Hagins and Menino
Florence Hagins was a tireless and — as shown here at a community meeting with Mayor Tom Menino in the late 1990s — exuberant advocate for expanded homeownership opportunities for underserved communities.

IN A DINGY Dorchester church basement in late 1990, Florence Hagins walked in and took a seat in one of the metal folding chairs. She listened as a couple of women in the front of the room representing the nonprofit Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance (MAHA) described a soon-to-be launched mortgage program that sounded pretty awesome – low down payment, discounted interest rate, and no mortgage insurance. But the program wasn’t quite ready, and Florence was already far down the path to homeownership.

Florence had found the house of her dreams on Jones Hill in Dorchester just weeks earlier. The two-family home would be perfect for her and her daughter, Andraea. The rent from the other apartment would help pay a part of the mortgage. She had already submitted her loan application to the bank. Everything was looking good. Until it wasn’t.

Her pending mortgage application was denied because the private mortgage insurer thought she was not a good risk. “It was on a Wednesday that I got the denial letter, and on Friday I got a call from one of the organizers at MAHA, and she told me that the SoftSecond [loan program sponsored by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership] was up and running. I called and had someone in my house on Sunday night from Shawmut Bank,” she told Banker & Tradesman in a 2001 interview. She was approved and closed on her new home in January 1991. “I was thrilled,” she told the paper.

What she didn’t fully appreciate at that moment was how much that mortgage program would change her life and change the city she called home. Florence met two women that night, Diana Strother and Adrianne Anderson, who had campaigned for two years to get banks to offer an affordable mortgage program targeted at neighborhoods of color that would reverse decades old patterns of redlining.

Florence had become the very first homeowner in a program that was designed as a response to the historic 1989 Federal Reserve Bank of Boston study on racial disparities in Boston mortgage lending. And now, she wanted more. More understanding about bank lending in her neighborhood. And more involvement in the organization that helped her become a homeowner.

Over the ensuing 14 years, Florence would go on to become a force to be reckoned with in Boston, going toe to toe with bank presidents and politicians in an effort to win for others the same chance to secure a piece of the American dream that she had long thought was out of her reach, but was finally able to realize.

Florence died on March 21 at age 67, but leaves a rich legacy of which her family can be proud.

In 1991, a few months after closing on her home, she began volunteering her time at MAHA’s classes for first-time buyers. “I would tell them that if I could buy a house as a single mom with a modest salary, they could do it too,” she often said in reflecting on work with would-be home owners. She was good at it. A natural, really. She agreed to keep coming and keep preaching the gospel of homeownership to anyone willing to listen and follow her sage advice, including tips for squirreling away money, little by little. Pack your lunch. Drive by that coffee shop instead of driving-through. Stop going to Foxwoods. And by the way, she would say, if you think the banks will keep doing these programs if community residents don’t speak up, then you don’t know how the world works. We have to fight to keep this program going, she believed.

Within five years, Florence had joined MAHA as a full-time staff member and counseled thousands of first-time homebuyers. “It was a good feeling when I would see people again and they would say ‘I just bought a house.’ It was almost like me buying my house all over again,” she said in the 2001 Banker & Tradesman interview. “It’s such a great feeling to think that you actually helped somebody. Then, as a homeowner, seeing the difference in your own community; the stabilization of your own community makes a big difference.”

Hagins & Romney cropped
Hagins with Gov. Mitt Romney at a May 2003 MAHA forum at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury. After buying a home in 1991 through MAHA’s “SoftSecond” mortgage program, she “went toe to toe with bank presidents and politicians to win for others the same chance to secure a piece of the American dream.”

“I was the first person to get a SoftSecond mortgage and it changed my life,” she said in 2011 in advance of a MAHA ceremony honoring 20 women who worked to change bank lending practices in neighborhoods like Dorchester and Roxbury. “I say this because it not only allowed me to provide a stable home for many years and to save for retirement, but it gave me the opportunity to spend many years working with an unbelievable group of women who wouldn’t stop fighting for their community.”

Florence established the groundbreaking HomeSafe post-purchase education and discount program at MAHA in 1996 and was part of negotiating Community Reinvestment Act agreements with banks for over $1.5 billion in mortgage lending. Eventually becoming the assistant director at MAHA, she testified before Congress and chaired community meetings with more than 1,000 people, attended by the likes of Mayor Thomas Menino, Gov. Mitt Romney, and Congressman Barney Frank.

In short, she became a community leader. Her mother had marched with Melnea Cass and others in Roxbury in the 1960s, but Florence wanted no part of the activist life in her early adulthood. Then she found her cause and her passion.

“Florence left an indelible legacy,” said Robert K. Sheridan, president emeritus of Savings Bank Life Insurance and former president of the Massachusetts Bankers Association. “Bankers would initially fear her, then come to respect her, and eventually embrace everything she was about. Florence wanted bank executives to understand that they could reach underserved communities with affordable and sustainable mortgages that would change lives and improve neighborhoods. Now heaven will benefit from her community organizing skills.”

Florence grew up in the Whittier public housing development in Roxbury and was a life-long Boston resident until her retirement from MAHA in 2005, when she moved to Jacksonville, Florida, to care for an elderly aunt.

Florence’s impact goes well beyond the large number of people she counseled. She changed lives. Florence helped people achieve homeownership and they returned to college, got better jobs, and saw their children achieve academically – all because they had a stable home with an affordable mortgage payment. Like throwing a pebble in a pond, the ripple effects of her work keep on going and going.

Tom Callahan is executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance. Esther Maycock-Thorne is president of the MAHA board of directors. MAHA is creating the Florence McCarthy Hagins Endowment Fund. In lieu of flowers, her family asks donations in her name by made to MAHA, 1803 Dorchester Avenue, Dorchester, MA 02124.