The Mighty Residents of Bromley-Heath

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Here I am in Boston, anticipating to see low-income residents of public housing that have fought for safe, decent, sanitary, affordable housing as well as managing their own dwellings. My thoughts are: what a sight to see!!

As the cab drives along the streets, I see beautiful housing and businesses flourishing everywhere. I wonder: where is this public housing? As we slowly approach the area, I see high rises but they do not look like public housing to me.

As usual, my mind starts to think back on Chicago and the flight toward new mixed income communities. I wonder if I’ll see housing that compares to the idea of mixed-income communities in Chicago – the beautiful architecturally-designed housing with spacious rooms that will serve families with children. This vision is very much different from the housing as we now know it and live in it. A smile instantly comes upon my face – “Ahhh” – just the thought of safe, decent, sanitary housing, as well as quality. “My, oh my.”

But soon, the thoughts and the ideas that were set in my mind would be exploded. In Boston, Mass., I found a reality where quality housing is being carried out and managed by the most delightful residents of the Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation, which is the nation’s oldest tenant management organization.

A Visit to Bromley-Heath

Bromley Heath is located in the up and coming Jamaica Plain neighborhood. There are supermarkets and other services nearby as well as transportation.

As we finally approached the public housing development, my eyes widened with amazement. I asked, “This is public housing?” To my surprise, these high-rise buildings were well maintained and clean; no loitering, no broken windows, no garbage, the smell was of a community that had pride in itself and it showed well.

As we entered the tenant management corporation office, we were greeted with very delightful welcomes.

At the time, Mildred Hailey, the executive director of the Bromley Heath Tenant Management Corporation, and David Worrell, community services coordinator, were meeting with officials from the local office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) and contractors that are involved in the constant up-keep and redevelopment of their community.

We were invited to sit in on their meeting and I was very pleased to see residents in a formal position negotiating the use of their developments and having a major effect on the community in which they live. After the meeting, we sat and talked about their housing community, their programs, the effect resident management has on the community as a whole and the support from the local and federal governments. Very impressive!

Mildred Hailey

I asked Mildred her feelings on resident management and what did they do to get it and what it took to train a new generation of resident managers. Her response was, “Respect you earn and power you take,”

“You keep bringing people on but if you start infighting, you’ll never get there.” And I totally agree with Mildred.

She went on to say how they started by getting a victory after organizing around a police brutality case. Afterwards, they received a health center and then they proceeded to get involved in political campaigns.

Mildred recalled that when they took over Bromley- Heath, there was garbage everywhere, 4,000 broken windows, leaky roofs and not enough money to completely manage the buildings to bring back the full capacity of quality housing. But it didn’t dampen their spirits at all. They had residents that were determined and knew that the first thing they needed to do was to hold on and stay focused on their goal to turn their community around. The residents knew that “just getting a little bit of money for one contract for one thing was not resident management,” Mildred said.

Mildred said that resident managers have demolished 70 units. They started with 1,244 units and now have 983 units. A number of units were combined to accommodate residents with larger families.

“With the problem of crime and small areas, we felt that this would help families in feeling safe and having more spacious room to live in.

“By providing this type of housing that the larger families required without being pushed out into another community that would and could cause harm to their children, Bromley Heath resident management has made it possible for our people to have quality housing that is decent and safe.”

“We do not consider ourselves a project, but a development, a community.”

Bromley Heath is all low-income buildings and Mildred said, “I look at getting mixed-income from within.”

I said to Mildred: “There has always been a mixture of incomes in public housing.”

As we spoke on the stigma on public housing residents and their level of incomes, Mildred and I agreed that “mixed income means that anyone who has not lived in public housing, their presence here is going to upgrade us.”

Mildred said she has always felt living in public housing “does not indicate a flaw in a person’s character. It just means that someone is economically deprived.”

I also talked about the mixed income here in Chicago, in which Lake Parc Place is involved:

“It is good,” I said. “There is no difference in the people, only their income level, which is not unusual when you think about it. Each person has a responsibility to their community and dwelling area and it is truly up to residents to be involved to move forward and build or to stay in the dark and not move at all.

“Information is not getting to all residents and ignorance becomes a bliss when residents are not informed of the changes that will affect the living conditions where they live.”

Mildred commented, “We as tenant leaders have a responsibility to educate residents. Many doors have been opened on lots of issues and people have not taken advantage of it.”

Mildred talked about the scant resources resident leaders have compared with the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO) and the Conference of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA): “They have a staff and budget. What do we have? We have volunteers and we can’t continue to be only volunteers.”

Mildred said Bromley-Heath has a newsletter and radio station but the radio station is not functioning right now. “It’s always going to be that core group of committed people that keep coming back,” she said.

Oh how well do I know the feeling and the fight, I thought to myself as she spoke about commitment of residents. It is a tragedy when laws are written that put the poor people in more darkness and environmentally unstable, deplorable housing or none at all.

Mildred spoke about the One Strike Policy and how it affected residents with a drug problem. She asked, “Wouldn’t it be more humane to get them in a program, than to throw them out on to the street, to a homeless shelter and eventually, right back to where they started?”

I said that “The law is not written by poor people but we pay the price for the mistakes on how they are written.”

When Mildred had the meetings on One Strike and rent rising, she said there was standing room only But for routine meetings, there are often only a few people. Mildred said, “People will only come out for their own interests. We always say at the Tenant Management Corporation that ‘Numbers are not what move us.’

“There’s always a handful that keep people’s feet to the fire and political leaders only represent a portion of the population.”

Mildred also said she thought Resident Management Corporations in Chicago were on the right track but is disappointed that Irene Johnson is no longer at the LeClaire Courts Resident Management Corporation.

As we continued to talk and explore more of the issues of residents and their roles in public housing, I spoke about residents being educated in the field of management, Mildred said she did not feel resident managers need degrees to ensure their success:

“You can’t let them put you down because you don’t have the degree. It depends on the individual. Sometimes the degrees mess them up and we get a lot of Harvard MBAs (Master of Business Administration) and sometimes I will turn them down in favor of someone with experience and compassion and you can see their potential, the TMC (Tenant Management Corporation) can help them learn what they need to know.”

Mildred gave an example of one of her assistants, Cheryl Patterson. Mildred started working with Cheryl when she was 14 years old and has worked to train her.

In some positions, Mildred said she needs professionals, such as architects or their chief of police.

But they have an on-site drug treatment service which is run by residents. “With this, you can hire more residents without degrees. A way of locking residents out of jobs is not having a degree,” Mildred said.

A Tour

Bromley-Heath has a program that is named The ROSE (Resources Opportunity Support Empowerment). ROSE is a 14-week program that teaches self sufficiency, resume writing, welfare to work, CPR certification and day care certification. ROSE participants are required to work 2 hours each week as volunteers. There are four ROSE centers in the Boston Housing Authority.

Mildred invited myself, Residents’ Journal Editor Ethan Michaeli and John Brooks, our gifted photographer, to a graduation. There were eight graduates present and two were unable to attend because they were already working.

Mildred said, “The hall where the graduation was held has been used for weddings, repasts after funerals and many more community events.”

She smiled, saying: “If only these walls could talk.”

Cheryl Patterson, also a resident and Mildred’s assistant, commented on the meal being served at the ROSE event: “When you come to Bromley-Heath, you always get a meal. Actually, you get two – food for thought and food for your stomach.”

Another amazing resident of Bromley-Heath is David Worrell. He is the Community Service Director of Bromley- Heath Resident Management Corporation.

David gave us some history on Bromley-Heath as he took us on a tour of the development. The Bromley side was built in 1941. It consisted of seven-story buildings. The Heath side was built in 1954 and six-story buildings were built. In 1964, a seven-story senior citizens building was built. The entire development comprises 1,216 units. But it will be decreased to 750 units. Street-level entrances will be created for most units.

Mildred said that in units for disabled persons, there are low light switches and closets with low bars so people who use wheel chairs can hang their clothes. There is a ramp from the laundry room and a low stove so people with disabilities can cook for themselves and wash their own clothes.

Even the peep holes are situated lower so people with disabilities can look out the front door. “We had good architects but we are residents and we know what other residents need to live,” Mildred said.

David Worrell said they use their experience to improve the new designs. “We are bringing back the green space. We have our own police force. We have upgraded the plumbing and wiring. Also it was sometimes difficult to get money for new programs or needs from the Boston Housing Authority: they think we’re doing so good we don’t need anything. We still need to do more to maintain and keep the buildings.

“At one point, Bromley-Heath was one of the worst developments in the city, but look at us now.”

David went on to explain that the Boston Housing Authority had historically discriminated against people of color by not allowing them into public housing and reserving developments in white neighborhoods for whites, reserving housing in Black neighborhoods for Blacks, etc.

A recent court order requires all applicants to go into a central waiting list, from where successful candidates get the next available vacancy, no matter which neighborhood the empty apartment is in.

There are priorities for victims of domestic violence, homeless people and those who are moved that are deemed matters of public safety.

And last but not least, there is a priority for a person who wants to move into a development that historically only has white or Black.

David said, “We want tenants to have power to screen residents but all of the Boston Housing Authority is under a court order to do a centralized application process with a random vacant apartment selection process.

“Most of the key positions are residents and that’s good because residents tend to have higher standards.”

The Bromley-Heath TMC budget is $8 million per year, almost all of it from HUD and some monies from state funds and non-profits.

David said the Bromley-Heath TMC ultimately wants to manage other developments as a private property manager: “It’s almost necessary that we eventually have to manage other developments.”

As we toured the development, I saw that the housing is beautiful and very well maintained. As we entered into the buildings, we saw 3-bedroom, 2-bedroom and 1-bedroom apartments, to say nothing about the 5-bedroom apartments. Beverly Hills, you have nothing on Bromley- Heath.

The apartments were equipped with intercoms, had spacious living areas and also included laundry facilities as well as, would you believe, a dining room? Oh yes!

David said the rehabilitation of these units cost $100,000 per unit. $10 million will be spent for 35 units in three buildings. Two buildings with 48 units in them were demolished

“We didn’t change the shape of the buildings,” David said. “We gutted the interiors and redid the interiors with the upgrade of plumbing and wiring and a comprehensive extermination program in the buildings.”

The five-bedroom apartment that we toured was a triplex with a basement. I have never seen this before in public housing and it is definitely not in Chicago.

I was amazed how the residents had thought out and designed the use of the dwelling units; it is amazing and very well thought out.

David Worrell said that Bromley-Heath has a waiting list that could run up to 20 years for the new units but relocatees get first priority, then people with medical problems and then people who are under or over housed. The BHA matches occupancy right away.

A History of Bromley-Heath

David talked about how there were other successful resident-managed developments: Kennilworth-Parkside in Washington, D.C., Cochran Gardens in St. Louis and one place in New Jersey.

He also said Bromley-Heath had to initiate a lot of the services they have and said it was just a natural progression to tenant management.

At the time Bromley-Heath became tenant managed, the federal government – with Jack Kemp as HUD Secretary under President George Bush – was promoting tenant management. Bromley-Heath residents sought to make partnerships with the Boston Housing Authority and the federal government.

“We knew it would not work if we were adversaries. We had to have some sort of cooperative relationship,” David said.

David noted that the keys are to “organize, communicate, educate and negotiate.” I, as a resident representative, agree with the whole concept of cooperative relationships.

David went back in time and talked about the human chain that residents formed in the ‘60s because kids were being killed by drivers speeding through the neighborhood.

He said, “Most people get organized around common issues. The thing about tenant management is that most of the employees live in the development.”

Bromley-Heath has a 13-person board and all of the members live in the development.

David talked about the role of the Bromley-Heath police force: “It’s not just having the police here to enforce the law. It’s residents policing residents. If you put on a gun and badge, you’re going to react after the fact. We don’t have the same gang problems of Chicago. We try to work with residents so they take action before the fact.”

David also said, “If you are in this kind of job, you have to understand that it’s much more than 9 to 5. Part of the mission of tenant management is to make people comfortable. Once you instill that pride in self as individuals, it is possible to believe you can do anything.

“The residents know that we are not a cure for all but know that we’re a good place to start to get something done.”

Mildred said, “We don’t work in an adversarial relationship with the housing authority. We work as partners.”

Mildred noted that Bromley-Heath is a 10 percent limited partner with the developer of a near by mini-mall, which has the Stop and Shop supermarket. She said the original plan for the mini-mall site was to put a garbage dump and a car junkyard on the site.

Cheryl Patterson said that Bromley-Heath usually dominates both the precinct and ward.

Patterson said out of Bromley Heath’s staff of 65, 50 percent are former and current residents.

“It’s about getting residents to understand their dreams can be realized.”

The community also has a modern health center. Mildred said, “It was seven years in the making but it was worth the wait. You can do things but every community has to go at its own pace.”

Mildred also suggested that I get a contract from the Chicago Housing Authority to manage units.

I said before I get a contract, I want to make sure I am capable of doing everything I need to do and whatever the contract will be will include a partnership or no partnership at all. I am going to equip myself with all the knowledge there is to know before I ask for a contract.

Mildred said, “We really need to come together in unity, all the resident groups. There is a greater voice in numbers. When something new comes from the government, we have to decide: Is this to our benefit or is it an effort to get out of the public housing business?”

Conclusions

When we are fighting amongst ourselves for a lack of knowledge of the law and civil rights, who benefits from it? We don’t. Without knowledge, it is not for us to benefit but to implement what has already been decided for us.

When you are not armed with the knowledge that will protect you, ammunition to grow is of no difference. You are like a frog on a lily pad. You are sitting in the middle of the pond, wide open and unprotected. Without knowledge, you cannot implement something that affects the housing community you live in or your whole being as a human.

The tour of Bromley-Heath is a lesson within itself. I have come and I have seen what quality housing is without the discrimination that comes from other people that live within the same community. I have some suggestions based on what I have seen and from the love and sincerity I felt: To my fellow neighbors of Boston, Mass., Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation: I bow to you for you have accomplished what so many are seeking. There is a lesson all public housing authorities can learn from you.

To Chicago Housing Authority and HUD: There is a model awaiting you. Take it and use it wisely. To the residents of the Chicago Housing Authority: Where there is a will, there’s a way. Respect one another. Know what you have to deal with and take care of business.

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