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After two decades at HUD, the Rev. Miniard Culpepper retires

The Rev. Miniard Culpepper, pastor of Pleasant Hill Missionary Church who's also supported senators Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren's campaigns for president, is retiring from his position at HUD.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Most Bostonians know the Rev. Miniard Culpepper as senior pastor at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Dorchester and a prominent voice in civic life. He’s advocated for youth opportunity programs to help curb violence, and he’s helped lead the local battle for COVID vaccine equity. His church grows food in its garden to give away to those who need it.

He’s also been active in politics, working on the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992. He prayed over Elizabeth Warren before debates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, and even briefly ran for mayor of Boston in 2013.

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The Rev. Miniard Culpepper briefly sat next to Deaconess Lydia Forbes, during the service. Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church celebrates its 80th anniversary. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Fewer may know Culpepper as HUD’s regional counsel, overseeing the agency’s attorneys and legal matters as they work to enforce fair housing policies in New England. Now he’s retiring from that post after a 27-year career with the department — and hinting that he might consider running for public office.

As he packed up his office at the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Federal Building one recent evening, he sorted through momentos: A HUD Volunteer of the Year Award. A Hammer Award from former vice president Al Gore. A letter of thanks from former president Barack Obama.

“But,” he said, “what more can you do?”

Culpepper’s retirement comes at a momentous time for housing in Boston, when, increasingly, poor and middle-class people are priced out, there’s scarce affordable inventory for renters as well as buyers, and the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated housing instability.

Local and state officials are scrambling to find ways to address the problem; Mayor Michelle Wu recently committed $40 million to preserving or building 718 affordable housing units citywide and promised city agencies would take new steps to fight housing discrimination. And Governor Charlie Baker has proposed $700 million in tax breaks, including $80 million in rental assistance and raising the state’s rent deduction cap from $3,000 to $5,000.

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Culpepper, in an interview, saluted those efforts but said it’ll take addressing the root causes of housing insecurity and inequality to truly tackle the crisis. He’d like to see even stronger measures; Boston should adopt rent control, he said, and the state should offer additional tax breaks for homeowners and first-time homebuyers.

“We’ve got a long way to go closing the wealth gap,” Culpepper, 67, said. “[Owning a home] allows you to have equity in the house, pay for children’s college tuition — all options renters don’t have available today.”

He also worries that the federal Section 8 program, which assists the very poor, needs reform; many families can’t scrape together enough to cover their expected rent contribution.

Rev. Miniard Culpepper of the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, handed out 10 dollar bills to people in Roxbury during the pandemic.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Culpepper’s fight for housing equity is personal. His grandparents were the first Black couple to live on Seaver Street in Dorchester and had to fight against racism to own their home, he said. Now, Culpepper lives in and owns the house, a source of generational wealth many Black Americans have been cheated out of.

”We were taught that housing is one of the most precious commodities that you can own,” he said.

He’s most proud of winning a discrimination suit against the Boston Housing Authority for alleged discrimination against tenants of color in South Boston and Charlestown in the ‘90s. The BHA adopted a new civil rights protection plan his office drafted as a result.

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“Housing is the route to equalize folks’ lives,” he said.

At HUD, he’s sometimes integrated his pastoral and legal experience, managing its Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Obama, which builds bonds between the agency and grassroots organizations nationwide.

Richard Taylor, managing director of Nubian Square Ascends, met Culpepper in the 1980s through his involvement with NAACP’s Boston chapter. Taylor called him a “Renaissance man,” who’s used his entrepreneurial skills and community involvement to keep affordable housing in the city.

“He’s been a champion of ensuring that units that were affordable over the decades remain affordable,” Taylor said.

Pamela Perry, a former HUD project manager, recalled him stepping outside his job description to check on tenants temporarily displaced because of carbon monoxide exposure.

“They don’t recognize how much HUD does within certain communities,” Perry, who retired in 2019, said. “He didn’t have to put his feet on the pavement, but he did.”

Culpepper said the advice of a close friend who died by suicide a few years ago has been ringing in his ears: The friend, he said, always challenged him to reach beyond HUD’s bureaucracy, beyond Pleasant Hill’s pulpit, to make a difference.

“[My friend] thought I needed to be out in the community, fighting for equalizing income inequality, housing, [against] gentrification, education, and youth violence,” Culpepper added. “When I retire, I’ll be out in the community.”

Could that mean seeking elected office? “Could be,” he said, declining to discuss which one.

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Though, through his work at HUD, he has seen egregious examples of and inequality in Boston, Culpepper said today’s diverse slate of leaders shows that Boston’s heading toward better days.

“Boston is changing,” he said. “It’s changing to become an example of how a city can change in a progressive way to benefit all its residents.”


Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at tiana.woodard@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.