Obtaining funding for public housing projects is frequently a challenge.
"I'm convinced that the funding for public housing as we know it is gone and it's not coming back," Boston Housing Authority director Bill McGonagle told the Bay State Banner in January, noting that the Department of Housing and Urban Development was pushing housing authorities in the direction of public-private partnerships.
This is being done at Amory Street Apartments, 125 Amory St., under the HUD Rental Assistance Demonstration program authorized by Congress in 2012. Amory Street Apartments has 215 units of mostly studio and one-bedrooms; it opened in April 1973.
In 2013, the BHA was one of 68 housing authorities nationwide selected by HUD to participate in RAD. RAD allows housing authorities to form partnerships with private or non-profit developers to leverage public and private debt and equity in order to reinvest in public housing stock according to the HUD announcement.
125 Amory St. was chosen because it stands on a large 3-acre lot and is in close proximity to Jackson Square T station. It is also in an emerging bustling real estate market. In 2005 Urban Edge opened Amory Residences adjacent to 125 Amory St.: 64 affordable rental units in two cluster buildings. The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp. broke ground in September for 39 affordable units at 75 Amory Ave., also within sight of 125 Amory St. On Oct. 29, Pam + Stone LLC razed nearby 81-85 Amory St. on which it plans to build a 4-story, 12-unit apartment house. A brick warehouse at 179 Amory St. was recently sold for $1.1 million.
125 Amory Street itself is a unique development. It was originally built in 1915 as the Holtzer Cabot Electric Company which manufactured everything from electric automobiles to door bells but made its fortune in telephone exchanges. It closed about 1970. In 1970 Congress passed the Housing and Urban Development Act, Title VII, which expanded urban renewal legislation to allow for the acquisition of "inappropriate or marginally used land or buildings" to be developed in a "turn key" process by a private company and then turned back to the housing authority. The BHA bought the empty factory and hired Holcab Associates to convert it into 215 apartments for the elderly and disabled. It opened in April 1973.
According to Lydia Agro, chief of staff of the BHA, the authority is participating - very carefully - in what is nothing less than the transformation of public housing.
"We want no displacement," Agro told Jamaica Plain News. "We issued a request for qualifications to test the interest in the development community in January 2015. We received proposals from 17 developers which we reviewed" and made site selections from.
Agro said that before moving to the next stage, request for proposals, BHA convened a forum that included the Boston Tenant Coalition, City Life/Vida Urbana, Committee for Public Housing, Greater Boston Legal Services, Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants and Section 8 Tenants Inc. The groups gave feedback and helped craft the final request for proposal.
"We want to optimize the value of BHA sites in high-market neighborhoods," Agro said, "and we chose sites with land around it that could be developed within the neighborhood context. We want to redevelop Amory Street to protect and sustain public housing in the long run."
The only other RAD site in Boston is Bunker Hill public housing in Charlestown.
"We also want to be less reliant on decreasing public subsidies," Agro said. "The BHA subsidies for both operating and capital is at 85 percent today. That's not going to change."
Agro said that the BHA held meetings with the Amory Street residents' task force as well as a "poorly attended" neighborhood meeting before the RFP was issued on July 1. The due date was Sept. 15.
The RFP stated that the revitalization of Amory Street Apartments was in keeping with the Walsh administration's housing plan, which calls for 53,000 new housing units. There were three main goals in the RFP:
1. Preserve public housing.
2. Decrease the reliance on federal capital and operating subsidies
3. Integrate the plan into the existing neighborhood.
The average income across the BHA community is $14,000 and 85 percent earn below 30 percent of the area median income. The RFP wanted to avoid displacement as it revitalized the existing building and added infill housing for affordable and mixed income units.
According to Agro, only one proposal was received from a team made up of the Jamaica Plain NDC, Urban Edge and the The Community Builders (TCB).
Their proposal had four points:
- Modernize the living areas of the existing building with input from residents; including all common areas.
- Construction of 119 affordable apartments. 48 in one building to be built by Urban Edge and 62 in two new mixed income buildings built by TCB. 37 percent of the new housing will be affordable.
- Development of 184 market rate units by TCB, income from which will subsidize the capital improvements and creation of new affordable housing.
- New landscaping and parking areas
Agro said that this proposal is being evaluated and that Amory Street resident task force meetings and a community meeting are planned.