Public-Private Partnerships: Good for Public Housing Tenants?

The State House from Ashburton Gate side

CHAPA Public Housing & Rental Assistance Committee

The CHAPA Public Housing & Rental Assistance Committee Meeting took place on March 21, 2019.The gathering was moderated by Eric Shupin, CHAPA's Director of Public Policy and Sean Tierney, CHAPA's Senior Policy Analyst. Participants included a diverse group of developers, tenant leaders, and advocacy organizations. The presenters were tenants and organizers that had participated in redevelopment programs in Chelsea and in Somerville. A major topic was resident engagement at public housing redevelopment projects. Speakers included:

  •     Al Ewing & Diane Cohen, Chelsea Housing Authority
  •     Ronette "Ronnie" Slamin, Joseph J. Corcoran Company
  •     Lauren Song, Greater Boston Legal Services
  •     Jessica Turner, Clarendon Residents United
Eric Shupin, Shawn Tierney, Lauren Song, Greater Boston Legal Services; Ronette (Ronnie) Slamin, Corcoran (Innes redevelopment, Chelsea); Jessica Turner, Clarendon Residents United, Somerville. X?. Gloria Leipzig
(Left to Right): Eric Shupin, SeanTierney, Ronnie Slamin (Corcoran), Al Ewing (Chelsea Housing Authority), Lauren Song (Greater Boston Legal Services), Jessica Turner (Clarendon Residents United), Vince O'Donnell (Preservation of Affordable Housing), Gloria Leipzig (Belmont Housing Authority)

What role for developers?

Participants in the meeting included developers, and managers of public housing, as well as tenant leaders and several advocacy groups.

But why would a private developer be involved in public housing? Don't the Federal and state governments have an obligation to pay the costs of maintaining public housing?

Unfortunately, the reality is that capital budgets to rehabilitate the aging public housing infrastructure are woefully inadequate, with no prospects for finding the billions of dollars that are far overdue. The result is that tenants of public housing live in buildings that are failing.

The Commonwealth is doing several redevelopment programs as demonstrations to evaluate public-private partnerships. In these programs, a private developer is chosen to take over the land and property of a public housing development. The developer then relocates the tenants for 2-3 years while the old structures are refurbished and new apartments are constructed, some destined to be at affordable rents and some at market rate. The developer then becomes responsible to manage housing, and the original tenants move back in.

A private developer sees advantages that motivate their participation. In urban settings, public housing may be situated in an area where land and real estate values are high and are destined to continue climbing as a growing population seeks housing. The expected appreciation in land and property values is seen as future profit, as well as a basis for covering investment risk. Since subsidies for public housing are pegged to market rates, and given the addition of market rate apartments to the mix, the developer is assured of good operating income. The challenge for developers is to take on the responsibilities that have been mandated for the protection and well-being of public housing tenants. Such responsibilities are the antithesis of the goals of a profit-oriented enterprise. (See the promotional material describing the Innes program in Chelsea in advance of the redevelopment.

What role for tenants?

The meeting asked, "What was the impact of the projects on public housing tenants and their role as participants in overseeing the programs?"

The meeting explored the redevelopment procedures and experiences of tenants in the Chelsea and Somerville programs.

Tenants were kept informed of every step of the projects, and they were provided extensive professional support, including legal advisors. In many respects the programs seemed well-designed to provide a respnsive and respectful process, contrasting with previous urban renewal programs which had failed to respect the needs of tenants and their communities.

From Right to Left: David X, Phyllis Corbitt, Chair of MUPHT, Annette Duke, Mass Law Reform, Concetta Paul, tenant leader in the Boston Housing Authority; in rear, far left, Susan Connelly, Mass Housing Partnership
(Right to Left): David Hedison (Chelmsford Housing Authority), Phyllis Corbitt (Chair of MUPHT), Annette Duke (Mass Law Reform), Concetta Paul (tenant leader in the Boston Housing Authority); in rear, far left, Susan Connelly (Mass Housing Partnership)
What experience provides assurance of success?

Lacking from our discussion was an overview of the history of similar public-private redevelopment efforts. In particular, we are asked to assume that the stated goals of the projects are likely to be met, without being able to review evaluations of past projects.  Will public housing tenants gain not only a better-built home, but be able to retain and reconstruct the fabric of their community? Will people who are poor, elderly, or disabled integrate well into a community of younger, healthier, richer people? And will public housing tenants be able to retain and enjoy their hard-won rights and protections in their relations with the landlord?

What role for protections and accountability?

The problem that surfaced during the discussion was that carefully negotiated agreements and understandings are not always respected. Phyllis Corbitt, the Chair of Mass Union, noted such a failure at the Old Colony project. Despite the building of a new common area for everyday social activities, the area is not open for use because of the cost of maintaining the facility, depriving tenants of a basic community need.

A number of public housing tenants have been strongly opposed to the public-private partnership idea because they fear the loss of their protections under DHCD and/or the Boston Housing Authority and they question the ability and motivation of a private developer to be responsive once they control the management of the property. Indeed, we know that today some landlords of subsidized housing fail to meet their responsibilities to tenants, permit bullying and hostile environment harassment, and tenants have no way to be protected because there is no way to make the landlord accountable.

The role of an ombuds program for tenant protection

We believe that an underlying problem for both public and subsidized housing is that we lack the essential safeguards of oversight and accountability with respect to landlords and their agents.

It is one thing, and it is a good thing, for tenants to participate in the redevelopment program from planning through to the conclusion.

Developers may promise that they will continue to honor the existing protections and rights of tenants. But we know from bitter experience that such promises are often honored in the breach.

Tenants are looking for more than promises and agreements, we are looking for accountability and enforcement that protects our rights.

We therefore can support the idea of public-private partnerships that take over public housing programs, only if there are sufficient new enforceable guarantees for the rights and well-being of all tenants in such programs.

Therefore, let us consider if the idea of a housing ombuds office for the protection of tenants' rights might be one part of the solution for public-private partnerships, if indeed that type of program is the only way forward.

The materials and presentations from the meeting are available online at…

Clarendon Somerville redevelopment project: