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Q&A with Gail Latimore, of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation

Posted by Cara Bayles  May 16, 2011 08:46 AM

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For two decades, the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation has worked to improve the Dorchester enclave by converting blighted properties into affordable housing and commercial spaces. Now, the organization is using a three-pronged approach to draw the community into a coordinated planning process for the next ten years.

Gail Latimore, who has been executive director of the organization since 1998, is spearheading that effort. A founding member of the Dudley Square Neighborhood Initiative with more than 30 years of experience in the public and nonprofit sector, Latimore is taking a business-oriented approach to fostering a sense of community in Codman Square.

Q. What is the history of the Codman Square NDC? How did it come about?

A. The community development corporation was started back in 1981, and it was the third organizational iteration of a set of activities that existed before it. It was founded by residents who lived in Codman Square, who were concerned back in the 70s about a lot of arson that was going on in the neighborhood as it was transitioning to a predominantly community of color.

It all went along with some of the block busting that was happening in the neighborhood at the time, with realtors kind of scaring white people off properties and getting them to sell their properties to people of color, and there was arson going on, arson for profit … people torching their properties. There was redlining also, with the banks not really investing in the neighborhood. There's a history of arson and blight back in the 70s. I understand, from people who have been here for a while, that it was like almost every night they were listening to the sirens from the fire engines, just hoping it wasn't on their street, and going out on their porches and seeing things burn.

A group of residents got together and decided to do something about it, and so they formed an agency that was focused on stemming the blight, renovating some of the distressed properties and building affordable housing.

When I first started here in 1994, we had something like 200 vacant lots in our service area, which is roughly two square miles. A lot of that was the result of properties that got torn down because they got burnt to a shell or were otherwise not taken care of. Now, we're down to far fewer vacant lots. A lot of them have been developed, and Codman Square NDC has had a significant role in the renovation of the neighborhood.

The city took ownership of many of them, by tax title or otherwise, and they were passed on to responsible developers like Codman Square NDC or homeowners who lived adjacent to some of the lots that were not of a buildable size were able to take them to expand their yards or put parking next to their houses. A lot of the city owned lots have been disposed of, and we were able to build ownership and rental housing.

Q. How has the organization's strategy progressed over the years?

A. The most blighted sections of the neighborhood have been our focus, with the strategy that you start with those, especially those in major geographical locations. So, for example: the intersection of Washington Street and Talbot Ave in the heart of Codman Square. When I first moved into neighborhood back in 1990, most of buildings in that intersection were very dilapidated. We focused on those major nodes, and the strategy was, improve those most visible sites in the neighborhood, because that creates a message, and is symbolic of residents caring for the neighborhood.

Our Lithgow Building is one of those buildings, at the intersection of Talbot and Washington Street. It was a historic brick building, that had been abandoned for so long, trees were literally growing on roof, and there were plants growing out of the floor boards. It was one of the most visible buildings in the square. Now it's a very handsome building, and its historic character shows through. We now have Bank of America as an anchor tenant.

Then, we took a focus on that entire triangular block, and demolished much of the block around the building, and built a new commercial building, and that has been home to a bunch of thriving enterprises over the past 20 years. Then, we added a residential component on the Talbot Ave side of the property, and we now have 31 beautiful units of affordable housing. And catty-corner from that is our on-the-square block, the super block. We purchased it in the 90s, renovated it, and now we have a McDonald's on the corner, which is very successful. It used to be the site of a smoke shop that was home to a lot of illicit drug dealing, and it ended up getting taken by the government as part of the Weed & Seed program.

Now, these are some of the best-looking properties in the square, and uplifting these major strategic nodes sends a message. It's symbolic. It's like the phoenix rising out of the ashes. We have seen a multiplier effect over the years where people see other properties getting improved, and they start improving theirs.

This has all resulted in about 1,200 units of affordable housing, 850 of which we still maintain in our portfolio. And we've renovated about 50,000 square feet of commercial space and still maintain that space for small business use. And we do that all in conjunction with residents. We couldn't do it without them. We have an active neighborhood council in Codman Square, and a decent number of smaller block associations that also help direct our work and give us information about the neighbors' priorities.

Q. So you as an organization take ownership of these properties? Do you get most of them from the city?

A. Yes. We have a number of properties that we were able to acquire from public entities (mainly the city) who took them disposed of them through a competitive process to responsible developers.

As a large number of the city blocks have been developed, now what we are increasing involved in is purchasing properties from private owners, which is a very different model for us, but over the last five or so years, that has been just as much of the model. So we are now trying to do the affordable housing work at prices that make it very challenging. The price of the real estate is very expensive, and so we have to bring different funding approaches together in a way we didn't have to do when we were getting the land transferred from the city for $1.

We're trying as much as possible to aggregate sites, especially within a half mile radius of the two stops that are being developed on the Fairmount Line in our service area. We are trying to basically go to a certain scale, to do block by block development, similar to what we did on the super block. Now we're looking at the Talbot/Norfolk/New England Ave corridor, which is essentially within a half-mile radius of the Talbot Ave stop under construction on the Fairmount Line. We're doing a lot of work with the Talbot Norfolk Triangle neighborhood association, to vet projects and acquire properties that line New England Ave and Talbot Ave, because that's home to a lot of sometimes illicit automotive uses, and we want to try to acquire those properties, and try to develop them as transit-oriented housing. So, it's a different strategy and a more difficult strategy to achieve, because we're buying from private investors at this point.

Q. You said property is expensive. You probably contributed to an increase in property values just by virtue of making the neighborhood less blighted.

A. Yeah, I think we have. We're in the process right now of doing some work with UMass Boston out of their public policy office to look at the implications of our work and the impacts it's had in the community. When agencies like mine across the country develop affordable housing, property values do rise.

There is definitely some concern in the neighborhood about our affordable housing. Residents say, "Can you do market rate housing? We want to see market rate home ownership, not affordable rental housing." There's definitely some push and pull in our own neighborhood around issues of density.

But our mission is to develop affordable housing. It's not just housing for people who are impoverished, it's housing for people who are at 60 to 80 percent of median income, which, for our neighborhood, is the average. Sometimes people think that affordable housing is going to bring more problems, because they perceive that the people living there have more problems. The reality we see is that our projects are well maintained and we have staff that work with residents to address quality of life issues, they certainly don't bring trouble to the neighborhood. They add value, from our perspective.

Q. You're developing a ten-year plan for the neighborhood, called the "Millennium Ten Project."

A. That planning process is about having residents and institutional stakeholders like us and other nonprofits in and around Codman Square and Four Corners together to talk about whatever issues we deem necessary to focus on.

This is the third time we will have done a 10-year plan for the neighborhood. Now we're looking again, because ten years later, the issues are different than they were in 2000. We now have foreclosure issues, and much higher unemployment than we had back then. We have had more crime over the last five to ten years. We have issues with our real estate projects, transit-oriented development, density issues, affordable housing. We feel like it's time for us to once again convene with the community and determine what the issues are, and try to make a plan that all of us are collectively involved in articulating.

Q. What were some of the benchmarks for past plans? What were some of the successes that came out of that?

A. Let me just say, we put together a good plan in 2000. It was not perfect. We had at least 100 people involved in putting together the plan, with 10 different focus groups based on the key issues, led by residents in 1999. There was a lot of buzz around it. One thing I think we didn't do well … we did not stay together as a collective on the implementation. … But certain groups ended up taking leadership just because this was something they wanted to focus on anyway.

The Talbot-Norfolk Triangle work—that got identified out of that planning process. Another key node was the Four Corners neighborhood. So those were the two focal neighborhoods that, as a result of the Millennium Plan, we began to really focus on, based on the resident leadership from a group that was at the time called the West of Washington neighborhood association, which has now morphed into the Talbot Norfolk Triangle group. As a result, we now have a beautiful elder development in the triangle, as well as 44 units of affordable housing. And now, we're about to break ground on 24 units of LEED Gold-certified, transit oriented housing, with commercial space on the ground floor.

And we have a whole greenway effort that was developed through the Fairmount Collaborative, which Codman Square is a member of, with sister CDCs. It will green the neighborhood along the rail line's corridor, and so we have a vision of lining the main thoroughfares with blossoming trees. We have a plan now that has been developed by a landscape architecture firm that has done other greenways in Massachusetts, that walked the neighborhood with residents, trying to identify the sites that residents want to transform into some kind of green space. The plan involves 160 lots across the four CDCs.

A lot of the basis for this work has been these inclusive community planning processes. Now we're trying to do it again. Now, we're bringing similar stakeholders back to the table, with residents.

We're trying to create not just a document, but a contract or a compact, that all the key stakeholders sign off on. And we'll also ask our elected officials on every level to also sign off on this contract. This is a prospectus that we're trying to get everyone to agree on, and then start to say to folks, "Help us achieve this plan." This isn't a handout, it's an investment.

Q. There's a life planning component to this initiative as well. How is that relevant to you as a development corporation?

A. This neighborhood is much different—visually as well as socially, in terms of people connecting to each other—than it was when I moved in, in 1990. We expect that to happen again, in terms of rebranding the neighborhood.

We want to also say, "What about the residents? How can we help them help themselves socio-economically?" It's about residents determining the plan for the community and their plans for themselves and or their families over the next two to three years. We'll ask them "What do you want to achieve for yourself?" and then help them make the connections to each other and the group of institutional stakeholders. But our model is one of self-help. We're not trying to create a welfare system for anybody. All we have to do is have the confidence in them, and help catalyze them going ahead and doing it. We'll give any technical assistance they ask for, but we're asking them to articulate what their issue is. People know how to solve their own problems.

This is a new one for us, it's something we haven't done before. Hopefully, those same people will come over and work on the community planning piece and vise-versa.

… If I were to look at a plan for myself (we're not to just limiting this to people who are low-income): I have an eight year old. At some point would love to have my eight year old get into one of the Latin academies. My eight year old has been in private schools, and I'd really love to figure out how to get a load off my pocket book, and track her into a Latin. So, what do I have to do, how can I maximize my daughter's chances of doing well on the ISCE, which is the test that makes the difference. Who's in my sphere who I could talk to, who may have some knowledge on how I can prepare my daughter to do well?

The premise is that social networks make a difference in people's lives. So, we'll try to strengthen and broaden social ties for the purpose of getting things done. All these initiatives are about connecting people to each other.

Q. So we have a ten-year plan for the neighborhood and a three-year plan for individuals. You're also implementing a three-month plan for local institutions.

A. We call it the "early win" proposal. We've gotten some financial resources from the Local Initiative Support Corporation, the Boston Foundation, and a collective of funders. It's called "Resilient Communities, Resilient Families" funding. So we're using some of this funding to put a request for proposals on the street, and that's our effort to try to think and do at the same time. We're saying to community groups at the block level, "What are the issues you're concerned about, what are the things you think you can do over the summer, over the next three months, that you think you might be able to achieve or get some traction on, but all you need is some financial support or technical assistance? As long as you are able to show that this is an issue of concern, and you think you have a chance of making some headway, then we want to work with you, to provide some limited seed capital."

That's the process we've implementing right now as a way of piloting the priorities at the block level, and to get everyone to start connecting with each other.

Q. You have a very business-oriented way of talking about this stuff: "re-branding the community," and "developing social networks." At the end of the day, what you're talking about is a neighborhood and getting people to know and work with their neighbors.

A. That's right. It's real fundamental. And developing their own group of people that they can problem-solve and get some concrete things done.

We haven't finalized all our processes yet. That's what the steering committee is in the process of doing, to structure them and roll them out for consideration by residents. And we're doing this RFP to get a sense of what makes sense. And we're not afraid of failure, because we'll learn from that. We're just trying to do something differently, and work differently together.

E-mail Cara Bayles at carabayles@gmail.com.

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