Two decades later, public housing is once again coming to Boston

Date Published: 
June 21st, 2023

From the Boston Globe:

Almost a quarter-century ago, the word came down from Washington, D.C.: The federal government was done building public housing.

A new law capped the number of deeply affordable apartments Washington would subsidize in any given city at whatever existed in 1999, closing the book on a decades-long push against public housing by critics who associated it with crime and concentrated poverty.

Since then, as age and demolition have taken their toll on decades-old housing projects, the supply of public housing has inexorably dwindled.

Until now. Through a new but little-known federal program, some municipalities in Massachusetts are building the first new public housing units since that cap was passed, a moment many in the housing world thought might never come.

Their numbers are small, and the financing is very complicated. But with the right combination of funding sources, some cities and towns are already on track to build hundreds of new units, and thousands more could follow. Housing leaders say the move couldn’t be more timely, amid a deepening housing crisis in which low-income homes are in particularly short supply.

“For the first time in 30 years, we finally have the tools at our disposal to build more of what I see as some of the most valuable housing in the US,” said Kenzie Bok, executive director of the Boston Housing Authority. “Hopefully this is the beginning of a shift in the way we view public housing in this country.”


Getting to this point requires housing officials to navigate an administrative obstacle course. Essentially, the federal government allows housing authorities to convert traditional public housing subsidies, known as Section 9, to another type of subsidies, known as Section 8. The former pay relatively little per unit, making them harder to use to back a construction loan; the latter, by contrast, pay more, enough to repay a financing package that usually involves multiple sources as well as help maintain units in the long term.

The financing “was not easy,” said Michael Johnston, executive director of the Cambridge Housing Authority. While the deal for those construction projects has yet to be finalized, “we believe we’ve figured out how to make it work.”

Read the Boston Globe's article, "Two decades later, public housing is once again coming to Boston," featuring the Boston and Cambridge Housing Authorities.

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