At Bunker Hill, public housing gets a private twist

Betty Carrington sees hope in the plan to add market-rate units to the Bunker Hill public housing complex. She leads a tenant task force.
Betty Carrington sees hope in the plan to add market-rate units to the Bunker Hill public housing complex. She leads a tenant task force.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

By Adrian Walker

Globe Staff

It’s Friday afternoon in Charlestown, and Betty “Big Mama” Carrington is watching with wonder as children stream down the steps of the Harvard-Kent Elementary School.

"Look at that — they're black, white, Spanish, and Chinese," she said. "Right here in Charlestown. And they're all Mama's children. I can remember when it didn't look like this. But this is Charlestown now."

Carrington moved to the Bunker Hill housing development in 1996, when black residents, herself included, didn't always feel welcome. Now her neighbors greet her like family.

She is also a key figure in one of the biggest changes the development has seen since it opened shortly after World War II.

The Boston Housing Authority is looking for a private developer to completely renovate the development, adding hundreds of market-rate units to the 1,100 low-income units that are there now.


The plan would convert Bunker Hill from a low-income development to a mixed-use development. But the change that is envisioned is more sweeping than that terminology implies. In effect, Bunker Hill would become upscale housing, with 1,100 units set aside for poor people. The transformation, which is likely to occur over the next two to three years, will be jarring. But tenants, including Carrington, are supportive. It means they can stay in their homes, and — if things go as planned — also benefit from a more financially stable project.

If successful, the plan would be replicated by the BHA in other parts of the city where real estate has soared in value. Developments in the South End, South Boston, and Roxbury are obvious candidates for the new financing approach. A developer for Bunker Hill could be selected by summer.

"I'm for anything that will improve the lives of the people here," said Carrington, who is Bunker Hill's Tenant Task Force president. "As long as I can stay here. They'll drag me out of Charlestown kicking and screaming."

The impetus for this change is twofold. First, the federal government has been increasingly unwilling to spend the billions of dollars needed to maintain aging and decaying developments. Public housing is cursed with a weak political constituency.


Second, a lot of Boston's public housing is situated in what have become red-hot real estate markets. Bill McGonagle, the head of the Boston Housing Authority, is convinced that the only long-term solution for maintaining public housing is to transform it.

"There's been a lot of talk about lack of bipartisanship in Washington, D.C.," McGonagle said last week. "If there's one thing where there appears to be bipartisan agreement, it's on not funding public housing."

But what makes him think that people of more prosperous means will pay market rates for upscale units in what will remain, in part, a public housing project? Location is a big part of the answer; Charlestown is hot property. And there are encouraging examples from other parts of the city — such as the willingness of people of means to pay once-unthinkable rents to live next to places such as Academy Homes in Roxbury.

McGonagle and his staff began meeting with tenants and housing activists earlier this month to sound them out about beginning to revamp Bunker Hill. While the details of the plan are still being worked out, the idea is that the authority would sign a long-term lease with a developer who would then rebuild and manage the property.

The existing tenants in good standing would be guaranteed the right to return after reconstruction. But Bunker Hill's current 1,100 units could become twice that, or more, with the new ones renting for whatever the market will bear. That's where the developer would make money. It would also make Bunker Hill a completely different place to live.


"Over time, this would be the most radical change in public housing since it began," McGonagle said. "We can sit around and do nothing and watch the affordable housing resources that the BHA has crumble, or we can take a leap of faith into this brave new world.

"But we will be completely transparent, and tenants will be full partners in any decisions we make."

The credibility of McGonagle — a battle-scarred BHA lifer who grew up in the Mary Ellen McCormack project in South Boston — is a critical selling point.

"I trust Bill," Carrington said. "If he says this will be good for us, I'll put my faith in that."

If the remaking of Bunker Hill is successful, similar projects are also possible in the South End, Roxbury, and South Boston, all of which are home to developments the cash-strapped BHA is struggling to maintain.

While the BHA has turned other housing developments into mixed-income residences over the years, including Mission Main and Harbor Point, the projects being considered now are on a much larger scale. Both Mission Main and Harbor Point were in then-undesirable locations, and both developments were at least half-empty.

Consciously attempting to turn housing projects in Charlestown — and perhaps elsewhere — into upscale developments raises completely different political and social issues.


None of this fazes Carrington as she goes about her business as the matriarch of the Bunker Hill development, handing out Christmas presents to the kids, loaning secondhand suits to men going for job interviews, organizing movie nights for elderly tenants.

She has seen her beloved Charlestown change so much already. Sure, Bunker Hill is diverse now, but what will it be like to suddenly have rich neighbors?

"They'll find out we're just people," she said. "They're going to see that we're just like everyone else."

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at adrian_walker.