A Healthy Mix

This article originally appeared in Banker & Tradesman on October 30, 2016. 

Creative solutions needed to address area’s public housing funding challenges. Innovative approach to housing works in harbor point, will be replicated in Charlestown.

By Joe Corcoran and Bill McGonagle

Public housing in America is facing a massive capital funding challenge that requires creative solutions in almost every major urban core and metropolitan region.

Capitol Hill has essentially shut down new funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to upgrade a portfolio of thousands of public housing units nationwide. The critical backlog of capital investment needs was estimated at $26 billion in a 2010 study by Cambridge-based Abt Associates – even before further federal budget tightening was implemented.

Boston is experiencing this challenge alongside other major metro areas such as New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles and others.

But we are also embracing the need to apply different models for addressing the capital funding problem that threatens to deteriorate our public housing stock. These models are creative, but not necessarily new.

The Harbor Point Apartments in Boston and King’s Lynn community in Lynn – over a combined 40 years of operation – have demonstrated the effectiveness and sustainability of bringing private capital and mixed income living into the public housing equation. At the same time, robust partnerships between residents and the project developer and operators have created a healthy shared stakeholder relationship.

The model works, and so we are putting it to work again.

The redevelopment of the Bunker Hill apartments in Charlestown – to be called One Charlestown – will be one of the most ambitious upgrades of public housing in the U.S.

All units will include finishes, features, and amenities that are typical of quality new housing in Boston: open spaces and courtyards, brightly lit walkways and underground parking, in addition to community services so that residents may enjoy a vibrant, healthy and more sustainable living experience in Charlestown. Affordable housing will be preserved for current residents while also attracting new residents and revitalizing the neighborhood. The current plan calls for building 1,100 entirely new units of public housing, and adding 2,100 additional market-rate and other units – creating a mixed-income community of 3,200 high-quality housing units. All current residents will have the right to return to the new development.

Central to this effort will be a robust partnership between residents and the project developer/operator – with critical input on operations, lifestyle amenities, programming and other issues any apartment community encounters.

The value of that dynamic has already been demonstrated.

Over the past seven months, project developers Corcoran-SunCal and the Boston Housing Authority worked with residents of the Bunker Hill apartments to establish a resident working group that provided critical assistance and input into the design and planning of One Charlestown. Members of the resident working group met regularly in late 2015 and early this year, sharing their priorities, values and vision for the redevelopment project. Additionally, feedback and input was solicited from neighbors and residents of the Charlestown community. The resident working group’s involvement in the planning and a design charrette, as well as the feedback from the community, had a meaningful impact on the planning team’s efforts. One Charlestown will have the imprint of these stakeholders before a single shovel hits the ground – and the resident partnership will ensure accountability on an ongoing basis.

The approach we are taking with One Charlestown – like its predecessors at Harbor Point and King’s Lynn – centers on the concept that mixed-income communities not only offer the richest social context for all residents, but also offer the best opportunities for advancement for their low income population.

Not exclusively rich, nor exclusively poor, a market mixed-income community, in which a low income person lives next door to a banker or a professor or a plumber, creates a sustainable and safe environment. It also is ideally positioned to attract private capital – and in the current economic conditions which are threatening the future of public housing, that is a necessity.

It is this approach that is needed across the entire city of Boston – and within the BHA portfolio. Creating new investment in public housing through market-based models is healthy.

Real solutions aren’t coming from Capitol Hill. It’s up to this community – and all of the stakeholders with an interest – to ensure a sustainable future for public housing in Charlestown.

Joe Corcoran is chairman of the Corcoran Jennison Companies. Bill McGonagle is administrator of the Boston Housing Authority.