Kenzie Bok
Incoming administrator, Boston Housing Authority
Age: 33
Years experience: 8 

For Kenzie Bok, housing is in her blood. Her grandfather helped cofound housing advocacy group CHAPA and provided legal services for the famous Tent City affordable housing development, among other housing work in Boston. And as a child in Bay Village, she says, she gained a “very strong sense that affordable communities don’t happen by accident.” But returning to Boston in 2015 after earning her dissertation on a Marshall Scholarship at Cambridge University in England, she was struck by how unaffordable the city had become since she left, and how perilously close it was to becoming the next San Francisco – a city of extreme housing inequality. Helping Boston pass the Community Preservation Act in 2016 led to a role advising the Boston Housing Authority, which spurred her to run for and win a seat on the Boston City Council in 2019 to advocate for housing affordability at a higher level of government. 

Q: Why rejoin the BHA?
A: For the first time in 2019, we persuaded the city for the first time to put real money in the city capital budget to support BHA initiatives. And now in spring of 2023, four years later, there’s $204 million in the city capital budget for the housing authority’s initiatives, which is a huge phase shift. And then with a Democratic governor, there’s a real opportunity to achieve a shift at the state level.  

I really love the Boston Housing Authority, and I left it to run for office because I thought I might be able to do more for it from an elected position, not because I didn’t want to keep working on behalf of the BHA. When Kate announced that she was leaving, and this opportunity to apply for that role came up, it was certainly a bit sooner than I might have expected. But I just think there’s such a strong alignment of opportunity to do really great things for our BHA families. I’m thrilled that the opportunity came up and that and that I was chosen. 

Q: It’s very difficult to build housing right now. What does that say about how the city should be approaching housing policy right now?
A: I think that the city has to approach it with an all-hands-on-deck perspective. And I think we’ve been doing that. We put [American Rescue Plan Act money] into a lot of initiatives where the goal was not just to bite off a bit of the housing problem, but also to try to do pilots and initiatives that would help us with the whole problem. So, for instance, we’re spending some of that money on green retrofits, yes, but it’s not just, like, $10 million on green retrofits for a few affordable housing buildings. It’s $10 million to figure out how to best do these retrofits in affordable housing so that then we can chase the many more millions that we’re going to need. 

And the city is really looking to throw our public land into the mix. I’m super excited about the West End Library project that I was deeply involved in as a counselor, because it’s both a great project in its own right, and it’s a proof-of-concept about putting housing above public assets. Since a lot of the hesitation around doing that has just been regulatory complexity, I think if we can figure out a really good model for that, that’s great.  

There isn’t a more pressing issue in the city or state right now than housing affordability. And I think that [Mayor Michelle Wu] is giving it that kind of prioritization. 

Q: How does the BHA fit into that? Is adding units up to Boston’s federal Faircloth public housing cap the main place that you’re hoping to push?
A: We absolutely have to lay out a plan for building those 2,500 units. It would be a huge increase in the housing that we have available to extremely-low-income Bostonians. It’s much more costly to provide housing at that really, extremely low income level, so federal subsidy is so key there. In the long run, I would love for us to be thinking about how these units could fit in with Boston’s inclusionary development program. But the BHA has to very actively lead that creativity because I think the regulatory processes intimidate other actors.  

Also, the affirmatively furthering fair housing duty that the BHA has means that we have to push for our families to be able to live in neighborhoods and communities all around the region. Having them filtered out of most places in the city and the region by price is just not an acceptable situation. Along those lines, when you asked about further things we could do, I think that there’s still enormous opportunity for the BHA to extend itself as a major actor in the private real estate market in the interest of affirmatively furthering fair housing. We want to do everything in our power to ensure that our voucher holders are not facing discrimination.  

Q: Is streamlining the bureaucratic processes landlords face when renting to voucher-holders on your agenda?
A: I think it’s super important for the BHA to have an efficient and effective inspection regime that doesn’t create too much of a drag on lease-up [in private developments]. It’s actually been one of the big focuses of my predecessor, Kate Bennett, to get smarter and better about that stuff. She’s instituted a whole new work order system on the public housing side, and our inspections team, I think, has also gotten a lot stronger in recent years.  

But I also think folks’ hesitancy about a [Boston inclusionary zoning policy] that would explicitly require them to take to accept voucher-holders, underscores how rampant source-of-income discrimination actually is, which is illegal in the commonwealth. It’s on us at the BHA to make it as easy and straightforward as possible for the voucher-holder family to use that subsidy, and for the landlord to get an inspection when they request one and all of that. But I want to say to folks: Don’t tell me that the problem of the policy is that you have to accept vouchers, because you have to accept vouchers today.  

Q: Are there other ways that the BHA and the private sector can work together, like on additional, redevelopments of public housing projects that add density with mixed-income units?
A: [As a community] we’re recognizing that here is no substitute for this critical resource. You’ve got to have safe, decent, affordable housing for people, including in the worst periods of their life, like when they lose a job or they get sick. And the amazing thing about federally substitute subsidized housing is that your rent share is proportionate to your income share. And so, when you have a difficult life event, it doesn’t create a cascading effect where you lose your housing, right?  

Where we’re going next is not just trying to preserve as much as we can, which is where we had to be in the early 2000s to, “don’t lose a unit,” which is kind of where we were last decade to, “we need to add.” Does that take resources? Yes. Are we going to be chasing resources at the federal and state and local level? Yes. And are cross-subsidies from market-rate housing still a piece of that puzzle? Absolutely. But I think it’s also about making it a public commission to just extend the amount of affordable housing we have. 

Five Books That Shaped Bok’s Views on Public Housing 

  1. “From the Puritans to the Projects,” by Lawrence Vale 
  2. “High-Risers,” by Ben Austen 
  3. “Chain of Change,” by Mel King 
  4. “The Just City,” by Susan Fainstein 
  5. “A Theory of Justice,” by John Rawls 

A Vision for the Future of Public Housing

by James Sanna time to read: 5 min