The Infill Housing Program, 1968-1973

by Kenny Whitebloom

[re-posted from our Boston Local TV News Project blog: http://bostonlocaltv.org]

If you’ve been following this blog with any sort of regularity, which we hope’s the case, you are by now well aware that the WHDH-TV cards often reveal only one small glimpse into the larger news story they reference. One measly, unsatisfying glimpse: that’s usually all we get.

That was the case with a recent series of cards I encountered about the Infill Housing Program of 1968, a development project which broke ground in November of that year. Thanks to the folks at the Internet Archive and the Boston Public Library–who together have digitized and made (easily) accessible a great many of Boston’s public records–I was able to get a clear understanding of the history of the Infill Housing Program in Boston, and Roxbury in particular.

A map displaying the 11 completed Infill buildings in Roxbury, from Mayor Flynn's 1986 "Roxbury Neighborhood Housing Initiative"*

The Infill Housing Program of 1968, organized by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) under the supervision of director Hale Champion, was designed to re-purpose vacant lots in city neighborhoods into some 2,000 single-family and multi-story housing units for low-income families around Boston. Known also as “vest pocket” housing, for the way in which construction ‘slips’ in to already portioned off land, the Infill Housing concept of the late 1960s called for the construction of industrially-produced, precast concrete modular housing on vacant, tax-foreclosed lots in Boston, namely in the South End, North Dorchester, and Roxbury. The majority of the Infill structures were four story buildings designed to house two ‘large’ families in a duplex arrangement. Despite their concrete gut, the apartments were brick-faced and considered architecturally attractive for the time (see: exterior of an Infill prototype). The other structural type was wood-framed.

 

Mayor Kevin White sold the $47 million Infill idea to the Boston City Council in October 1968 by promising the project wouldn’t cost the city a thing: the Federal government would cover the costs of plans and loans, and private developers would see to the actual building. The first year of construction was to cost $16 million. The White administration claimed that the use of private development firms using mass production techniques would help reduce waste, save money, and speed up construction. The Development Corporation of America (DCA), who had claimed that the construction of the frames for each four-story house would take no longer than one day, won the largest contract. (Another firm, Housing Innovations, took a small amount of units). While the DCA covered the construction of the Roxbury and South End iterations, the Boston Housing Authority took charge of renting the units upon completion to a select group of low-incomes tenants under a subsidized rental program. Once occupied, the houses were to be run and managed by a tenant cooperative.

Opposition to the project was swift and vociferous. It ranged from issues related to structural design and density to social prejudice, especially in the predominately white areas. Mrs. Louise Day Hicks, then councilor-elect, called the program an “ill-conceived, selfish-interest-spawned, giveaway program.” Councilors Thomas I. Atkins and Frederick C. Langone objected to the plan’s speedy presentation to the City Council, despite their eventual approval. Langone said that even “the administrator of the Model Cities [a wide-ranging plan to revitalize many city services in Roxbury and North Dorchester] admitted to us he had not read the document which came before us.” Local residents complained that, unlike large private contractors, the city never afforded them the opportunity to purchase the vacant lots for housing or other purposes. Others worried that the large family units would take up dwindling open space that otherwise may have been used as a public park or play area for children.

All things considered, Roxbury was to see 400 units of family housing as result of the Infill program. The project broke ground on Intervale Street in Roxbury in late November 1968, and by 1973, after delays had pushed the start of real construction back to 1971, a little over 100 units in 18 structures were built to various stages of completion. Eleven buildings were constructed in Roxbury. However that was to be the extent of the progress. The DCA filed for bankruptcy in April 1973, leaving half-completed buildings to remain vacant on once vacant lots. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) inherited the properties. The structures that were completed soon proved to be structurally deficient: the slabs of pre-stress concrete pulled apart and the roofs leaked. Social problems arose as a result of the some 315 families living together in the various apartment buildings, and by 1976 the tenant cooperative had faded away. Robert Walsh, the deputy director of the BRA from 1971-1976, explained the project’s failure in two short sentences: “Simply speaking it was a damn good idea. It just broke down in execution.”

For sixteen years the abandoned shells of the half-completed or otherwise abandoned Infill houses languished in Roxbury, bringing down housing prices and attracting vandals and burglars until 1986 when another neighborhood housing initiative spearheaded by Mayor Raymond L. Flynn made use of the existing structures and land. Open Vault, our very own digital library of archived WGBH news and programming, has footage from The Ten O’Clock News in 1986 which shows Mayor Flynn announcing the construction of a housing and commercial complex in Douglass Square in Roxbury.

Save for a few residents who admitted that they were better off in the new units despite the issues, the Infill Housing Plan of the late 1960s and early 70s was a failure. One piece of a larger political and civic effort in the 1960s and 70s to revitalize declining U.S. neighborhoods following the creation of President Lyndon Johnson’s HUD in 1965, the Infill Housing program, like many other HUD-run projects, failed for a number of reasons: overzealous private contractors who promised too much too quickly; building materials whose cost inflated in the run up to construction, especially for precast concrete; an absence of on-site security; and, perhaps most tellingly, a lack of serious support from local residents. The Boston Globe found fault within the very structure of HUD itself. “Money flowed into the cities during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s,” one 1977 article reads, “but the expertise needed to make the programs work (proper inspection of homes whose mortgages were to be federally insured, and educating the poor, first-time homeowner and provisions for escalating costs) did not come built into the programs.”

Please share your memories of the Infill Housing Program’s controversial history in the comment section below. What do you remember?

References:

  • *Roxbury neighborhood housing initiative  map courtesy Boston Public Library Government Documents and the Internet Archive, n.d., http://www.archive.org/details/roxburyneighborh00bost.
  • “Mrs. Hicks Denounces ‘Infill’ Housing Plan.” The Boston Globe 17 November 1969: 3. Boston Globe Archive. Web.
  • Ellis, David R. “Hub Council OK’s ‘Infill’ Housing; Rips White.” The Boston Globe 15 October 1968: 8. Boston Globe Archive. Web.
  • Flynn, Raymond L. “Roxbury Neighborhood Housing Initiative.” 1986.
  • Hartnett, Ken. “A failure in cooperative housing.” The Boston Globe 29 April 1976: 23. Boston Globe Archive. Web.
  • Osgood, Viola. “HUD housing a blight on city.” The Boston Globe 14 April 1977: 3. Boston Globe Archive. Web.
  • Rogers, David. “The Fall of Infill: Vacant lot housing program bankrupt, but salvage plans continue.” The Boston Globe 7 October 1973: A1. Boston Globe Archive. Web.
  • Yudis, Anthony J. “First Duplex Built in South End ‘Infill’ Housing Program.” The Boston Sunday Globe 8 September 1968: 44. Boston Globe Archive. Web.
  • ———. “‘Infill’ Housing Plan Receives Complaints.” The Boston Globe 20 April 1969: 36. Boston Globe Archive. Web.

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