Don Alexis was first attracted to Mattapan and Blue Hill Avenue when he was 18 and visiting family shortly after immigrating from Cap-Haïtien, Haiti. The diaspora culture and the history of the neighborhood gave him the familiar vibe of home that he had left behind in the Caribbean.
It was a feeling that now, as the director of Caribbean Integration Community Development (CICD) – Mattapan’s only community development corporation – he is trying to preserve and create for others in building affordable rental and homeownership housing units throughout the area.
“My draw to Mattapan at first was to come here to see friends and family,” he said in an interview at Brother’s Restaurant in the Square last week. “It also felt like home. You walk down Blue Hill Avenue, and you feel a part of your history and culture that resemble where you grew up. That is what continued to draw me here and what I love about Mattapan today.”
CICD has emerged as the go-to non-profit developer in Mattapan following the dissolution of the former Mattapan Community Development Corporation more than a decade ago. CICD has leveraged a partnership with the Archdiocese of Boston’s Planning Office for Urban Affairs (POUA) to build two successful developments – Cote Village on Cummins Highway at the long-vacant former Ford dealership, and the recently-opened Morton Station Village on the long-vacant Boston Police station site. And irons are already in the fire for future projects.
All of which has shown Alexis to be a man with an interesting vision and a familiar leader with a track record of seeing things through.
“It’s baby steps because we started this from scratch,” he said, noting that he began forming CICD in 2011. “We went through the pains, but we’re in a place now where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The pursuit of that light, he said, is all about forging relationships with folks who might have brushed him aside early on due to his inexperience.
“Unfortunately, in Boston there are many of us [non-profit developers],” he said. “It’s about investing time to build relationships. Sometimes you have to build something so people don’t think you’re a fly-by-night operation. There were early supporters who believed in us but now we’re turning a corner with everyone. There’s some legitimacy in what we’re doing.”
Alexis, now 42, said his family started coming to the US in the 1960s, and like many Haitian families, they settled along the Mattapan/Dorchester line. Eventually, a segment left for Waltham, which is where he landed upon arriving in 2000. He finished one year of high school, and after two years at Mass Bay Community College, he transferred to UMass Dartmouth where he earned a degree in Computer Science – worlds away from community development.
But he had met community development icon Marvin Gilmore – the founder of the Boston CDC – who persuaded him to focus his side-interest in real estate on housing advocacy. That effort started with tenant rights for Haitians, many of them in Mattapan, and then merged into CICD after the Mattapan CDC fell through. He said that at the time, the city was shopping around the Cote site and had a Working Advisory Group (WAG) defining potential development. So, in 2012, despite being untested, he started talking about developing the site.
He related that when he told people that CICD was going submit his plan in the Request for Proposals (RFP) process on Cote, “many of them were laughing.
“I think that’s how I grew up,” he said. “If you’re going to do something, do something big that creates impact and is major. When we said we were going after the RFP … we had community behind us, and we knew we could figure out the rest.”
Upwards of 50 meetings on the Cote followed, with years spent navigating the process and meeting with stakeholders and overcoming construction challenges. During that time, Alexis entered into a partnership with the archdiocese of Boston. He said he wanted a person or organization that was known to the community, and the church had that familiarity.
“The big thing for me was it had to be someone aligned with our mission,” he said. “We wanted someone to be invested in CICD and in our long-term survival and success…It has not been perfect, but it’s been a good marriage.”
Noting that there were some days during the Cote process when he felt like it “was all going down,” Alexis says the days of uncertainty are starting to be fewer. He adds that he learned how to win over the community, and that is the foundation of any project in Mattapan.
CICD is now based out of its Mattapan office on Cummins Highway within the new Cote Village campus.
After cutting the ribbon on Morton Station Village early this month, CICD is preparing to break ground this spring on a fully funded 30-unit senior citizen development at 150 River St. – its first affordable senior building.
“Hopefully construction costs don’t go up, but we have other pieces in place to close on that in the next few weeks or months – and then get into the ground,” Alexis said.
Beyond that, CICD is competing for the former Fairlawn Estates Apartments, now dubbed SoMa, that went on the market two months ago. Two years ago, the property was sold to a private, market-rate owner who now has put it up for sale. Alexis said his team is pushing hard to keep the apartment development in the community’s hands with CICD. They have put in an offer and are working with the seller trying to make a deal.
“One thing we’re making very clear is we see this as a community asset and we want the community to have a voice and CICD is doing everything we can to make sure we’re part of the winning team,” he said, noting that some residents have lived there for 40 years and fear the prospect of steep rent increases with a new owner.
These projects focus on new and continued housing for long-time residents and those who are vulnerable to rising prices. At the same time, the housing crisis is so much bigger overall, and that’s something Alexis said they contemplate every day.
“Sometimes you have to focus on what you can control – 76 units at Cote and 40 at Morton Village; those are things we can control,” he said. “The housing crisis is humongous, and it will take more than CICD to tackle that…I think the dilemma is finding a way to make sure that when Mattapan gets better, we don’t lose that identity and the folks who have been here so long.”
Yet, he said, Mattapan can clear that hurdle like no other neighborhood facing Boston’s surging housing costs. “If there’s one place this is doable, it’s Mattapan because the homeownership numbers we have are so high,” he said. “That means there is some control over how properties change hands.”