After 25 years, isn’t it time for a change?
That’s what Kate Bennett, administrator of the Boston Housing Authority, asks herself as she prepares for the next chapter in her career. Bennett, who former mayor Martin J. Walsh tapped to lead the agency in 2020, announced Wednesday that she is stepping down after filling a variety of BHA roles since 1998.
Bennett’s departure comes as the city faces a grueling housing crisis, where a shortage of housing stock has left Boston residents scrambling to afford the few, overpriced units that remain.
In her years in office, she has seen what works, what doesn’t, and what could be. In light of Bennett’s upcoming departure, the Globe asked the BHA’s administrator about her legacy, the status of the city’s housing crunch, and where we can go from here.
(This interview has been condensed for context and space.)
How are you feeling as you approach your departure date, and why now?
It’s been an amazing experience here at BHA and the privilege of a lifetime to be in this administrator role. But it’s really just personally time for me to move on after a lot of talk with friends and family. I’m not planning to retire, but I’m just going to take some time before moving on to the next thing.
What are you most proud of during your time at BHA?
BHA has been on an amazing trajectory for the last couple of decades. This is something I don’t take credit for. It’s been an amazing team internally, but I’ve also had two amazing predecessors, Bill McGonagle and Sandra B. Henriquez. And so the Housing Authority has just really come a long way in terms of being viewed as an innovator and as a more modern housing authority than it used to be. We were the first housing authority to go entirely smoke free and the first in the nation to adopt small area fair market rent: We set our rent levels at the zip code level instead of a general setting across the whole city, which means people can access high market neighborhoods with a voucher more than before. We did [one of] the largest energy performance contracts in the nation to green our buildings many years ago. And we’re recognized nationally for redevelopment work.
We still face a lot of challenges that I’ve been working on for a very long time. I wish that we had made more progress in terms of securing the portfolio, and in terms of ensuring a future for our residents. But the reality is, we have done that. We’ve gotten over 4,000 units in the pipeline for preservation and redevelopment. We have really become part of the [Mayor Michelle Wu] administration’s landscape and goals. Public housing is part of the history and the fabric of almost every neighborhood in the city, so it really needs to be part of the future, too.
What’s the biggest challenge the BHA has faced since you took over?
COVID. I’m very proud of the BHA response to that, both in terms of the employees and what we needed to do to keep our services rolling. Our residential communities really stepped up to this challenge, and we had very low rates of COVID throughout the housing developments. But that took an extraordinary effort on the part of the city, our nonprofit partners, and our employees here at BHA.
Greater Boston and the state as a whole are facing a housing crisis. How has the BHA tried to address this with its own housing stock?
We have like a 33,000-household waiting list here at BHA. And every day, people are coming to us desperate for housing. One of the things that we’ve tried to do is continue to preserve our units so that we can offer that access to low-income folks. The other thing we’ve tried to do in our redevelopment work is actually add to the supply of affordable housing. We’re actually planning to add over 1,000 new surplus units to our sites just to help the city’s supply. We have a fixed portfolio, but what we have is our land. We’re trying to use that land to leverage as much affordable housing as we can for this city.
You’ve leaned into private developers and rental vouchers as opposed to relying on the old, large complexes that the BHA owns. How has that helped BHA carry out its mission?
As we’ve come to a point where many of our public housing properties have outlived their useful life, we’re just returning to other strategies. One of those is Section 8 (which provides rental vouchers for private properties). In converting those units, we’re able to keep the same rent structure for residents. We are reimbursed from the federal government at a higher rate on the Section 8 side, and therefore we can use that revenue to also make improvements. It’s a huge equity issue. It just gives people choice and opportunity to live where they want to live.
What do you think are the biggest challenges our area will face in the next few years?
We’ll continue to face a lot of income inequality in the housing market. For the BHA, the primary challenge will continue to be preserving and upgrading our portfolio. And in order for our voucher holders to stay in Boston and not choose other places, there needs to be more accessible, affordable housing generally.
How do we move forward from here?
We certainly need more types of affordable housing for particular populations. Transitional housing certainly, and we need more supply. But we also need more supportive services for affordable housing. We have a lot of folks in this city that need mental health services, help access, they need food access, they may need job training, or computer training. And so they need support.
What do you hope your legacy is?
I’ve always been very focused on our residents, our community, our applicants. And I just would like my legacy to be that this agency remains very resident-centered and customer-driven.
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.