“I have extreme amounts of Black mold in my hallway, closet and bathroom. I have asthma and the mold is harming my health. Three times maintenance people have come and painted over the mold or scrubbed it off with chemicals that hurt my breathing, but it just keeps coming back.”
“My shower has not been working for months. We call the Boston Housing Authority every week and nobody has come to fix it.”
“Gas leaks from my stove while I’m cooking and causes the red alarm in my apartment to go off every time. Maintenance has permanently disarmed it.”
“I have lived here for nine years, and maintenance has come twice … My 12 year old daughter has asthma. She’s afraid to use the shower because the mold looks so scary and it’s a risk to her health. There are persistent leaks in the bathroom.”
These are quotes from a 120+ page repair letter campaign submitted to the Boston Housing Authority by residents of the Mildred Hailey Apartments in Jamaica Plain. Tenants reported cases of black mold, rat infestations, broken doors and windows, ceiling leaks, and numerous other complaints that have gone largely unanswered by the BHA administrator’s office for years. When the complaints were answered, many of the issues were addressed with short-term, ineffective solutions.
Since 2021, members of the Mildred Hailey Community and the United Front Against Displacement have organized against BHA and their profound mistreatment and neglect of MHA residents. John Wheeler, a longtime resident and organizer at Mildred Hailey, sat down for an interview with the UFAD in December 2021 to discuss the ongoing issues. He shared that the carbon monoxide detector in his apartment went off 12 times in the last year, and management simply replaced it 10 times. “They replace it, saying it’s defective, instead of fixing the carbon monoxide problem. How many times can you put in a faulty detector?” Two weeks before the interview was taped, Wheeler called the fire department — again — for the detector and was told to evacuate the apartment. The carbon monoxide levels in the apartment were measured at 96%. “One of the firefighters said, ‘at that level, you shouldn’t even be alive,’” John explained. His story is just one of the many atrocities residents of the MHA were forced to endure.
John Wheeler had been organizing since the 90s to ensure the Tenant Management Association remained in control of MHA. Ultimately, though, federal funding cuts handed control back to the BHA in 2012. It became a wedge private developers could leverage to make their case for repurposing the space.
The problem at Mildred Hailey has been years in the making, fostered through a combination of disenfranchisement, disempowerment, and neglect. For years, residents of Mildred Hailey have documented and articulated to the BHA the various problems that exist in their apartment complex and the surrounding neighborhood. In an interview with the HPR, Tia Wheeler, a resident who has lived at Mildred Hailey for over 25 years, described how the BHA “cut corners” when the building was originally constructed. She stated that almost none of the apartments at Mildred Hailey contain firewalls or emergency exits: “There’s only one way in and one way out,” Wheeler emphasized. Firewalls are protective barriers installed within buildings to prevent smoke and fire from traveling to other parts of the structure. Under federal law, fire protections are required for a building to be eligible for leasing status. Despite this, these protections remained absent from Mildred Hailey since it was constructed. When the Tenant Management Association took over in the late 1990s, they tried to correct some of these issues. That work stalled once BHA took control again in 2012.
In this complex, however, fire safety is the least of their worries. Residents submitted numerous complaints detailing mysterious dark spots appearing in their kitchens, bathrooms, cabinets, and on their ceilings over the years. Eventually, they came to the realization that the blotches covering their apartments were black mold.
When I interviewed Tia Wheeler, I noticed she kept muting her sound at different times throughout our meeting for what appeared to be violent, incessant coughing fits. I asked her if she was doing okay. She started coughing again and took a brief break to get water. The mold in her apartment keeps her coughing around the clock, she admitted.
The symptoms Tia experienced were not uncommon for people living at places like MHA. Numerous studies have shown a link between black mold, rodent infestations and the onset of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. This is especially pertinent to public housing sites where poor upkeep puts people at increased risk for exposure.
In an interview with HPR, Alonso Espinoza-Dominguez, an organizer for Boston’s UFAD chapter, relayed the experience of a resident who tried to get a mold issue remedied. They called a city inspector to take a look at their apartment. In the inspector’s report, he cited a “black substance and moisture problem.” However, there was never an acknowledgement that this substance was mold. UFAD got involved, and secured a private inspector to examine the problem. This inspector acknowledged there was, in fact, mold growing on the resident’s wall and surrounding apartment surfaces. He cut a piece out of the drywall to examine the underlying structure. His exploration led to the exposure of an empty cavity in the apartment wall filled with this same black, foul smelling substance.
Based on the private inspector’s recommendation, the resident was able to get the City of Boston to take a second look at the problem. The city’s response was to spray the hole with bleach and cover it up, leaving all the mold growing behind the wall untouched. Eventually, the mold in that spot would grow back.
This story is indicative of a perpetual issue. The repair letter campaign cited work orders that had not been fulfilled in almost a decade. People live in apartment complexes with no running water, no heat during the wintertime, and an inability to store food due to rats eating through their cabinets. Doors to some of the apartment buildings were broken, essentially left open for anyone to wander in. Tenants have spoken up and held protests about the horrible conditions they are forced to endure at Mildred Hailey. Despite this, not much has been done.
Gentrification or City-Sanctioned Displacement?
According to a 2020 report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, Boston is ranked as the third most gentrified city in the United States. Gentrification is a process whereby wealthy, often college-educated individuals begin to move into poor or working-class communities. This process leads to displacement of local residents. Gentrification drives up property values and cost of living. Community members, in tandem, are forced to move further away to neighborhoods and cities where property values are cheaper. This causes a demographic shift that disproportionately impacts low-income and minoritized groups.
In recent years, Jamaica Plain has become the site of numerous redevelopment efforts. In January 2022, Mayor Wu committed 50 million dollars to redevelop the Mildred Hailey Apartment Complex. Under this plan, the 253 public housing units would be refurbished, along with the construction of 420 upper-middle income housing units to attract new residents. Tia Wheeler told the HPR, “They’re not fixing it up to help the people living here. They’re fixing it up to attract a different class of people.”
Tenants are grateful that the city has committed funds to improve their living conditions, but when the use of these funds carries the possibility that they will be displaced elsewhere and potentially never make it back, that gratitude dissipates.
“They move you out and promise you have a right to return. Some people eventually make it back to … Section 8. But a lot of people do not make it back,” says Alonso. Section 8 housing differs from public housing. The latter is a program where the federal government pays for and manages low-income housing, guaranteeing certain federal protections to residents. Section 8, on the other hand, is a form of subsidized housing whereby private leasers collect vouchers from the state to subsidize the stay of low-income individuals. This shift means private developers can essentially decide how to house low-income individuals, and in some cases, bypass those protections.
Under Section 8, people can get stuck in the system. The private developers who buy the public housing units from the city can institute additional verification practices that residents must undergo; tenants may be expected to show proof of income above the amount they are able to pay for the apartment, proof of documentation, a government ID, among a host of other processes that can deter low-income and immigrant families from getting back to their homes.
As of January 2022, the Mildred Hailey Apartments had no families left in the first two buildings slated for demolition. Demolition that was supposed to take place in 2021 did not officially start until May 12, 2023. People were told they had to move out in the winter of 2022 with less than a week’s notice. Then, demolition plans were stalled, with no indication of when they would have to move again. Alonso and Tia described families being left in a state of limbo for months, unsure when and if they would have to move. Then, when the final decision to move out of the two now demolished buildings came down the pipeline, it violated a number of agreements which MHA residents were promised. According to Alonso, these promises included: 120 day notices before move-out, allowing residents to see at least 3 potential options for relocation before making their decision, and monetary aid to help with the relocation process.
Similar instances have taken place at other housing sites in Boston. Grant Manor Apartments is a particularly sinister example of gentrification pricing out the folks who lived there. In July 2022, they released a new proposed rent increase to tenants which averaged 120%. Most tenants, understandably, did not have the money to pay such a sharp increase and were forced to move out and find shelter elsewhere. High housing costs are among the leading factors causing Black and Brown people to move out of Boston.
A National Issue
This issue is not isolated to Boston. The Boston Housing Authority was established in 1935 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development The federal government created a new deal policy to subsidize the creation of affordable housing for folks during the Great Depression. In 1954, Bromley Heath was formed by the fusion of the Heath Street Houses and a nearby property at Bromley Park.
The federal government committed funds for the creation of 60 public housing authorities throughout the United States. Over the years, HUD decided to stop funding public housing initiatives. In turn, public housing structures were systematically deprived of monetary resources. This has caused many cities to turn to private developers to buy up the properties and take control of leasing them to local residents. It has happened in Chicago, the Bay Area, New York, and other states and cities across the country. UFAD chapters in New York and the Bay Area report similar instances of the inferior conditions that people living in public housing are forced to endure.
Exposing people to poor living conditions puts them at increased risk to develop respiratory illness, heart disease, mental health issues, among other health risks that reduce the life expectancy of affected populations. Livable housing is not only a matter of common decency, but survival.
Politicians and big business frame gentrification as a way to improve neighborhoods by breathing money and life back into the city. But when we consider the fact that gentrification is among the leading drivers of displacement and poverty concentration in the modern age, and that victims of these policies are disproportionately Black, Brown and Indigenous, we start to see the system for what it is: a set of rules that displace those who had less resources to begin with due to the realities of systemic racism and discrimination within the U.S. welfare state. Then, they are replaced with a new, more affluent population. That is why community members, like those at Mildred Hailey, are fighting back. In the words of John Wheeler, “We need to organize. We need to come out in numbers and say we don’t like this. Everyone in our community standing up as one unit!”