Boston should celebrate federal housing aid while it can
Monday could well mark the end of an era — the last major federal investment in public housing that Boston can expect to see for a long time.
The federal government is expected to announce that the city has won a $30 million grant to rebuild the Whittier Street housing development in lower Roxbury. It’s a major event. HUD officials are flying in from Washington. The congressional delegation has been invited.
The money will be used to demolish and rebuild one of the city’s oldest developments. It’s one of the most dilapidated, too. It’s been in need of major work for years, but the Boston Housing Authority doesn’t begin to have the cash it would take to give Whittier Street the face lift it needs. Boston has been lobbying for this grant for at least three years.
Officials worry, with good reason, that it is coming just under the wire. Funding for public housing has been drying up for years, and the incoming Trump administration hasn’t indicated any inclination to reverse that trend. Quite the contrary. Which does not bode well for the future.
Like similar projects, rebuilding Whittier Street will require temporarily displacing its residents. It will incorporate some market-rate housing into the mix, to help subsidize its operations. The BHA insists that the amount of housing for low-income residents will not decrease under its plan.
Rebuilding low-income housing has been a success in the city. Orchard Gardens, formerly Orchard Park, was transformed through renovation. The same could be said of other rebuilt developments. The benefits of renovation go well beyond giving residents nicer apartments. It removes the institutional stigma of developments, and turns them into neighborhoods.
However, the renovation of Whittier Street has also stirred alarm about displacement and gentrification.
A group of activists called Freeze Frame Black Boston sent a letter to public officials last week urging the city to reject or delay the grant, on the claim that local people of color should be more involved in the construction and design so they, too, can profit from the massive upgrade project.
The letter, which was written by former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, attacks every group involved in the effort. It states that accepting the grant would be “interpreted as an act of total aggression” — a major act of disrespect for the neighborhood. Subtle she is not. In an interview Sunday, Wilkerson said that millions of dollars in public investment in Roxbury has not been used to help residents economically. She said both government agencies and community development corporations failed to employ diverse management teams, or to hire residents to work on major projects. Upgrading units, she said, is not enough, and she insisted that many displaced Whittier residents will never return.
“The Whittier development as we know it today will not exist,” she declared.
Freeze Frame’s membership of businesspeople and activists includes many who believe the redevelopment of Roxbury isn’t financially benefitting, well, them. Whether that’s a valid concern or not, it isn’t a good reason to slow down or block better housing for people who need it. According to the BHA, the average income of residents in Whittier Street is $14,000 a year. Its population is 98 percent people of color. They are the people who need advocacy, and Freeze Frame definitely does not speak for them.
It’s hard to be optimistic about the immediate future of major public housing projects. The nicest thing I can say about the incoming HUD secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, is that he faces a very steep learning curve. Delaying this grant — which the city certainly will not do — would be tantamount to rejecting the best chance to fix the place. That would be criminal.
Through a combination of federal aid and clever leadership, the state of Boston’s public housing has improved dramatically over the past two decades. The rebirth of Whittier Street offers one last chance to celebrate.