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City Councilor Kenzie Bok to head Boston Housing Authority as city battles housing crisis

Boston City Councilor Kenzie Bok previously served as a senior policy advisor in the BHA.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Kenzie Bok, a housing and budget policy wonk serving her second term on the Boston City Council, will be the next leader of the Boston Housing Authority, assuming responsibility for an organization that serves tens of thousands of Boston’s poorest residents.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced Bok’s appointment Wednesday, and Bok will start at the authority in May. The move will trigger a special election later this year for her seat on the City Council.

A longtime affordable housing advocate and former senior policy advisor at the BHA, Bok returns to lead the chronically underfunded housing authority as the city battles a housing crisis that only adds urgency, and difficulty, to the organization’s work — providing public housing to about 17,000 people and administering housing vouchers to 45,000 more.

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Given the important role public housing plays in the city, Wu said that in the BHA’s leader, “we need determination to continue what’s working, and a vision and relentlessness to do even more.”

“Kenzie knows the organization inside out,” Wu said in an interview. “She’s deeply committed to putting residents first and also a visionary about how we can invest even more in our public housing to create benefit for everyone in our community.”

The challenges are steep. More than 37,000 households currently sit on BHA waitlists, and many of the authority’s 56 developments are decades old and in desperate need of repair. Adding to the difficulty: The facilities now have just seven years to end their reliance on fossil fuels, under an ambitious timeline set by earlier this year. For Bok, that will mean ensuring the continuation of essential services while making necessary facility improvements, all as she eyes potentially expanding the city’s public housing stock by as many as 2,500 units.

In an interview this week, Bok said affordable housing is “essential to what makes Boston, Boston” and emphasized the importance of seeing public housing as a public good.

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“This is the institution that matters most to me, and there isn’t something more important than trying to make it as strong as possible,” she said. “Boston will be its best version of itself when we’re putting BHA ... and our public housing residents at the heart of everything we do.”

A top priority for the organization is preserving the 10,000 public housing units it owns and manages, more than a third of which are currently in the pipeline for redevelopment, said Kate Bennett, the outgoing BHA administrator. Last year, Wu committed $50 million in city and federal funds toward repairs at the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments in Jamaica Plain. Even that sum barely dents the need.

Wu’s push to transition BHA facilities away from fossil fuels will carry a hefty price tag, too. Bennett estimated that it would cost more than $1.5 billion to put “every single site on a solid physical and financial footing,” as well as meet Wu’s 2030 goal for weaning the facilities off of oil and gas.

Bennett will stay on as administrator through the end of July, overlapping with Bok for several months to ensure a smooth transition. Bok will officially assume the top role in August.

Bok “has always been passionate about the authority, and really committed to our mission,” Bennett said in an interview this week. “She knows our staff, she knows our residents, so I just really believe she’s the right person to move things forward.”

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While the BHA’s primary responsibilities are maintaining its facilities and ensuring the smooth administration of vouchers, Bok said it can be a powerful tool for policy change, too.

In 2019, as a policy advisor at the BHA, Bok led Boston’s push for a seemingly small, but tremendously influential, change in the way Section 8 housing vouchers were valued. At the time, the vouchers were set at a flat rate for every neighborhood in Metropolitan Boston regardless of the market price in the area; the approach effectively funneled people who relied on vouchers into less-expensive neighborhoods such as Mattapan, Roxbury, and Dorchester. The BHA pushed to vary those rates, increasing the vouchers’ value in more expensive neighborhoods so that voucher users could afford to live in those areas, too.

Three years later, BHA data show, more people who use vouchers are moving into higher-cost neighborhoods — what researchers call “high-opportunity” areas — a step toward integrating a city long stratified by race and income.

And as the region scrambles to build desperately needed homes, Bok has an eye on growing the city’s public housing supply, too. Under a federal provision known as the Faircloth Limit, Boston is entitled to funding for roughly 2,500 more housing units than it currently has, Bok said. That means if the city creates those homes, the federal government is obligated to subsidize them.

Bok didn’t offer a specific timeline, but asked how many she might look to create, and when, replied: “I like solving for the whole problem.”

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“If we can get up to 2,500 more Faircloth units, how do we get that done?” Bok said. In one project above the West End branch of the Boston Public Library, the city is looking to create 20 new units of public housing, she said, and the BHA is evaluating other potential sites as well.

At 33, Bok will be one of the youngest people to ever lead the housing authority. A Bay Village native and Harvard College graduate, she studied at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom as a Marshall Scholar and earned a doctorate in history, specializing in the philosopher John Rawls. Since her election in 2019, Bok has represented a district that spans from Beacon Hill to Mission Hill.

Bok, who has led past council budget processes and spearheaded the body’s work on allocating American Rescue Plan Act funds, is one of the council’s foremost policy wonks and procedural experts — and, often, one of Wu’s best council allies. Her departure from the legislative body opens a vacancy that will be filled by special election later this year, and could leave the 13-member council with just 12 members for a number of major votes, including on the city budget. Since councilors need nine votes to override the mayor’s veto, her absence could prove significant; the council has often splintered 9–4, with Bok and the other more progressive councilors in the majority.

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Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her @emmaplatoff.