THE STATE’S public housing infrastructure is, to put it lightly, strained. And it didn’t get that way by accident.
“The way I talk about it is that it’s not that you have a bowl that has some holes in it – it’s that our housing system in America is built to be a sieve,” Kenzie Bok, the new head of the Boston Housing Authority, said on The Codcast. “It is built with holes because if it didn’t have holes, if we actually provided the basic decent affordable housing for everybody, then you wouldn’t be able to keep such elevated rents in the market. And you just have to acknowledge that contradiction, because if you don’t, you won’t understand why we are where we are.”
Bok, a former city councilor, intellectual historian, and affordable housing and housing justice advocate, took the helm of New England’s largest public housing authority this spring. At 34, she is one of the youngest to hold the post, and her tenure kicked off with historic waitlists, decades of disinvestment in state public housing, a decarbonization mandate, and a market-wide housing squeeze across the state.
The Boston native says she, and her team, are up for the challenge.
“I had this really strong sense growing up that the city does not happen by accident,” Bok said. “That it is really the work of people doing it.”
Boston is exploring how best to build roughly 2,900 more public housing units – the maximum allowed by the federal government – to add to its 10,000 existing public housing units. Even with government dollars to spend, Bok said, the city is running into many of the same pressures as the private housing market, with sky-high material and labor costs.
On a basic math level, Bok is part of the chorus decrying housing production that “just has not even remotely kept up” with the number of people who want to live in the Bay State.
Usually, about 10 percent of Boston Housing Authority units turn over each year as people move into other residences, Bok said. Even with the city’s 42,000 household waitlist for housing, there is usually some movement.
“The challenge now is that because there’s no market housing available for people, nobody who’s even making a bit more money and doing a bit better, who’s living in public housing, who wants to move out, has anywhere to move to,” she said. Turnover rates have “plummeted,” and the wait list is stagnating.
“We’re super glad to be providing that stability for families in this landscape,” Bok said, “but it just really shows you how all the pieces of the ladder are connected, and the whole thing’s pretty broken right now.”
Voucher systems also tie Boston in with other nearby cities, as the BHA’s 17,000 housing voucher holders can be used anywhere in the metro region. But rental voucher holders are still running into artificial constraints on their ability to live in surrounding regions, either because of illegal discrimination against them or because of resistance to building apartments that could house renters, Bok said.
Politically, at least, Boston is in an unusual alignment on public housing right now, with the federal, state, and city governments all “actively supportive of public housing. I mean, that is just not a normal situation,” Bok said.
Mayor Michelle Wu, a former council colleague who appointed Bok to the BHA role, committed $50 million to the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments a few months into taking mayoral office. About $1.6 billion of the governor’s proposed housing bond bill is targeted at repairing, rehabilitating, and modernizing the state’s more than 43,000 public housing units – “an area that’s been, frankly, really critically under-resourced for decades and decades,” Bok noted.
“And then you’ve got a federal government where again, you’ve got decades and decades of disinvestment. We can’t hide that,” she said.
But there, too, the tide has shifted on public housing, with federal money through the Inflation Reduction Act pouring down to the states with opportunities for climate resiliency improvements for public units. It’s pointing needed funding and attention to the climate aspect of housing, with cities like Boston committing to phasing out reliance on fossil fuels in public housing by 2030.
“We’re really excited about that, and it’s a really urgent goal, and it means that we have to spend every day working on it,” she said. The resources are there at the federal level, so “shame on us if we don’t chase those for the public housing portfolio. But I also think that putting public housing first in the green retrofit world, it’s partly about equity.”
The BHA serves very low-income, disproportionately Black and Brown Bostonians, Bok noted. Prioritizing public housing for green retrofitting is an environmental justice goal, “but also one of the ways that we on the public side can most impact the private market is by creating a market ourselves and by leading where they should follow,” she said.