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In Worcester, Healey’s pick for housing secretary gets a mixed reception

New Housing Secretary Edward M. Augustus Jr. was sworn in by Governor Maura Healey.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Former Worcester city manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. is credited by many as the formidable leader who brought the state’s second-largest city out of Boston’s shadow and into a building boom that has attracted no less than 25,000 new residents in the last decade.

Local leaders say his leadership and success on housing issues will serve him — and the state — as he assumes office as head of Governor Maura Healey’s new Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities.

But Augustus’s eight-year tenure was also rocked by tensions over racial inequalities, with a city audit that he himself commissioned revealing a workplace culture that many employees described as toxic and hostile to people of color. The ill feelings culminated with the resignation of the city’s third chief diversity officer in just six years, who said she needed “more than a title to succeed.”


When asked about the concerns raised in the audit, Augustus acknowledged in a statement that “the results were difficult to read.”

“Structural racism is woven into every fabric of our society, but in order to address it, we need to shine a light on it,” he said, and vowed as head of the new state agency to deliver on Healey’s inaugural promise to “center equity in all we do.”

His resume from Worcester is thick with accomplishments on housing matters. During his tenure, the city created an Affordable Housing Trust Fund and more broadly, committed to spending $28 million of federal funds on housing. He introduced an inclusionary zoning policy that would require more affordable housing and was long championed by advocates. The city also authorized construction of microunits for the chronically homeless and provided incentives to landlords to rent to tenants who had emergency housing vouchers.

But amid those accomplishments are persistent complaints from people of color, especially those who worked for the government, that the city bureaucracy Augustus led consistently ignored institutional racism. Much of that criticism was outlined in the 146-page audit, which was completed in September 2022, just months after Augustus left the job that May.


The report, completed by Letterman White Consulting at Augustus’s request, included interviews with dozens of employees who anonymously reported concerns such as feeling as if “reporting racism is a dead end,” and said there is both “open and private disrespect” of city employees of color. One reported that the city government held ideals “deeply tied to a culture of white supremacy.”

“[T]he leadership of the City of Worcester is toxic,” one health and human services employee wrote. “They tokenize leaders of color and their experiences. While they openly value and uplift white employees, their perspectives, and needs.”

And then, as the audit was underway, Worcester’s chief diversity officer, Stephanie Williams, announced her departure — the third person to leave that position since it was created in 2016.

Angry members of the local NAACP chapter withdrew from a committee focused on marking the city’s 300th anniversary in June 2022; its leader said at the time that the Black community’s hopes were “once again being frustrated, denied, and delayed.”

The City Council requested an investigation into the city’s difficulties retaining chief diversity officers. Worcester’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee voted to suspend its work.

Jordan Berg Powers, an activist and former member of the city’s zoning board, said the audit and Williams’s departure represent “a perfect example of Ed’s problem.”


“He has ridiculously large blind spots, and a lot of people complained,” he said in an interview. “So much so that it came to a head.”

The Healey administration declined to comment on whether the governor knew about the audit or considered its findings as part of the vetting process of Augustus.

Augustus became city manager in 2014 after working at the College of the Holy Cross. He was a state senator from 2005 to 2009, and previously served as chief of staff for US Representative Jim McGovern and worked in the US Department of Education during the Clinton administration.

As city manager, Edward Augustus Jr. led the charge on the $240 million redevelopment of the Canal District, which included construction of Polar Park for the Worcester Red Sox.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

The city manager in Worcester is a powerful position, and Augustus led the charge on several landmark projects, including the $240 million redevelopment of the Canal District, which included construction of Polar Park for the Worcester Red Sox, and a related hotel and housing development.

But some Worcester residents see the redevelopment of the Canal District as similar to what has happened in other fast-developing cities around the country: few new apartments for lower-income people who have called the area home for decades.

“I grew up here, I’ve been here my whole life,” said Robert Bilotta, a disability advocate who is running for City Council District Two, which includes the Canal District. “The city has changed a lot. So much of it is home-grown and local and has brought a lot of great stuff to our community. But now it’s frustrating to see people who live here are not able to enjoy it.”


Augustus did propose an inclusionary zoning ordinance in May 2022 that requires market-rate housing projects to meet a certain threshold of affordability. But several regional housing advocates and Worcester-based housing experts felt it came too late, after numerous market-rate projects were completed or approved without any affordable units. Meanwhile, low vacancy rates and high rents have continue to push people out of the city or, in some cases, onto the street.

Housing nonprofit leaders, housing activists, and members of a statewide housing justice group also question if Augustus has the expertise to successfully navigate the labyrinth of huge housing policy challenges facing the state.

“He’s definitely a good pick for the ‘build, build, build’ stance the administration seems to be taking on housing so far,” said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of the advocacy group MassLandlords. “But there’s a lot more that needs to be done beyond building. We have a broken rental assistance program, big challenges with the shelter system. There’s no time to spend two years learning about all of this stuff. He has to hit the ground running.”

Some employees said in the 2022 audit that the city’s building policies cater to white residents and neighborhoods, and don’t reflect the needs of communities of color.

”This then affects the quality of life of Worcester’s [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] communities and impedes the work that needs to take place to support Worcester’s BIPOC communities,” an employee wrote. “An example of this is reflected in the Polar Park stadium, the Worcester Police Department budget, and downtown developments.”


During his term, Augustus repeatedly said he was committed to dismantling structural racism in Worcester. In February 2021, he signed an executive order to address racism within the city, and welcomed the independent review of how the city could do better. He elevated the chief diversity officer post to his executive Cabinet, and oversaw a program to ensure vaccine equity.

“These systems have been built over 300 years, and it’s going to take more than Stephanie Williams or Ed Augustus or anyone in this room to dismantle them,” Augustus said at a City Council meeting in 2022.

In May, Healey signed an executive order requiring that all executive offices conduct similar equity assessments on an ongoing basis.

On housing policy, Augustus said in a statement that he is proud of his work creating and preserving affordable housing units in the city, but that “there is always still more work to be done.”

Housing experts in Worcester said Augustus was good at listening to the needs of the community.

Alex Corrales, chief executive of the Worcester Housing Authority who grew up in public housing, said that while Augustus is “not always going to meet expectations” on all housing goals, he left Worcester in a better place than when he took office.

“Being there for as long as I have, seeing some of the down years where Worcester was a forgotten city, he really was instrumental in Worcester becoming a booming, thriving community,” Corrales said. “He understood the balance and the importance of working with the private sector to attract that.”

Andrew Brinker of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Samantha J. Gross can be reached at Follow her @samanthajgross.