Uprooted: Realities of Relocation Sink in for Tenants Who Left Bunker Hill

This year, Mimi Tovar and her family of seven will celebrate their first Christmas outside of Charlestown – one of the first families to be relocated as part of the Bunker Hill Redevelopment project.

They expected to be gone this Christmas

Quite unexpectedly, in 2021, they’ll celebrate Christmas in some other location yet to be determined due to the fact that their new apartment in Southie has suddenly been slated for redevelopment also.

It is an example of the roller coaster world many tenants of the Bunker Hill Development will face as the Town debates the merits of the development and Phase 1 and 1A potentially start the construction process.

“Our family did get uprooted to South Boston,” said Tovar. “We thought we were going to be living on the new side of Old Colony, but to our surprise the apartment we accepted was on the brick and mortar side. They are in the middle of redevelopment too, but we were told that our apartment wasn’t coming for another three or four years. I thought that was plenty of time for Phase 1 to finish in Charlestown and we would be back before South Boston happened. Like a lot of things, that isn’t what happened. We got a notice they are going to start the last phase in their process and they were going to start moving people out in the spring of 2021. So, now we’re going to be relocated to another place and we don’t know where yet…That hit us pretty hard because we’re still unpacking things from the first move. It feels like the Exodus in the Bible for us.”

Last September, Tovar and her family of seven left the Bunker Hill Development as part of the first wave of tenant relocations due to the upcoming first phase of the Bunker Hill Redevelopment.

Amy Tran, who oversees the Boston Housing Authority relocation efforts, said they had a little over 40 families that were relocated as part of Phase 1A last summer. Most were able to move into vacant units within the Charlestown development, but larger families like Tovar’s are hard to accommodate and often have to look elsewhere.

“The larger families have the least choice of what we’re able to offer them,” said BHA Director Kate Bennett. “It’s not that we don’t have a lot of large units, but it’s just that there is very little turnover for them. We’re excited to get this development going and get them back to Charlestown.”

Tran said they are now working on relocating around 70 families for the Phase 1B part of the project, and hope to have that accomplished by the spring of 2021. The hope, she said, is most will be able to move within the site as vacancies have been preserved over the past few years.

For Tovar, within 14 days, they had to pack up and be ready to leave the only place the entire family has called home – the community they are involved in very heavily and where her kids go to school. It was a tough decision, but one that came with hope of returning to a brand-new apartment in a brand new living community a few years down the road.

They moved on Sept. 11 and quickly the topsy-turvy world of being relocated outside their neighborhood slammed them into a tough reality when they settled into Old Colony Development in South Boston.

The neighborhood was nowhere near as safe, so the kids don’t get to go outside like they did in Charlestown.

When they needed health care, or a place to secure winter coats and food supplements, there was a huge question mark as to where those services were located. Certainly they weren’t as near or convenient as in Charlestown, she said.

The company that relocated them and is to support them, Housing Opportunities Unlimited (HOU), Tovar said was great with the move, but then disappeared.

Her son, Sammy Quintin, had hoped to be able to continue his activities at Turn It Around and the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club, but it’s much harder to get from Southie to Charlestown than he expected.

Now, having learned they will have to uproot again in 2021 because the Old Colony Development is also being rehabilitated next summer, they are left feeling uncertain. While they were excited to leave the poor conditions of their home in Charlestown, they quickly found how much they missed the community that supported them. Now they feel, in short, lost and alienated from the place they called home.

And while the community debates the intricacies of the project in community meetings, Tovar said her family’s return to the Town cannot come quick enough.

“We were excited to leave the building and those poor conditions,” she said. “We have breathing issues and my husband has cysts he developed in his nose because of the mold situation. But we were saddened to leave Charlestown. You wonder if you’ll really be able to come back. There are second thoughts about uprooting the family. We love the Charlestown neighborhood.”

The first reality, she said, was when she saw unacceptable “activity” on the playground and on the way to the corner store at Old Colony. They were warned by neighbors that their car would be broken into, their packages would be stolen and there would be fights. All three have transpired, and Tovar said it isn’t a place she feels safe with her kids like she did in Charlestown.

“At least my kids could play outside and play with friends and walk to the Boys & Girls Club,” she said. “My kids can’t go to the playground or even outside here because there is a lot more ‘activity’ here – things I don’t want my kids to be exposed to.”

Quintin, who is 15, said there are pros and cons. He likes some aspects of the apartment, but said he faces jackhammers from the redevelopment across the street all day long as he tries to do remote schooling. He said he has no friends in South Boston, and it’s been hard to connect to friends in Charlestown.

“I haven’t had a lot of interactions with my friends, but that hasn’t affected me so much,” he said. “I can see how it’s affecting my younger siblings. They want to see their friends in Charlestown. They want to go outside and they’re figuring out how to go on Facetime to see them. It’s cool and all here, but I don’t really like it.”

He also said he feels a little more isolated because Old Colony just isn’t as safe as Charlestown.

“I don’t get to go out as much,” he said. “Even going to the store up the street, there is too much activity so it makes you tense.”

The other main issue is connection to resources.

Tovar said with a large family and her husband the only one working, she tries to get as many resources for the family as possible. That has been a challenge in Southie as it’s a whole new landscape and a new system to learn.

“It’s so hard to be connected here because we don’t have the Kennedy Center or the Boys & Girls Club or advocates,” she said. “It’s so frustrating to have to start the process all over again about who to call and what to do and where to go.”

Tovar said she was under the impression HOU would be helping them, but that hasn’t happened, and there’s been no check up on them since the move. A highlight recently though, was when Crystal Galvin of the Kennedy Center reached out to her in South Boston and asked her if she needed help – once a Townie always a Townie, she told her.

“That was really moving and made us feel we weren’t so alone,” she said.

All of that is made more difficult by the fact that she knows they’ll have to re-learn everything again this coming summer when they relocate again.

That is a lesson she hopes all tenants in Bunker Hill consider before leaving. She said to make sure everything is understood about the new location, particularly regarding the schedule for any construction or redevelopments.

“You might have to move a second time because a lot of BHA properties are being redeveloped,” she said. “It is a risk of being relocated again and being even further away from Charlestown. That’s something that maybe wasn’t considered.”

Bennett said they will take up Tovar’s matters with HOU, but she said relocation for families, especially larger ones, is not going to be easy.

“Whether housing issues or school issues or access to resources in other parts of the city – all these issues are tough,” she said. “Relocation is a disruptive process and I’m not trying to discount that fact. There are some things we try to do to mitigate that disruption.”

Tran said relocating can be a good move for some tenants though. She said some can move elsewhere to be closer to family in other parts of the city, or to right-size their unit either up or down. Some see it as an opportunity to leave family housing for elderly housing elsewhere too.

For Tovar and her family, it’s all about getting back as quickly as possible to Charlestown.

“Absolutely we can’t wait,” she said. “Are you kidding me? I just hope everything goes well with the process and they start construction soon. It will be such a happy day because we definitely want to move back soon.”

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