Thomas Webb is standing on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain and pushing back against the wind, straining to hear the question. Did he have any concerns about the reconstruction that was taking place at the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments, his home for three decades? Webb moved here when it was called Bromley Heath, and gangs fighting over turf and control of crack cocaine corners ruled this public housing village. It was complex of 4,000 broken windows, peeling paint, and for many, shattered dreams.

But that is about to change, says Boston Housing Authority Chief, Bill McGonagle.

“We've got some real big plans for the Centre Street high rises," McGonagle said. "We've selected a developer essentially to demolish and rebuild those high-rise buildings on Center Street.”

McGonagle says 232 units out of 840 apartments are currently being redeveloped as “deeply affordable.” But the plan for the year 2020 is to construct 600 additional rental units of which 400 will be market rate. The key, he said, is the land they will sit on.

“Unlike some public housing in other cities, Chicago for example, the market value of real estate in Jamaica Plain is skyrocketing and it's creeping down Centre Street and coming up Columbus Avenue. What we're hoping to do with these buildings on Centre Street is to leverage the value of the land they sit on and create mixed income communities, market-rate units, alongside the deeply affordable units,” he said.

Thomas Webb, the current resident, says he would love to move into one of the newly constructed apartments. But he worries about the BHA transferring him “temporarily” to an apartment nearby while construction is underway. “My concerns is when people move out [of] here, can they get back in?” he asked.

Former Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson thinks Webb and others are right to be worried. Jackson points to the former Columbia Point Housing projects, which sat in a picturesque spot along Dorchester Bay. In 1984, all 388 occupied public housing apartments were torn down, the land was razed, and the site was turned into a mixed income community called Harbor Point.

“This mentality of mixed use I think in theory is really good," Jackson said. "But the real question is are we taking care of those who would be most vulnerable in those neighborhoods and communities?”

As if to answer the question, inside Harbor Point’s gated community, a former Columbia Point project resident identifying herself only as Ms. Carter says “yes, she feels well taken care of here.

“All the elevators work. You don't see no red boarded up buildings. The scenery is nicer than what it was before. When we grew up out here, from the time I was born, all I seen was we was living in a dump,” she said.


Driving into the new complex, I stop at a security booth, hand my driver’s license to the guard inside, who takes down the information, and then waves me inside. The contrast to the past could not be more startling.

Columbia Point was considered so dangerous and unsafe in the 1970’s that taxi drivers refused to go there. Former residents recalled that rats inhabited the floors of broken elevator shafts and robberies took place frequently on elevators that did work.

Raphala Ortiz lived through it all. I encounter her taking a ride in her motorized wheelchair along a Harbor Point sidewalk, bordered by manicured lawns with a view of the bay ahead. She has lived here for more than 40 years. But back then, she says, “Columbia Point was empty buildings. People stealing. Drugs everywhere.”

She says life in this former public housing project, a mixed-income community with its own police force, is a lot different now, and DiLan Shehran agrees. He’s a middle-class student from Bangladesh.

“I go to UMass, which is right there, right next door and it's a great view and seemed like a safe community," he said.

He says even given where he is from he could not imagine living in a place like Columbia Point, which bears zero resemblance to what this public housing complex has become. Of the nearly 1,300 apartments, 800 are rented for what the market will bear, but with a slight ceiling. At $3,300 a month for a three bedroom on the waterfront, that makes it a comparative bargain for many of the nurses, teachers, professors and students who live here. But mixed income does not mean that residents mix. Shehran admits that he knows none of the former Columbia Point neighbors who also call this place home. “It's kind of like they kind of keep to themselves. I've interacted with them in the store and stuff like that but nah, I don’t personally know anyone.”

Others also affirmed the class segregation that is a part of Harbor Point. People here meet in the on-site gym, running along the water's edge or in the local store. But, those paying $100 a month and those paying from $2,000 to $3,300 rarely meet at the dinner table, says Carter, who we spoke with earlier. But she also says not a single poor person she knew was kicked out when Columbia Point was torn down.

“Most of us stayed. The people who once lived here, like myself, was automatically Section 8. We didn't have to go anywhere. They couldn't kick us out even if they wanted to kick us out, because we were born and raised here," she said. "The only thing we knew was the projects.”


The message developers and supporters of the planned reconstructed Mildred Hailey apartments in Jamaica Plain want people to take away is that they still want low-income residents to stay there. Giovanny Valencia is with the non-profit Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, which builds and maintains affordable housing in JP.

“We have the commitment to make sure the residents who are here remain here in place," he said.

Valencia says that commitment comes from the city and the state. He says he is also confident that middle class folks will jump at the chance to move here. After all, many one-bedroom apartments start at $2,300 in Jamaica Plain. Market rates in the expanded complex will be lower.

“People want to live here," Valencia said. "They want to come to Jamaica Plain because there are great restaurants and parks and schools. Right now, it's very hard, even for families who have a good income because $3,000 or $4,000 rent for a two bedroom is not affordable. So, some people don't feel comfortable with that. There are more options in the City of Boston, but I'm sure we will have hundreds of people applying.”

Harbor Point, Valencia said, suggests his vision could be right. It could also be the exception. Mixed-income housing experiments in places like Nashville, Detroit and San Francisco have led to tensions when the poor live side by side with the well-heeled. Experts say that from Southie to Roxbury to Charlestown to here in liberal Jamaica Plain — is no different.

Thousands of Bostonians are on waiting lists for public housing as market rents soar. Nearly 10 percent of residents live in publicly subsidized homes or receive assistance from the Boston Housing Authority. But resources are stretched.

Viki Bok, an affordable housing consultant in Jamaica Plain, says with the Trump Administration drastically cutting funds for public housing, building mixed income market rate units alongside affordable ones is the only way to maintain and develop housing for the state’s neediest residents.

“I think that the housing authority has very little choice. There's not enough money coming from the federal government for housing authorities to maintain that kind of housing,” she said.

The Mildred Hailey homes are the most recent example, and Bok says not everyone — even in liberal Jamaica Plain — likes the idea of expanding public housing, under any circumstance.

“I think it has to be in everybody's neighborhood to make it work," Bok said. "I'm very glad we have as much public housing as we do in Boston. But of course, it should be not just in Boston. It should be in the suburbs. It should be other places. But I say 'bring it on.' I mean, we're one society. We have places for people of all income levels.”

That’s the only way, says Bok, to keep from returning to the public housing of the past; apartment complexes of peeling paint, broken windows and shattered dreams.