Public housing

Worcester mayor’s plan for more large-scale social housing is a big mistake

Growing up in a large-scale public housing estate like Great Brook Valley – which the public perception also includes Curtis Apartments – carries with it a sort of scarlet letter.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about where I grew up. It was a great neighborhood, with great families. My father was a disabled vet, which entitled us to an affordable apartment and we were lucky to live there.

But for a lot of people outside of “the valley”, we carried a mark.

One day while in college, I went to visit a friend who lived in a single-family neighborhood near St. Joan of Arc Church. When I knocked on the door, a huge man with a big smile greeted me. He asked me my name and where I was from. When I told him I lived in Great Brook Valley, the smile disappeared from his face.

He told me to wait a minute then closed the door. But her voice was loud enough that I could hear her scolding her son. Children like me, he told his son, would never get anywhere and he would have to find better friends. When my friend came to the door, he never looked up as he told me he couldn’t go out because he hadn’t finished his homework.

The drive home seemed to take hours. My clothes were clean, my hair was combed, and I was a good student in school. Still, I wasn’t good enough to play basketball in my friend’s driveway.

I have seen this story unfold hundreds of times. When I became executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority I was told by several employers that they had never hired anyone from GBV – they just didn’t want to take the risk.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with growing up in social housing. It exists for a reason and people like me have benefited greatly from the generosity of the public. But large-scale social housing developments carry with them a sigma that we should try to avoid.

Recently, Mayor Joe Petty made affordable housing a priority — and he’s absolutely right. The waiting list for social housing is over a decade long. But, in addition to the proposed $178 million redevelopment of Curtis Apartments, which will add 100 more apartments to an already sprawling development, he wants the city to partner with the WHA and move forward with another large-scale project. scale.

A partnership with the WHA makes sense. Building a large-scale development would be a disaster.

District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera noted that large-scale developments – places like GBV, Plumley Village and Lakeside Apartments – can lead to feelings of segregation and this can lead to stereotypes which can impact people living there. And she is right.

I’m not saying the city is moving away from the need for more affordable housing. But, I suggest they take a different approach – one that focuses on smaller developments that fit into an existing neighborhood. Such an approach has several advantages.

First, small developments can benefit an existing neighborhood by taking vacant land or derelict property and turning it into a real neighborhood asset. You don’t need 10 acres in one place. You can find a number of smaller spaces that are an eyesore and turn them into something that benefits people living in that community.

And think of the dozens of dilapidated buildings that mark the city’s landscape. Even the larger ones could be dismantled with part made available for affordable housing.

Second, smaller developments can be more easily located in a wider range of neighborhoods. Try putting 100 affordable housing units in one place on the West Side. I’ll wait outside when you tell the neighbors and leave the engine running for a little getaway.

The city should not continue to concentrate affordable housing in the same neighborhoods. Using small, scattered sites at least gives the city a chance to locate units in other neighborhoods.

And third, small developments, those that don’t scream “look at me, I’m an HLM resident”, treat the people living there with dignity. Rather than living in GBV, Plumley or Lakeside, residents can say they live on Hamilton or May Street.

And there’s another thing wrong with the city map. When a councilor asked if there were any large areas that could be used to build a new development, City Manager Augustus pointed out that the WHA had a large tract of vacant land. What he didn’t tell them is that it’s just outside and next to GBV.

Hey, GBV is not big enough. Having 1,000 poor families living in the same region is not enough. Let’s add another three or four hundred and make it even bigger. If that is their intention, a fifth grader with a pencil might come up with a better plan.

Look, city leaders deserve huge credit for their willingness to tackle the problem. Too many families are desperate for a safe, clean place to live that they can afford.

And unlike most towns in the region, which ignore their responsibility, the leaders of Worcester have the courage to try to make a real difference in the lives of good people who need a helping hand.

But there is a right way and a wrong way to approach this problem. And Worcester seems to have chosen the wrong approach. If they really want to help people who need housing, they should review their approach.

Email Raymond V. Mariano at [email protected] He served four terms as mayor of Worcester and previously served on the city council and school committee. He grew up in Great Brook Valley and graduated from Worcester State College and Clark University. He was most recently executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority. His column appears weekly in the Sunday Telegram.