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Wading out of a public housing quagmire

Public housing in Boston is aiming toward diversity - through a greater income mix of residents, through modernization, through adding human services, recreation facilities, and job training for residents, say local and federal officials. For instance:

Columbia Point. Only 400 families remain in this 1,504-unit oceanfront project - once a crime-ridden, rat-infested den of tension. Now it's on the verge of being redeveloped into a peninsular community of about 1,500 mixed-income units in a seaside setting. And it will be developed privately.

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Franklin Field. This dilapidated housing project in Dorchester is surrounded by abandoned properties in a decaying business area. But now it is being revitalized with federal funds. Neighbors who have been hostile to outsiders and to each other say they are working together to bring a new order. And a new community organization is working to promote recreation, culture, and business enterprise in the neighborhood.

Fidelis Way. Brighton's project, built in 1951, has a history of racial problems. It is being rehabilitated by a private contractor for $26.2 million. Under the ''turn key'' arrangement, the contractor invests in improvements such as new wiring, new appliances, landscaping, and paint, and then turns the keys over to public housing officials for a profit.

''Public housing can no longer be a warehouse for the nonworking class,'' says Lewis H. (Harry) Spence, head of the Boston Housing Authority (BHA). ''Such a condition is dangerous, and Boston cannot permit this. If Boston passively allows its public housing to deteriorate, the city is sure to be hurt by the consequences.''

Public housing projects - once considered the panacea for slum dwellers - are becoming enclaves of poverty-stricken, jobless people, says Mr. Spence, who has made a career of turning around troubled projects in a number of Massachusetts cities.

Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, reversing the policy of former Mayor Kevin H. White, joined with tenants and state and federal officials to support many of Spence's policies and changes.

Spence is receiver-administrator of the BHA, the beleaguered landlord to more than 54,000 tenants who are 10 percent of the Hub's population. In 1979, Superior Court Judge Paul G. Garrity (formerly of the state Housing Court) took the BHA out of the hands of the city (Perez et al. v. Boston). In February 1980, he named Spence as receiver to straighten up the mismanaged housing authority.

Every six months, Spence reports to Judge Garrity on progress at the BHA and its housing projects. Last February the judge, at the request of tenants and Spence, permitted the BHA to remain in receivership for another year to firm up the changes that have been made under Spence's direction.

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Yet, not all is working smoothly in the world of public housing. Tenants are not satisfied they are getting their fair share of the city's public services, such as police protection and garbage collection.

''The BHA is the city's chief landlord, but we tenants are not always included in its planning,'' says Steve Holt, director of Tenants United for Public Housing Progress, a organization founded in 1983 to replace the Tenants Policy Council.

''We want to be sure that BHA policies serve the needs of tenants before control is returned to the city. We want proper police protection. We want all city services other people of Boston get.''

What is the BHA? What is it doing today? And what happens when control of public housing is returned to the city?

Established in 1935, the BHA is one of the nation's oldest public housing agencies. It is the fourth largest authority in the nation with control over 17, 367 units in 69 developments.

Of this total, 14,036 are federally funded, including 10,334 family units in 20 projects and 3,702 units in 34 developments for the elderly. There are 3,331 state-funded units, including 2,883 family units in 11 developments and 448 in four projects for the elderly. The BHA also controls 5,615 units of leased housing - 5,193 federally funded and 422 state-supported units.

Spence hopes to make showcase developments out of three of the city's least inviting multifamily projects: Columbia Point, Fidelis Way, and D Street in South Boston. His program is part of the current policy of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to upgrade and modernize the nation's public housing stock.

Under the Reagan administration, HUD is no longer investing money into building mass public housing. The changeover of Columbia Point to private management and mixed housing is modeled after King's Lynne, a successful conversion of an infamous public housing project into a privately managed mixed-housing development in Lynn, Mass. The Columbia Point design - in the works since 1979 - involves the entire Columbia Point Peninsula, which includes the John F. Kennedy Library, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, the Bank of Boston, the revitalized Bay State Mall, and the public housing tenants.

Because of two recent breakthroughs, Columbia Point may be transferred to private developers before the end of the year, says Ralph Memolo, spokesman for the Boston Redevelopment Agency (BRA), the city's planning agency.

First, HUD has finally agreed to subsidize the 400 low-cost units that are still occupied. A $30 million assistance package - including an Urban Development Action Grant - is expected from HUD by fall.

Second, the BRA has applied for $90 million in construction financing from the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency. ''This provides mortgage guarantees for the project,'' Mr. Memolo says.

He adds that the two main competitors - Corcoran, Mullins, and Jennison of Quincy (developers of King's Lynne) and National Housing Partnership of Washington - have joined with the Columbia Point Tenants Task Force to win the development contract from the BHA.

The $136 million Columbia Point package - of which about $16 million will come from developers - is expected to include lowering the height of the high-rise family dwellings, luxury housing for all tenants (rent for the 400 families will be subsidized), a new shopping mall, and recreational facilities such as tennis courts and a swimming pool near the beach.

At Franklin Field in Dorchester, renovation is based on another concept: improving the facilities and the residents' outlook. The entire project is now being modernized with $23 million in federal grants. In addition, the Franklin Field Corporation - a new nonprofit, tax-exempt agency - is planning programs for residents such as entertainment, job training, and sports programs.

''Critics say residents will tear up their new apartments, will not take care of their freshly landscaped lawns,'' says Imani Kazana, president of the Franklin Field Corporation and a nonresident. ''I say it takes time to teach people. And motivation to achieve grows when people appreciate the improvements made.''

By the end of the year, Spence plans to leave his job, a position that dared him to turn Boston's public housing around from a debt-ridden, crime-infested, and poorly maintained system into an efficiently managed, well-maintained, and rehabilitated operation.

In his last report to Judge Garrity, Spence noted progress in the physical improvements in public housing facilities, in vacancy reduction, in selecting more responsible tenants, and in rent collection. Improvement in management is indicated through training programs, computerization of records, and resolution of maintenance labor issues.

The report said problems remain in meeting the schedule for structural improvements. Fair-housing laws are being implemented, albeit slowly. It's proved difficult to convince white families to move into projects with a majority of blacks and Hispanics, and to move black families into communities such as Charlestown and South Boston, which have not welcomed blacks in the past.

The semiannual report emphasized the establishment of a BHA police force trained at the state Police Academy, improvement of garbage collection by the city, and improvement of services such as day care, educational programs, and job training.

Holt says tenants approve most changes made under Spence's administration, but he adds, ''We're seeking a tenants' bill of rights before returning public housing to the BHA.''

No one is saying what the new BHA will be - whether it will return to the old five-member agency or emerge as something different after the receivership is lifted and the city regains control.

''Tenants seek one priority of the BHA - accessibility,'' Holt says. ''Harry Spence is always available to us. We want the new BHA to be likewise.''

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