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Tenants protest seizure of Boston apartments

For the past quarter-century, tenants at the Bromley-Heath Housing Complex managed its 27 buildings in an experiment hailed as a national model of self-determination for people in public housing.

The experiment is over, at least for now.The city seized control of Bromley-Heath's operations and locked out tenant management this week in the wake of a drug raid that resulted in charges against 38 people, including three relatives of the housing complex's executive director.

"You have 38 people under indictment who lived at the complex," said Hilary Jones, chief of staff at the Boston Housing Authority, in explaining the takeover. "We're not out to get anyone. We just want to make sure there is no impropriety. Our intent is to return management to the tenants."

That explanation did not soothe angry tenants. About 200 held a rally Monday night to protest the action and to ask the city to relinquish control of the 1,200-unit complex.

"The people who live here seem to really care about what's going on," said Jermaine Ellis, a resident of the complex. "The neighbors are OK. It's a good place to get your life back on track."

Three decades ago, Bromley-Heath had the dubious distinction of being one of the city's dirtiest, most dilapidated housing projects.

Residents who wanted a change collected 500 signatures and agreed to participate in a federal tenant-management experiment. By 1973, they were operating all 27 buildings, negotiating rents and hiring their own police force. Bromley-Heath became the country's first tenant-run public housing complex and was commended as a national model.

Tenants scrubbed away graffiti and introduced a health and drug treatment clinic. Today, the complex boasts red geranium-lined gardens, newly painted buildings and groves of trees. The improvement has brought development to the area. There is a nearby subway stop and sandwich shops and grocery stores.

But federal officials say it has also provided a haven for drug dealing, in parking lots, along walkways and in the apartments.

On Friday, federal and state agents swept in with warrants and police dogs to make arrests after a two-year investigation and more than 100 undercover drug buys.

The 38 defendants, who ranged in age from 17 to 42, were charged with distributing cocaine or conspiracy to distribute.

Among those indicted in the drug sweep were three relatives of Mildred Hailey, executive director and one of the founders of the tenant-run initiative. She is a tenant.

Two of Hailey's grandsons and a nephew face charges of selling crack cocaine to undercover officers.

Hailey was not charged in the probe, but if her relatives used her apartment for any illegal activity, she could be evicted under the federal government's "one-strike" policy in public housing.

City officials said the tenants may get back their control, but only after new managers determine there were no improprieties.