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City Hopes to Be Model for Rehabilitation of Public Complexes : In a Social Test Case, Boston Mixes Affluent, Poor in Housing Project

Associated Press

On one side of the chain-link fence, children play kickball on the broken pavement, flanked by the yellow brick buildings that have been called the worst public housing project in the nation.

On the other side, protected by armed security guards, rises a social experiment--with roots both utopian and capitalist--where poor residents and affluent young professionals will live in luxury apartments and share a swimming pool, tennis courts, a health club and a day-care center.

The scene is the Columbia Point housing project on Boston’s Dorchester Bay, a 51-acre site that marks the first attempt to convert a federal housing complex into private, for-profit housing.

Some Pain, Upheaval

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The transformation is not occurring without pain or upheaval, however.

Tenants of Columbia Point charge the private developer with harassment, unfair evictions and reduction in some services. The developer says the opportunity for decent housing depends on enforcing rules.

To some housing experts, the rebirth of the complex as a landscaped development called “Harbor Point” is viewed as a test case that, if successful, could be applied to a generation of failed projects.

“There are thousands upon thousands of units in partially occupied public housing across the country that something has to be done with,” said Michael A. Stegman, chairman of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina.

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The conversion at Columbia Point will result in far fewer low-income apartments than in the original project, but the payoff, he said, “is restoring a community to livability.”

Squatters, Drug Dealing

Columbia Point rose out of an isolated city dump in 1953. In time, violence and drug dealing scarred the complex. Squatters occupied many vacant apartments and terrorized longtime residents.

“It was in a complete shambles,” said Robert B. Whittlesey, court-appointed overseer at Columbia Point in the 1970s. He and Stegman said that by that time, the project was notorious across the country.

By 1984, the original population of 1,504 families was down to 350.

That year, the Boston Housing Authority leased the property to the development firm Corcoran Jennison Co. for 99 years for $1. For those 99 years, 400 of the 1,283 apartments at Harbor Point must be reserved for low-income tenants who will pay no more than 30% of their gross household income in rent. The difference between that and market rent will be subsidized by the federal government.

Corcoran produced a plan to create a complex of 20 multifamily buildings--10 rehabilitated Columbia Point structures, 10 new ones--and 214 new townhouses. Seventeen Columbia point buildings were demolished.

There are 1,283 units, 400 subsidized and 883 market-rate. Most of the apartments reserved for low-income residents will go to Columbia Point tenants, who are mainly black or Latino.

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Received Hefty Loans

Harbor Point enjoyed the backing of political leaders ranging from Gov. Michael S. Dukakis to President Reagan and received hefty state construction loans and federal tax breaks. Corcoran hopes to net $7.7 million per year.

To succeed, the firm says it has to play hardball with drug dealers, squatters, teen-agers who get into fights and anyone else at Columbia Point who might make life difficult at Harbor Point.

But many of the 320 families from the project who will make the move to Harbor Point say Corcoran is playing too hard. They have staged protests and even gone to court over what they call heavy-handed tactics and aggressive security guards.

Tenants accuse Corcoran of trying to push out poor black families to replace them with poor whites and increase the marketability of the apartments. An evicted tenant is subject to arrest if he or she returns, even for a visit.

“This place was not geared for the black people in Columbia Point,” said Rose Jolly, occupant of a tiny apartment in the complex for 16 years. “It’s not going to work the way they say it’s going to work.”

Daughter Evicted

Jolly’s daughter was among several tenants evicted from Columbia Point under the new management. Security guards falsely accused her of dealing drugs, Rose Jolly said, acknowledging only that her daughter was a drug user.

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“My own daughter. She can’t even come and visit her children. They’ll pick her up for trespassing,” Jolly said.

She is among several tenants who say they have been offered $1,000 to $4,000 by Harbor Point management to relocate and give up their guaranteed Harbor Point housing. The money is from a federal relocation fund.

Nadine Wiley, Corcoran’s marketing manager, denied that anyone is being pressured or bribed into leaving Columbia Point, and she insisted that the developer wants a racially and economically mixed complex.

This summer the first market-rate tenants began moving into Harbor Point, drawn by advertisements emphasizing its views of downtown Boston and touting its luxury amenities. Market-rate rents are $675 and $1,200 per month.

Depends on ‘Human Side’

Will Harbor Point succeed in mingling Boston’s poorest minority residents with well-off, mostly white tenants?

“Where this thing will rise and fall is on the human side,” Stegman said.

He is optimistic because of the development’s choice location and because Corcoran “really cares about the true nature of the partnership” between Columbia Point residents and market-rate tenants.

“It’s not just a case of throwing them all in and hoping it works,” said Joseph Corcoran Sr., chief executive officer of Corcoran Jennison Co., who noted that a tenants’ task force helps make decisions.

Task force executive director Roger Taylor, who has lived in Columbia Point for 20 years, acknowledged that some security guards “use their authority forcefully.”

Harass Guards

But the guards work in a place where, for years, there have been no rules, he said. In answer to charges that the guards, most of whom are white, have uttered racial slurs at tenants, Taylor, who is black, said teen-agers in the project routinely harass the guards.

The stated goal of Harbor Point is to mix its varied tenants together, but the developer acknowledges that some isolation will occur. That’s because families with children are not allowed, for safety reasons, to live in the five- to seven-story mid-rise buildings that will have 903 apartments.

In the mid-rises, Corcoran said, market-rate tenants will outnumber low-income tenants about 4 to 1, because most of the low-income tenants are families with children.

Besides the mid-rises, most of which are new, and the 214 townhouses, there will be 166 “garden flats” in low-rise rehabilitated Columbia Point buildings.

Despite the problems, Wiley said of Harbor Point: “People are looking at us as a model. We’re under a microscope. We feel confident that we have the experience.”

But Mary Ann Martorana of the Massachusetts Tenants Organization said the Columbia Point tenants were merely “used to get the land, to get the loans,” and that Corcoran is not interested in public housing, but profit.

“If anyone else around the country wants to use this as a model,” Martorana said, “they should have their head examined.”


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