Florence Hagins, a quiet storm of a Boston housing activist, died March 21 in Jacksonville, Florida. She was 67 years old. In 1991, she wanted to buy her first house: a regal two-family in Dorchester. Personal inspection was thorough — before Florence put in a bid, she set her alarm for 2:00 one morning, drove to the neighborhood, and surveilled the park across the street for unseemly pre-dawn activity. Then the bid went in.
But though Florence had worked stably for decades, her mortgage-loan application was denied; she was a black woman and single mother, some considered the area unsafe, and the loan insurer considered both too high a risk.
By chance, a few days earlier, she'd attended an information session about a new mortgage program begun by the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance. It was their response to a historic study from two years earlier, concluding — as Florence discovered — that banks awarded loans on the discriminatory basis of race.
Florence became the program’s first enrollee, and bought her house. She transformed the outside from a self-negating brown to a deep and deliberate red, painted the inside terra cottas and sunny yellows, filled the tidy rooms with African-American art. There was lots of natural wood and a dining-room chandelier. And though she was not an electrician or plumber, she read up on repairs and projects. HGTV was her graduate school.
But it was not enough for Florence simply to live in the house. Over the next 15 years, first as a volunteer for the affordable housing alliance, then as an employee (after they convinced her to let them hire her) she counseled thousands of other first-time homebuyers. Her lessons were encouraging but firm: clean up your credit; save; if you can’t afford an attorney or home inspector, you can’t afford a house. She role-played with students preparing for purchase and sales agreements, and if some decided they weren’t ready to buy, she considered that a success, not a failure.
For stunned new homeowners, who, like new parents, suddenly found themselves with a first baby and no diapering experience, she ran a post-purchase class, covering everything from lead paint to leaking roofs. Eventually over 9,000 students graduated.
Politicians knew Florence, too. In a housing-alliance conference room named after her, there’s a photo. She’s looking full of a lobbyist’s passion. Next to her, Mayor Menino is leaning slightly away, as if blown to the left by her force. Sometimes, when he’d see her approaching, he would joke to others, “Here comes trouble.”
After Florence and her daughter moved to Florida to care for a beloved aunt, she sold her house. But even down south, the efforts persisted for affordable housing up north. Shortly before her death, she called the housing alliance’s executive director. She didn’t want a funeral or service, she told him. She wanted the organization to hold a fundraiser.
Did you know Florence Hagins? Share your memories in the comments section.