Halfway through her tenure as Massachusetts secretary of communities and development, Amy Anthony toured a part of Lowell that had fallen on tough times — a neighborhood she was revitalizing in 1986 through the construction of 38 units of affordable housing.
The building site was one of dozens that dotted the state during the eight years she oversaw development of an unprecedented 25,000 units, while persuading more than 90 communities to build affordable housing for the first time.
She was the first woman Governor Michael S. Dukakis named to his Cabinet in 1982 — a job that “in all my dreams I never envisioned,” she told the Globe that day in Lowell. She relished “the tremendous sense that you can do almost anything. I like having access and empowerment. I like taking something on and helping make it happen.”
Ms. Anthony, who went on to found the nonprofit Preservation of Affordable Housing, which brought her vision and expertise to communities across the country, was 74 when she died Dec. 9 while visiting Arusha, Tanzania. She lived in Brookline and had been treated for heart issues in recent years, her family said.
“Amy is one of a small group of folks in the housing and community development world who did have a real national impact,” said Shaun Donovan, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development in president Barack Obama’s administration.
“What was particularly unique about her was that she was one of the most creative thinkers, and she was a real innovator, but she was a doer as well,” said Donovan, who later served as director of the Office of Management and Budget. “And it was that combination of thinking and doing that set her apart.”
In Massachusetts and across the country, Ms. Anthony “was a major, major positive force both in formulating housing policy and getting housing built,” said Barney Frank, a former US representative from Massachusetts who worked with her on various projects. “Amy was a practitioner and a theorist and an executive.”
Her work was informed by pragmatism and a strong belief that affluent communities don’t adequately address affordable housing needs. She also promoted mixed-income housing to help those from varied financial backgrounds, including the young and the elderly.
The middle class thinks “the government has no role in their housing,” she told the Globe in 1990. Such homeowners, she said, either forget or never realize that a host of government programs make their mortgages affordable and turn their homes into good investments.
“They don’t see those things. They think they’re the private sector, and the poor are something the federal government needs to take care of,” she said.
“I absolutely agree that the vast bulk of the funds should be addressed to the very poor,” she added. “But I don’t believe the national agenda should be directed solely at the poorest of the poor because, candidly, they lack political clout. We need a broad constituency behind housing programs.”
The oldest of four siblings, Amy Stanley was born in Havana in 1944 while her father was stationed in Cuba during World War II. Her parents were William Stanley, an attorney with the firm Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., and Margaret Bell, who volunteered with various organizations.
“A lot of the social consciousness that marked Amy’s work came from her mother,” said Dick Anthony of East Walpole, Ms. Anthony’s former husband.
Ms. Anthony grew up in Laurel, Md., attended the Holton-Arms prep school in Bethesda, and graduated from Smith College with a bachelor’s degree in English. That background, she said in 1986, prepared her for “working as a secretary in a publishing house or as a teacher, neither of which I wanted to do.”
Instead, she worked with the Housing Alliance Project in Springfield and became the nonprofit’s director. Ms. Anthony also worked as a consultant before Dukakis appointed her secretary of communities and development in December 1982.
“She had an ability to bring people together and convince communities that they needed affordable housing,” Dukakis said.
“We did housing under her that I don’t think the state has ever really done,” he added. “That’s not to disparage the work of others, but I don’t know of anyone who had that job who was able to produce lots of community housing and do so with community support. We had a minimum of battles and a maximum of community support, and people saying, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ ”
Ms. Anthony persuaded municipal officials to back her housing initiatives partly because “people recognized the genuineness of her concern,” Frank recalled. “Nobody thought she had any motive other than helping people get affordable housing.”
Her accomplishments in a Cabinet-level job came during years when she was a single mother. Her first marriage had ended in divorce, though she and Dick Anthony remained on good terms. Still, she often raced from high-level meetings to pick up her son, Sam, from school when he was growing up — responsibilities generally not shared by others in the male-dominated field of development.
“She was surmounting tremendous challenges to do an amazing job raising me and succeeding in her career,” said Sam, who now lives in Somerville. “She was all about: ‘This is what we have done, this is what we need to do, this is what solves problems.’ ”
Ms. Anthony’s leadership roles continued after she left the Dukakis administration at the end of 1990. She was part of the HUD transition team when president Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, and she served on the boards of several key state and national housing organizations.
She also was president and chief executive of Preservation of Affordable Housing. The national nonprofit developer has preserved or built more than 10,000 affordable units in 11 states and the District of Columbia.
“She touched the lives of thousands of people who may not even know who she is, but are benefiting from her tremendous work,” said Aaron Gornstein, who succeeded her as president and chief executive after she retired in 2015. “She was compassionate, so committed, and has left a tremendous legacy. She had a tremendous vision of how to preserve and expand affordable housing across the country.”
One of her highest-profile projects with the organization was securing a $30.5 million federal grant in 2011 to replace an aging housing project in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood and revitalize the area.
A few years ago, Ms. Anthony married John Parmwat, who is from Tanzania.
A service will be announced for Ms. Anthony, who in addition to her son, husband, and former husband leaves two brothers, Bill Stanley of Columbia, Md., and Bob Stanley of Asheville, N.C.; a sister, Maggie Stanley of Arlington; and two grandchildren.
Throughout her career, Ms. Anthony wanted to assist all who struggled to find housing: those who were poor, grandparents on fixed incomes, and young adults who couldn’t afford to live in the communities where they had grown up.
“We must help those most in need, but not ignore those who are not as badly off, but still suffering,” she told the Globe in 1990. “We have to make people understand the bridge between their own housing needs and those of the poor.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.