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Tech Day speaker lauds Boston project as model for public housing

Lawrence Vale
Lawrence Vale
Donna Coveney

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.-- The head of MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning disagrees with the Bush administration's approach to revitalizing public housing, instead holding up as a national model a once-troubled Boston project that transformed itself into a thriving community without a loss of social commitment.

Professor Lawrence J. Vale (S.M. 1988) made these remarks during a June 7 Technology Day talk on "Housing the Lowest Income Americans: The Past, Present and Future of Public Housing."

Vale described several historical approaches to remediating public housing that has fallen into decline. For example, in St. Louis a troubled development was simply demolished, leaving an open field that some have proposed turning into a golf course. "That's a very short-sighted answer," said Vale. "[That] is the answer that says 'give up.'"

The current approach of the $5 billion federal program dubbed HOPE VI is to "tear it all down and rebuild [it] as mixed-income communities to attract a different set of people," Vale said. The catch: "it's asking a different kind of person to benefit ... and it's not serving the people that public housing had intended to serve."

A recent study of HOPE VI found that "only 11 percent of those who had lived in the severely distressed public housing neighborhoods replaced by HOPE VI actually got back into the redeveloped housing," Vale said.

He wryly noted that "I don't make any friends at HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] when I suggest that the HOPE acronym stands for 'House Our Poor people Elsewhere."

An alternative that Vale believes works much better is to reclaim not just the public housing buildings, but also the occupancy for people with very low income.

The Commonwealth development in Brighton did just that. The result: "Probably the most successful turnaround of a severely distressed public housing development anywhere in the country."

In 1980, Commonwealth was 52 percent vacant. Only 11 percent of the people who lived there felt "very safe." "But the people didn't give up, nor did they give it to wealthier people," Vale said.

Thanks in large part to strong tenant leadership, the development was slowly transformed. Day care and community centers were added. The three-story buildings that had apartments on each floor were turned into townhouse-type buildings, "so that when somebody was on a stoop, they could actually talk to somebody on the street," Vale said. The development was beautifully landscaped and turned over to a first-rate private management team.

A place that was once considered so dangerous that nobody would go near it was a thriving community by the mid-1980s. "Resident parking only" signs had to be erected because people from the suburbs were parking at Commonwealth and catching trains to their jobs downtown.

"It was a remarkable transformation," Vale said.

The other Tech Day speakers and their topics were Stephen D. Ansolabehere, professor of political science, whose topic was "Political Advertising: Free Speech and the Problem of Campaign Reform"; Rudolf Jaenisch, professor of biology and member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, on "Mammalian Cloning and Stem Cell Therapy: Problems and Promise"; Richard M. Locke (Ph.D. 1989), the Alvin J. Siteman '48 Professor of Entrepreneurship and Political Science at the Sloan School, on "Globalization and the Future of Corporate Citizenship"; and Edwin L. Thomas, the Morris Cohen '33 Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, on "The ISN: Taking Nanotechnology from the Laboratory to the Soldier."

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