Councilor Kenzie Bok called for a hearing to increase public housing in Boston at yesterday’s City Council meeting.
“COVID-19 HAS shown us how desperately we needed to provide housing for all and how urgently we need to increase these housing opportunities for all low-income populations,” Councilor Bok told this reporter prior to the City Council meeting.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced an amendment that passed the U.S. House earlier this month and would repeal the Faircloth Amendment to the Housing Act of 1937, which mandated that the number of public housing units that receive federal subsidies through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) must not exceed the levels of Oct. 1, 1999.
But Councilor Bok said Boston need not wait for Washington to decide on this matter, however, since the number of public housing units subsidized by HUD in Boston is now 9,622, down significantly from 12,086 units in 1999.
“That actually gives us untapped federal resource,” Councilor Bok said, adding that the city could build, buy, or certify up to 2,464 more public housing units, which would each immediately be eligible to receive federal subsidies. “If Boston adds public housing units, we can immediately start finding federal subsidies for them.”
The city could also tap available funds from another federal program, Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), Bok said, to make these units financially sustainable.
This deficit in Boston’s public housing stock can largely be traced back to the 2000s, she said, when the nationwide trend was to build fewer, larger townhouse units “as a way to make public housing nicer, but that also meant that we ended up with fewer public housing units.”
Councilor Bok, who pointed to the Mission Main apartments in Mission Hill, which the Boston Housing Authority built in 2003, as an example of this former trend, but said the BHA is now committed to “one-to-one replacement” of its public housing stock.
“If the BHA does redevelopment projects today, they make sure the same number of units are built on the other side,” Councilor Bok said. “What I’m saying now is that we actually need to add back newer public housing units because it’s one of the best ways we have to house low-income families, as well as seniors and folks with disabilities, in the City of Boston.”
Moreover, Councilor Bok added: “One thing we need to look at urgently is how to find long-term deeply affordable units, and I would love to see any new housing spread widely across city to create units in all parts of the city where low-income and people of color are largely underrepresented.”
This initiative comes at a time when the BHA’s waitlist for housing tops 50,000 families, Councilor Bok said, and it also presents a unique opportunity to build new public housing units on city-owned property.
To finance the construction of these new public housing units, Councilor Bok points to the proposed real estate transfer fee for Boston (H.4514), and a bill allowing the city to adjust its linkage rate (H.4115), both of which are now awaiting a vote at the State House,.
For Councilor Bok, this issue is particularly close to her heart since before serving on the City Council, she helped lead the successful Community Preservation Act campaign in 2016, which secured more funds for affordable housing, before joining the board of Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance (MAHA). She also previously served as the BHA’s senior advisor for policy and planning.
“This is a chance for me to put my housing policy expertise to the service of the city and help address the really urgent need to find political solutions to housing people,” Councilor Bok said.