Thursday 18 September 2008

Boston social housing scheme shows the way

An Irish-American firm, which developed a template for exemplary social housing, is pressing hard to get into the frame as Dublin City Council prepares to redevelop some problem estates, writes Frank McDonald.

COLUMBIA POINT used to be one of the worst slums in North America. Despite its beautiful location on Boston Harbour, not far from the Kennedy Library, it was wracked by every imaginable social problem, mostly drug-related. It was a ghetto, physically isolated from the city, a place nobody wanted to go.

Mostly boarded up when developers Corcoran Mullins Jennison (CMJ) arrived on the scene in 1987, it became the first federal housing project in the United States to be converted to mixed-income housing.

And with the end-result winning several awards, it has served as an exemplary model for similar schemes elsewhere.

Anyone coming back after 20 years would barely recognise it. The name was changed to Harbor Point, to extirpate old associations, and the entire estate redeveloped to provide 1,283 attractive apartments and townhouses - supported by a range of social facilities, including shops, playgrounds and places for sitting out.

Low-income households benefiting from rent allowances account for just over 31 per cent of the overall mix, but there's no distinction between them and tenants paying the full market rent of $1,700 to $1,800 a month (€1,197 to €1,268); everyone lives together, instead of being socially segregated in different blocks.

What is also unusual about Harbor Point is that it's owned and managed by the same company that developed it - co-founded, incidentally, by Irish-American entrepreneur Joe Corcoran, whose parents hailed from Co Roscommon; he made a fortune from property investments and still runs the company at the age of 72.

Corcoran Jennison pitched for the PPP contracts from Dublin City Council to redevelop Dominick Street, O'Devaney Gardens and St Michael's Estate - losing out to Bernard McNamara. But now, with McNamara out of the picture, the Boston-based firm is pressing hard to get back into the frame by highlighting its track record.

Its focus is on developing and managing sustainable communities that work well for residents and for the company, as long-term landlord.

"Rents go up 3 per cent a year, so the property is worth much more now than 20 years ago," says Miles Byrne, who managed Harbor Point for eight years and knows its people well.

"We're incentivised to ensure it never goes bad. Under the Irish model, the developer is incentivised to make it look good on day one, when it's all up for sale.

Nobody asks how the area is going to be managed in the years ahead, what's the life expectancy of the lifts, roofs, etc, and how much it's going to cost to maintain."

The centrepiece of Harbor Point is a wide tree-lined boulevard, flanked by apartment blocks up to seven storeys high.

A small shopping arcade occupies the ground floor of one of these blocks, while the others are fronted by attractive shrubs and bedding plants. There is no evidence of vandalism or graffiti anywhere.

Colourful balloons decorate the entrance to the estate's leasing office, where prospective tenants are interviewed for the 2 per cent of units vacant at any given time.

"We have control over who goes in here," says Miles Byrne. "It's not like an apartment complex in Dublin, where there would be a whole lot of individual landlords."

One-bedroom apartments have floor areas of 56sq m (600sq ft), with good-sized rooms and even walk-in closets.

And because every block has a sprinkler system, apartments have a more open aspect, with no enclosed hallways.

The central heating, ventilation and air conditioning system is run on gas-fired boilers.

The rules are quite straightforward: tenants must pay the rent on time, not bother the neighbours, take care of their own apartments and disclose who's living with them.

"We need to get to know people, find out who they are and learn their names," says Byrne. "Because guys can't be dangerous if they're not anonymous."

Thirty-six nationalities are represented at Harbor Point, and around half of the residents are black.

There's a crèche, a youth centre with an outreach programme, a full-service health centre to cater for 500 kids under the age of 18 as well as two outdoor swimming pools, one for lounging around and the other for lapping.

Harbor Point also has a newly refurbished fitness centre with cardio and weight machines and a large function room upstairs with a fully-equipped kitchen that can be used for anything from teenage discos to residents' group meetings and other community events. The focus is on engaging people - and keeping them occupied.

"When you go into dysfunctional communities and provide a support structure based on exacting standards, things go right," Byrne says.

"Forty-six households need psychiatric medicines so family members can lead productive lives, and we see them regularly.

Any physical damage is fixed right away; not to do so is to create a cancer."

I was invited to attend one of the meetings at which any problems at Harbor Point are discussed openly by a committee that includes the chairman of the residents' council, the heads of maintenance and security, one of the social workers in the area and a representative of the developers - on this occasion, Miles Byrne himself.

It was a remarkable exchange of views. Clearly, everyone present was on first-name terms with all of the problem tenants - whether they were people who wouldn't be getting their doors and windows painted until they cleaned up their flats, or a 19-year-old male who had molested a seven-year-old boy in the computer room.

"There are good people in every community, so whenever we have a conflict we always find some way to turn things around," Byrne says.

"It's all about getting residents' trust first - the rest is design, construction and maintenance. We've never had to go to arbitration.

"We defer to the residents' council because they live here."

Fingal county manager David O'Connor was so impressed with Harbor Point when he visited Boston earlier this year that an 11-strong group of councillors and officials went back there last week to have a second look, on an information tour organised by Patricia Crisp, Corcoran Jennison's Dublin-based European director, who also organised this reporter's visit.

But Dublin City Council's housing department has so far declined an invitation to go see the place - most probably because Harbor Point implicitly challenges the traditional way of providing social and affordable housing, as well as the rigid segregation imposed by its officials in the redevelopment of "sink" estates.

The Irish Times

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