Integrating public housing. Boston takes a cautious, long-awaited first step

Boston has begun to integrate one of its oldest public housing projects. The Boston Housing Authority (BHA) moved two black families into the all-white Mary Ellen McCormack housing project in the city's South Boston section yesterday. They are the first black families in the project in more than 10 years.

Mayor Raymond L. Flynn had asked for restraint in news media coverage of the event but has been criticized by both black leaders and South Boston neighborhood leaders for seeking publicity.

Police Commissioner Francis Roache said police were prepared for any problems that might arise when the black families move in, but ``you will not see an overwhelming police presence.''

The two black families were being moved as emergency placements and not under a housing integration plan worked out between the city and the federal government.

South Boston, a predominantly white section of the city, was the scene of racial violence when public schools were integrated under a federal court order more than a decade ago.

The BHA has been caught between the pincers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), each demanding that the authority integrate its 60,000 tenants, about 10 percent of Boston's total population.

The NAACP has filed legal action against Boston, including the BHA. HUD is conducting a nationwide review of America's 240 largest housing authorities (in charge of 1,000 or more units of public housing each).

HUD says the BHA is operating segregated housing in violation of the Fair Housing Act and of Title VI of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both laws ban racial discrimination in any activity that is financed with federal money.

Caught in the middle is Doris Bunte, administrator of the BHA, one of the nation's oldest public housing authorities. It opened its first development in 1937.

``I'm appalled at being placed on the defensive for maintaining a policy that I did not create, and I have never supported,'' says Mrs. Bunte, who is herself a former public-housing resident. (Twenty years ago she moved from New York City to Boston with her children.) She was also the first tenant to serve on the BHA board and is a former activist state representative.

HUD has reviewed the BHA and its policies, which reportedly assign white applicants to developments in predominantly white communities and blacks to public housing in predominantly black communities. Both HUD and the NAACP challenge the BHA to desegregate its 17,000 units in 69 developments.

In response Mrs. Bunte and the BHA have entered a voluntary agreement with Boston and HUD to implement a program of desegregation of BHA-controlled apartments.

``This agreement demonstrates the results of HUD's commitment to eliminate racial discrimination in HUD-funded programs throughout the country,'' says HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce Jr., who has long been an advocate of strong fair-housing legislation.

``We cannot and will not tolerate housing discrimination in this country, especially when those most in need are the victims of this practice,'' he says.

Although an interracial, interdenominational, and ecumenical religious service was held at a church in South Boston in support of desegregation, some residents strongly oppose the BHA's action.

Similar services are scheduled for other communities to try to create what Bunte calls an atmosphere of welcome to new neighbors of different racial or ethnic backgrounds.

``It's clear to me that the BHA projects are segregated,'' she says. ``I don't need HUD to tell me that.

``The BHA can't do the job alone, however. We hope this move of two black families to South Boston can be just a normal change of residence without any special fanfare or publicity.''

All signers of the agreement - Boston Mayor Flynn; Judith Y. Brachman, assistant secretary of HUD for fair housing and equal opportunity; and the BHA's Bunte - say they want a peaceful move of blacks into South Boston.

The agreement sets up three phases:

First, all applicants would be placed on a single waiting list, instead of on separate lists for each project as is currently done.

Second, disadvantaged applicants (those denied apartments because of race under the old system) would be identified.

Only emergency applicants will be placed ahead of these applicants. The two black families that have been moved into the McCormack project in South Boston are emergency applicants who were made homeless because of fires.

Third, after completion of the first two phases, the system would shift to a first-come, first-serve policy. Full implementation should occur within two years, says Bunte.

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