Case Study

A Developer for Inner Cities

Fifty Years with The Taurus Apartments in Roxbury

6 min read

John B. Cruz III is a raconteur. You’ll learn a lot from listening for an hour to this dignified, elderly developer, head of the Cruz Companies in Boston. For instance, in the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa where his family is from, there are never any hurricanes. (They form to the south of the islands and then move off west.) So, I only had to get him started talking about the 50-year history of the Taurus Apartments in Roxbury, MA to get the whole deep dive from beginning to finish.

The Taurus Apartments in Roxbury, MA

He started with his father, John “Bertie” Cruz Jr., a carpenter/framer who put a hammer in his hand at the age of 13 (see sidebar). The Cruzes worked as framers for developers or general contractors who were putting up housing in well-to-do suburbs of Boston, like Newton. And John Cruz III began setting a goal for himself.

“It always bothered me when I got back to the inner city to see the conditions there versus here, and I would wonder why we couldn’t have something as nice as they have in other areas. Once I got started with the possibility of being a developer, I said I would like to build something in the Black community that looked the same as anything out in the suburbs.”

At that time, there was a training program to encourage the building of affordable housing in the inner cities, and Cruz went to some of those seminars and resolved to become a developer.

“We bid on a piece of land the city had to build, and we were designated to do a building there. And I said now I have the chance to build what developers build for the people in the suburbs, only here in Roxbury.”

So, he went to MassHousing, which was financing affordable housing then as it does now, to get money for what turned out to be a total development cost of less than $1 million. But when he told the MassHousing architect what he was trying to do with the Taurus Apartments (named after his astrological sign), he received pushback.

Extra Amenities
“I’ll never forget what MassHousing’s architect said. He said, ‘Why are you putting all these amenities in the building for poor folks?’ To give you some examples, it was essentially a wood frame building because we were carpenters, but we covered it with brick. And he pointed that out, and in trying to save us money, he said, ‘You can do that in wood, that’s allowable, and the second is, it’s four stories, and you have an elevator in there. You don’t need an elevator.’

“Another thing, in our design, each unit had a balcony. That’s expensive. And we had a community room with men’s and women’s facilities and a little kitchen you could cook in. The architect’s thought was, ‘You can fit a two-bedroom apartment in that space and make more money.’ He wasn’t wrong!

“Another thing was, we had closed circuit TV in there, because the area we were building in was not the safest area in the world, so that gave the tenants some extra security.”

Cruz stood up to the pushback though, and the Taurus Apartments kept all the features he’d put in to get the building on an equal footing with one in the suburbs. Building started in 1972 and the Taurus Apartments opened in 1973. It won an award for the architect, and it was also visible on posters around Boston.

“Boston Redevelopment, which sold us the land, used it on a poster for its marketing, and it was seen in their offices, as well as the offices of other government agencies. It made my father and I proud that it was received with such community goodwill.”

Postponing Retirement
His father worked until the age of 85 or 86, and John Cruz III worked past retirement age as well.

The Cruzes designed the 38-unit Taurus Apartments for one- and two-bedrooms, (but in subsequent buildings, seeing the need for family housing, they have included three- and four-bedroom units). Rents were around $274 or less in 1973, whereas Justin Cruz, the company’s chief operating officer, says they are about ten times as much (original tenants and there are some still in the building, are shown some rhythm on increases).

John B. Cruz III (left) and Justin Cruz hold a photo showing John B. Cruz III when he was a younger man with his father, John “Bertie” Cruz.

There has been work done on the buildings, of course, but the building looks remarkably the same as it did. “I’m proud to say the building doesn’t look much different now,” John B. Cruz III says. “The mason did a damn good job on the brick.”

“The bones are the same,” Justin Cruz says. “Many of the systems are the same.”

A lot in Roxbury has changed during the last 50 years. “Gentrification is going on in all the inner cities. What’s happening in Roxbury is a lot of working-class Black families have had to move outside Boston because even the rents in Roxbury are creeping up,” the elder Cruz says.

But Cruz knows of one thing that has remained the same and that’s the Taurus Apartments he built back then. An elegant storyteller, he can recount vividly what it was like to conceive, finance, build and open the Taurus Apartments. He even remembers he wore a bright red bow tie to celebrate the opening.

John B. Cruz III on Learning a Work Ethic from Dad

      “We had to pull my father away from work with a cane. Because like a lot of old-timers, they never missed what they didn’t have. And it wasn’t that he wasn’t a happy guy, he just didn’t take vacations. And the old-timers were far happier with simple things.

      “When I was a young boy, my father used to take me to work occasionally, and I would end up making ‘houses’ out of scrap wood. I couldn’t use anything valuable. He let me play with the scraps and I would attempt to nail them together.

      “Then when I was about 13, he took me aside and put a hammer in my hand. ‘You see this area of the floor here? I want you to nail this off.’ And I found out for the first time what work was all about.

      “After that, I never knew what cartoons were on Saturday. I never knew what a vacation was, because if there was a day off from school, he would take me to work. During the summer when I wasn’t in school, I would work with him. Through that experience, we built a lot of homes and apartments.”

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.