? Do they fall into homelessness?"
To answer those kinds of concerns, Mariano points to his successes. About 36 percent of ABL participants were employed when they entered the program; that number has now doubled. The percentage of those going to school has nearly tripled. Several graduates have moved out of the projects and into homes of their own.
Residents who have seen big life changes, like 31-year-old Joanna Collazo, are justifiably proud of themselves. A single mother of four, she's now working full time and in college studying business management. Since entering the program in 2011, she has also worked herself out of debt and boosted her credit score significantly. "I think a lot of people in Worcester public housing get a little bit too comfortable," she says. "But a lot of these tenants should attend these programs and be a part of it for the simple fact that it'll help them become better people and accomplish their dreams and their goals."
But the question remains whether upwardly mobile success stories like Collazo — or Mariano himself — are the rule or the exception. The Pew Charitable Trusts projects that 70 percent of children raised in the bottom fifth of income distribution in the United States will remain below middle class. Wanda Alvarado Eaton puts it another way: "I know from personal experience that his world he speaks of is not [truly] accessible to all of us," she posted on Facebook. "No matter how hard u try."
Recently, Mariano has been laying the groundwork to move on. In June, he announced he'd be leaving the housing authority in about a year. He's done all he can to get the reforms up and running, he says, and it will be up to the next director to expand upon them. He's not being specific about his plans but is open about his hope to one day take A Better Life national. "Doing it just in Worcester is not enough," he says. "There are people all over this country who are in desperate need of help, and I know how to do it."
Some may question his methods, but his passion is so evident that it's hard to doubt his motive. "I believe the biggest problem facing this country is not Islamic extremism," he says. "It's the unending cycle of poverty. If these people had a path and hope, you would not be seeing the kind of civil unrest we've seen in this country in the past few months. The biggest problem is not terrorism. It's not taking care of those who are most vulnerable in our society. They live on a dead-end street. It's a street where there's no hope, and they've lived on it for generations."
As for what anyone thinks about him and his work, he couldn't care less. "The only approval I need in this life is from my wife and kids," he says. "I gotta look at my kids and say, 'Your father didn't fight as hard as he could'? I'm not doing that."
• Campaign Notebook: Baker embraces housing program that requires work or studies(Sept. 30, 2014)
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org