If you want to take the pulse of the Bunker Hill Housing Development, there’s probably no one better to talk to than Betty Carrington, the longtime tenant activist and project matriarch.
So I asked her about the roiling controversy over rebuilding Charlestown’s long-troubled project. An ambitious plan by the Boston Housing Authority to transform one of New England’s largest public housing developments into a mixed-use development has stalled, for now, in a fight over density and other considerations.
“I still think they have good intentions,” Carrington said of the housing authority. “And I think as long as they keep their word to us, they’ll be fine.”
Bunker Hill opened in 1941, as part of Boston’s first wave of public housing. Parts of it look barely touched in the years since. No one seriously disputes that the 1,100-unit development is in need of a massive overhaul. But the federal government has long since stopped committing the kind of funding that rebuilding Bunker Hill would require.
So a couple of years ago BHA administrator Bill McGonagle came up with a novel workaround. McGonagle proposed that a private developer be selected to rebuild the development. The new Bunker Hill would preserve the current units of low-income housing, but it would be subsidized by some 2,000 units of market-rate housing. The agency has promised that Bunker Hill’s low-income residents can remain in the development if they so choose.
The idea made sense because Bunker Hill — and, not incidentally, a number of the housing agency’s other aging developments — is situated on what is now prime real estate. To McGonagle, this project is a prime example of what public housing may have to become if it is going to survive. “Our options are to do something creative or sit on our hands and watch the older, federally subsidized housing developments in Boston crumble before our eyes,” McGonagle declared last week. “And, for me, that is not an option.”
The burgeoning opposition to the project has argued that it is simply too big for the neighborhood and will bring massive traffic woes to boot. One architect and Charlestown resident, Sy Mintz, has put together a significantly scaled-down plan that a small group of boosters ardently supports.
Housing officials say there are major issues with Mintz’s plan. Chief among them is that there isn’t any obvious way to fund it. The developer, Corcoran Jennison, insists that the project doesn’t work financially with hundreds of market-rate units eliminated from it. Mintz played an important role in the transformation of Dorchester’s Columbia Point into mixed-use Harbor Point in the 1980s and appears to view that earlier success as a template.
The massive public subsidies that drove that project belong to a different era, however. There are no huge untapped pots of government money waiting to be claimed anymore. As if to bring that point home, the Trump administration has just released its proposed budget for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. It would slash spending for public housing. Yes, it comes with the usual caveat that a budget proposal can be very different from the finished product. But it represents the prevailing mind-set on funding public housing.
This much is clear: Washington isn’t going to save Bunker Hill.
“I expect there will be some adjustment,” McGonagle said of the federal budget. “I don’t expect that the finished product will be anything close to what we need.”
Some good has already come of the density debate. The Boston Housing Authority is giving serious consideration to building several hundred housing units on city-owned property in other parts of Charlestown. That could address the issue of density without imperiling the entire project.
The Bunker Hill rebuilding needs to happen without unnecessary delay. It’s a dynamic idea that could point to a healthier future for low-income housing in the city — housing this city desperately needs. The old solutions don’t work anymore, and that isn’t likely to change.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.