My trip has begun, appropriately, in Boston, the place where this strange idea of ‘America’ really got started. There are buildings to remind you this was once a British colony, but now the colonisers come in different, but very familiar, form. The wearysome vernacular of ‘waterside regeneration’ takes a particularly aggressive tone in Boston because it’s surrounded by water. As ever and elsewhere, the glass-clad fantasy apartment blocks conceal a bitter truth.
The city has a tradition of progressive politics, but this reputation is being severely strained by its current housing policy. Last night I spoke at a meeting under the heading ‘Can Public Housing Be Saved?’ The Boston Housing Authority (BHA), which manages about 11,000 homes (around 10% of the city’s rented housing), is preparing to sell it all off to private developers. The reason BHA are offering is they don’t have enough money to carry out a back-log of repairs. After years of government cuts to public housing, that’s no surprise. But an ulterior motive is suggested in a document in which BHA invites private developers to take over publicly owned sites in ‘high market neighbourhoods’.
Sound familiar? BHA is using a language very familiar to Eric Pickles when he described some UK council housing in ‘high market neighbourhoods’ as ‘brownfield sites’ i.e. places where property developers would like to build speculative private housing. What the UK and US governments have in common is that they want to break, once and for all, any linkage between the words ‘public’ and ‘housing’.
As in other aspects of society, housing in America assumes a brutality that can shock. Boston’s mayor recently authorised the immediate closure of a hostel for vulnerable people on an island near the city. As the former occupants were summerily removed, the bridge that may have tempted them to return was destroyed. Despite a 40,000 waiting list for affordable housing, the mayor’s housing plan does not include a single non-market home. Boston is also a candidate city for the 2024 Olympics, something that local campaigners succinctly describe as a property developer’s ‘wet dream’!
Last night’s meeting agreed a strategy of resistence against the threat to Boston’s public housing. It happened in a place and with a person who offer real inspiration and hope. The venue was Tent City, the key speaker was Mel King. In the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s murder in 1968, Boston, like many other US cities, saw an upsurge of protest. A vacant downtown site was occupied as an encampment from where Mel King and others demanded more affordable housing in an area blighted by ‘urban renewal’ that would have meant ‘negro removal’. After an attritional 20 year campaign, Tent City was built to provide 269 homes, 75% of which were – and remain – for low and medium income families – with the iconic struggle immortalised in its name.
Mel King is now 86, but still campaigning. There are many like him, but few who can point to such a visible symbol that fighting can win.
Not many housing developments with this kind of thing in the lobby.