Running the Boston Housing Authority might be the most important unglamorous job in city government. And one of the most vital.
The head of the BHA holds the key to the lives of 25,000 public housing residents.
And as former city councilor Kenzie Bok prepares to take the helm of the agency Monday, the magnitude of her new role is not lost on her.
“There literally isn’t any more important work I could be doing,” Bok said.
It’s Bok’s second tour at the agency; she was its chief policy staffer before being elected to the City Council in 2019.
She takes over at a delicate time. The city’s biggest housing development, Bunker Hill, is headed for a rebuild that will take years, and others are in the pipeline. Many others are in urgent need of upgrades.
Meanwhile, the BHA’s waiting list of 37,000 easily outnumbers the actual population currently living in public housing. Need is astronomical — and given the high cost of this market, moving out of public housing has never been a more daunting challenge. Demand will not ease anytime soon.
Bok takes over from her former boss, Kate Bennett, who’s retiring after 25 years at the agency. In preparation, she has been shadowing Bennett since May.
Bok brings a unique résumé to the job. She did stellar work on a not-so-stellar city council, taking control of the city budget in her first term and guiding the spending of millions of dollars in COVID-related federal aid in her second.
No one really keeps track of this, but I think it’s safe to say Bok will also be the first BHA head with a Ph.D from the University of Cambridge, where she studied the history of philosophy.
So she brings a rare combination of street-level political savvy and intellectual heft to the job.
She was initially hired in 2016 by Bill McGonagle, a legendary BHA head both she and Bennett claim as a mentor. Bok came to the agency after working on a successful ballot initiative — the Community Preservation Act —that raised money for affordable housing statewide.
“I had sort of come out of that experience realizing that if I cared about housing in the city of Boston, there wasn’t a more important institution than the Boston Housing Authority,” Bok said. “And so I kind of set my sights on the BHA at that juncture in terms of talking my way into the building.”
Here’s one way to think about the importance of the BHA. In a city where income inequality feels more deeply woven into its fabric every day, the BHA is a crucial lifeline between city government and the poorest people it serves.
Mayor Michelle Wu served on the City Council with Bok. When the BHA was looking for a new leader, she didn’t have to look far.
“When Kenzie decides she wants to do something, there’s no stopping her,” Wu told me. “She thinks big, and believes with her whole heart in the power of city government to create good in people’s lives. And she believes most of all in the BHA, where she had worked for several years under Billy and Kate.
“And at a time when housing is the most pressing foundational stressor for families all across the city, the BHA has a really important role to play in redefining what cities can do.”
Bennett, the outgoing administrator, echoes that sentiment.
“These sites are all part of the fabric, and they’re part of the history of virtually every neighborhood in the city,” Bennett said. “And they need to be part of the future, or it’s not Boston. I mean, I think it’s really critical to the city, especially from an income inequality point of view.”
Bok takes over at a time of growing city investment in public housing. She has a strong relationship with Wu, and her former colleagues on the City Council. So the BHA enjoys financial and political support that many housing authorities around the country do not.
Still, every changing of the guard is challenging for BHA residents. Historically, they aren’t shy about holding BHA officials accountable. They expect to see and hear from them, and to have a voice in decisions shaping their lives. Tenants served on the search committee that selected Bok.
“If you’re not talking to your constituents every day and you’re not dealing with the real issues that people are dealing with every day in the neighborhoods, you can very quickly kind of lose your sense of navigation,” Bok said.
“And I think it’s the same here in this seat. If you’re not talking to residents every day and just keeping all those lines of communication open and making sure that you’re out of the sites, then you just, you’re going to lose your bearing. So to me, that’s super important. But I think it’s where I’m always going to start in this work.”
Like any bureaucracy, the BHA has its critics, as Bok concedes.
“I just feel like the things that cause people to criticize the BHA are sometimes just that it’s a big ship and it turns slowly,” she said. “But the flip side is when you make a policy innovation here, when you change something, you turn the big ship. And so you really change thousands of families’ lives.”
The BHA’s mission now — Bok’s mission — is bigger than just maintaining a roof over residents’ heads. It’s making sure that Boston can continue to be a home for everyone.
“We have in America too often allowed our best investments to then be gate-kept in a way that really undermines justice, social, economic, racial justice,” Bok said. “So, to me, you have to anchor people in Boston, and then we all work together on making Boston the best city that it can be.”