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Groundbreaking project saved affordable housing

Sandra Larson | 6/29/2010, 10:11 p.m.
Flowers now line Columbia Road in Dorchester in front of well-kept apartment buildings owned by the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation. Sandra Larson

In addition to CSNDC, the other agencies receiving checks were Nuestra Comunidad CDC, Fields Corner CDC, Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, Lena Park CDC, Quincy Geneva Housing Corporation and Urban Edge Housing Corporation.

Mossik Hacobian, president of Urban Edge, said the refund money will go toward Urban Edge’s programs in affordable housing, food relief and foreclosure prevention. The payment is also a sign of how well-organized BHP II was, he said.

“BHP II was innovative in that they pooled reserves, because it was hard to predict what might go wrong,” he said. To his knowledge, no unexpected problems called for tapping the reserves. Along the way, the CDCs benefited from regular interest payments from the reserve fund.

Urban Edge renovated 65 units in the Egleston Square area with BHP II support. And like Latimore, Hacobian emphasized that the improvement went far beyond renovations.

Hacobian explained that as BHP II got started, there was a parallel improvement effort by the neighborhood. People from the nearby church, nonprofit agencies including Urban Edge, and local residents began a daily “take back the streets” effort. Over the summer, the effort included a neighborhood potluck and games night.

Gradually, much of the drug activity was pushed out, he said. “So, a lot of the development of these buildings was also about neighborhood development,” he explained. “It involved housing, but also safety.”

By many accounts, Boston was a pioneer in this public-private partnership to invest in affordable housing.

It was a complex partnership that involved more than just banks and CDCs — it relied on the involvement of city, state and federal government, and another nonprofit agency, Greater Boston Community Development (GBCD), which gave technical support to the CDCs, according to Thomas Bledsoe, former head of MBHP and now chief executive officer of the Housing Partnership Network, a national organization that facilitates similar partnerships in other cities.

“[BHP II] was the first time it was done at this scale, at this level of complexity,” said Bledsoe. “It definitely sparked the development of this type of partnership around the country.”

The Boston project became a model for other cities such as Columbus, Ohio and Charlotte, N.C. — and New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, Bledsoe said.

Robert Whittlesey, who founded the Boston Housing Partnership along with Bill Edgerly of State Street Corporation, said building new relationships between banks and nonprofits was key to BHP II. It’s been a lasting benefit, as many of the financial institutions continue to work with the CDCs — some of which have grown into agencies capable of buying properties on their own.

“The big thing about affordable housing in this country is you have to package money from many entities, and that’s hard for small agencies to do. [BHP II] was a really important demonstration to show how you could do this,” said Whittlesey, whose career in affordable housing efforts in Boston spans 50 years.

Latimore, recalling the Dorchester street corners full of addicts and prostitutes that she feared as a young woman, said she dreads what might have been if the BHP projects hadn’t happened.

“I think it’s possible it could still be the same 20 years later,” she said, “if you had not had a group of dynamic public and private investors saying, ‘Enough of this.’”