William “Tuck” Willis Retires as Board Member of the Neighborhood Developers

William “Tuck” Willis has lived in Chelsea for over forty years. Willis has spent over 40 years organizing various initiatives to improve the neighborhood and community he calls home. This next week he will attend his 400th board meeting with The Neighborhood Developers. After retiring from TND’s board, Willis will become a member of the organization’s development committee.

Willis developed his expertise in building renovation and rehabilitation in college where he studied and completed two degrees in architecture with a specialization in Architectural History. His love for buildings and the stories they tell eventually led him to Chelsea, MA. Despite having grown up in Wellesley, Willis did not visit the municipality until a friend of his kept imploring him to visit a beautiful Chelsea house built in a classical revival style. Willis finally saw the house right around the time he needed a new place to live. He ended up buying the uninhabitable, derelict building in the early 1970s with the plan to renovate and then sell it. Willis has lived there ever since, and the energy he brought to renovating his home quickly spilled over into the Chelsea community.

 With the help of some of his students from the Art Institute of Boston, Willis beautified his home. In the process, he met various people from all over Chelsea, and he realized that his early understanding of the city and its inhabitants contrasted sharply against reality. Where he had been told he would find a rundown environment he found a sense of community, joy, and determination. Willis and his wife came to admire Chelsea as a charming city with a tragically mismanaged government. He recalls the fire of 1973 when the fire department couldn’t properly control the blaze because fire hydrants had gone dry from years of poor upkeep. Willis also recalls Chelsea residents getting together to pick up trash and clean up the streets when the city failed to provide reliable, consistent street sweeping. He recognized early on that Chelsea’s community had a zeal for revitalization and hard work, a zeal often forgotten and ignored.

 Willis joined the Chelsea Association to Save Homes (CASH) and the Chelsea Neighborhood and Housing Services (CNHS) organization soon after. The CNHS was part of a larger national network of neighborhood rehabilitation initiatives under the name of NeighborWorks America. The name of the organization changed over the years,  you now know it by the name of The Neighborhood Developers (TND).

         Willis became a board member for each organization very quickly, and he got to work improving Chelsea’s neighborhoods. He helped set up initiatives to provide property owners with low-interest loans to pay for renovations–even offering additional supervision to ward off contractors seeking to scam their clients. Though the organization successfully rehabilitated buildings all over Chelsea, the impact of going house by house was more individual than collective, and the success often had a short lifespan since many people would immediately sell their homes after renovating them.

         That’s when TND evolved. In the early 1980s, TND had the opportunity to buy some land and build a few houses separated into three to four condominium units. Willis took on these larger projects because he understood that TND could not improve Chelsea’s neighborhoods unless it maintained a self-sufficient income and permanent community presence. Many members opposed these larger projects because they didn’t believe TND should seek out to provide homes rather than just fix them, but Willis understood that to provide for the community reliably TND would have to become an organization resilient against the volatile nature of government and market dynamics. From then on, TND began to serve as a fail safe against the volatile, often extreme housing market and its extreme ramifications against cities like Chelsea.

In the 80s, Chelsea’s demographics began to change as Latinx immigrants moved into the community. Willis explains how racial fears and apprehensions drove many people to suddenly leave Chelsea, abandoning buildings and driving housing prices down. Ever since living in Chelsea, Willis and his wife would walk around the city for an hour everyday. Willis noticed that as the Latinx community moved in, the neighborhood took on new life. Abandoned buildings got painted, trash got removed, and buildings were rejuvenated.

 The improvements Willis saw occur in the community continues to inspire TND’s work today. As the current Executive Director of TND notes, “Tuck is the Cal Ripken Jr. of nonprofit boards and municipal committees. He consistently and humbly served on TND’s board… quietly helping to guide and grow TND from its small beginnings to the effective organization it is now. As TND’s Executive Director, I can’t help but feel an immense sense of gratitude for everything Tuck has done for TND and Chelsea.” As Willis quickly learned, Chelsea is full of a community of people who want to live in a beautiful, connected place. They don’t want the rollercoaster that occurs when the real-estate market determines their futures. They don’t want to be at the mercy of an economy and government which does not understand their need for stable, good housing. Eventually, TND began to build apartment buildings and provide affordable rent. TND had a positive impact on the community of Chelsea, since 2010 also on Revere and is now about to open its first building in Everett. TND continues to do so today thanks to the influence of William “Tuck” Willis.

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