When she was sworn in as the District 8 City Councilor on Jan. 6 of last year, Kenzie Bok never could have anticipated the unprecedented trials ahead during her first year in public office.
“I came in thinking that I would be very focused on affordable housing,” said Bok, who prior to becoming the youngest serving member of the Boston City Council at age 30, worked as the Boston Housing Authority’s Senior Advisor for Policy and Planning, “because that’s what really drove me into running in the first place.”
In her first month on the job, Councilor Bok began “laying the policy groundwork for housing-related initiatives we’d end up launching later in the year,” she said, which included one proposal to build new public housing in the city and another to enhancing Boston’s commitment to cooperative hosing.
“Cooperative housing is something that stabilizes a lot of folks in the district and anchors a lot of our neighborhoods,” she said.
But when COVID-19 took hold of Boston during Councilor Bok’s third month, the city was faced with an unprecedented and unforeseen public-health crisis.
“When the pandemic hit, in some ways, it shifted everything,” Councilor Bok said. “In other ways, especially with housing, it deepened the needs of what was already there.”
In the spring, Councilor Bok and her colleagues found emergency housing for the homeless and raised the need for public housing vouchers for families while the threat of eviction for families loomed as they struggled to pay the rent.
“We became focused on cooperative housing as part of the solution,” she said, “along with buying apartments that were going into foreclosure [to house residents].”
When asked what accomplishment regarding housing she’s most proud during her first year in office, Councilor Bok doesn’t hesitate in her reply: the city’s “Fair Housing Zoning Amendment.”
“It has really been a partnership with Councilor [Lydia] Edwards and the Mayor’s Administration to make Boston the first city in the country to embed a commitment to fair housing in our zoning code and in our development process,” said Councilor Bok, adding that the policy experience she brings to the job was useful in drafting language for this.
The amendment, which passed last month, is scheduled to become law next week via the city’s Zoning Commission.
“What’s so exciting is that it’s a really important tool for the city, but zoning has historically been used across Boston and nationwide at times for the purpose of segregation and racial discrimination in housing,” Councilor Bok said. “So it’s extremely powerful to reverse that dynamic and use zoning proactively to bring about a more inclusive city.”
Moreover, she added: “We’re the first in the country. We’ve come up with a really original mechanism for making sure as we grow as a city, and that we grow inclusively and take active steps to make sure every project is a part of building a Boston for all.”
Helping residents of her district as they have struggled with food insecurity over the last year also topped Councilor Bok’s first-year priorities.
“It was immediately clear that we were hit by a tsunami of need when it came to food in the city,” she said, “and I’m proud to have partnered with the city departments to imagine what we could do at a larger scale of magnitude to really transform assistance from providing one-off food needs…to delivering thousands of boxes of meals to our most vulnerable population.”
And it all started with a pilot program in the Fenway, Councilor Bok said, “with a bunch of partners to show it could be done.”
In the new year, Councilor Bok will be working with Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s Administration to get a commitment to undertake an evaluation of the city’s Payment of Lieu of Tax (PILOT) program for major universities, hospitals and cultural institutions because, she said, their real estate assessments haven’t been updated since 2009.
“It’s an important part of the equity puzzle when you think about how real-estate tax rates have gone up for the rest of the city,” Councilor Bok said. “And also, we have an acute need for resources as we come back from the pandemic and to tackle serious inequality in our city that has only deepened because of COVID.”
In this budget year, Councilor Bok also worked tirelessly to secure $8 million for a first-time homebuyers program that, she said, has already helped a lot of families in its first three month, 80 percent of whom were people of color.
Councilor Bok said she looks forward in 2021 to “accelerating” the work she started last year. “A lot of initiatives have real traction and will give me plenty more to do in the year to come,” she added.
These initiatives range from forming an Urban Climate Conservation Corps to requiring greater police accountability, and Councilor Bok has also proposed the creation of the Boston Sestercentennial Commission to provide a wider and more equitable lens on history in planning for the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution in 2026 while encouraging the city to take a closer look at the “tools” it now has to ensure historic preservation.
“I’m really leading a major push on historic preservation on the commemoration front,” she said.
Councilor Bok, whose office launched an impromptu youth job program over the summer and advocated for 1,000 year-round youth jobs this school year, also remains committed to creating more youth employment opportunities in the city.
“Youth employment is something that’s going to be important as young people recover from the current crisis, she said, “and that’s one thing I’m going to push for in the current year.”
Councilor Bok began her service in public office during what has undeniably one of the most tumultuous years in Boston’s history, but through her resolve and unwavering commitment to her city, she rose to the occasion and now looks forward to tackling the challenges ahead.
“It’s been a challenging year to be a first-year councilor, but I’ve also loved getting up every day and thinking about how to help people in our district in this time,” she said. “It has given me a really strong sense of purpose through this crisis, and I’ve felt very humbled by the trust that the people of District 8 have put in me.”