New series at the MHS will explore the history of public and affordable housing in Boston

by Gavin W. Kleespies, Director of Programs, Exhibitions and Community Partnerships, and Sarah Bertulli, Public Programs Coordinator

This fall, the MHS will offer a series of programs that explore the complex history of public and affordable housing in Boston. These programs will bring together scholars, tenants, and administrators to examine Boston’s housing story and connect the public with lesser known histories of grassroots neighborhood renewal; community stewardship; and cooperation between residents, government, and private entities.

The planning process for this new series has been educational. We have been working with a project scholar, Lawrence Vale from MIT, and an advisory group that includes representatives from The Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Dudley Square Neighborhood Initiative, the National Public Housing Museum, Fenway CDC, and Everyday Boston, among others, to develop the programs.

Boston has been home to a series of innovative approaches to public and affordable housing, even while dealing with a range of challenges such as segregation, white flight, urban renewal, and gentrification. Perhaps the lowest point in Boston’s housing history was in 1979. This is when the Boston Housing Authority’s 62 public housing sites were placed in receivership after the agency was sued by tenants who described inhumane conditions and racial discrimination. Beyond being a painful moment in Boston’s history, it is also the story that highlighted housing inadequacies in the city and spurred innovations to give communities’ control. New community organizations and a reorganized Boston Housing Authority have been important in metro Boston’s recovery from the challenges it faced in the 1970s and 1980s. The series will revisit the history along with the stories of community empowerment and successful government intervention that are often left out of the narrative.

The first three programs will focus on six housing developments that have varied and rich histories: Columbia Point and Commonwealth housing projects, Villa Victoria and Fenway CDC, Dudley Square Neighborhood Initiative and Orchard Park housing project. These particular projects were chosen with the help of our advisory group. Residents will be invited to participate as panelists. As well, we plan to conduct a series of interviews to start off each program with voices from the neighborhood. In addition to populating the panels, we are working with partner organizations to identify branch libraries or community centers that may be appropriate sites for these discussions.

The final panel in the series will explore the outlook for Boston housing and impart takeaways from the city’s past successes and missteps. It will synthesize what we have learned and bring the discussion to the present state of housing in the area. While greater Boston is facing soaring real estate prices today, it is important to understand the times when this would have seemed impossible. We will explore how an area with a rapidly declining population and a scourge of vacant property has changed to one that is now challenged by the social disruption of gentrification.

Mark your calendar for the Housing as History: The Story of Public and Affordable Housing in Boston series! Programs will take place on 2 October.  16 October, 13 November, and 20 November. Registration will open in mid-August.