William McGonagle may remember growing up in a very different Boston at a time where he was surrounded by a more homogenous group of people in a public housing development over in South Boston.
McGonagle, an Irish-American man, was raised with other Irish Catholics in the Mary Ellen McCormack – a development that he would help integrate in the late 80s, early 90s.
McGonagle, who goes by Bill, oversaw the integration of Boston’s public housing, housing that he said reflected the segregation in the city.
He’s spent the past 40 years working for the Boston Housing Authority and retired as administrator this past July.
He reflected on his decades with the BHA in an interview with Spare Change News and spoke to the divisions that existed in a city that still struggles with racism and income inequality.
“The racial and ethnic makeup of public housing communities back in those days reflected to a great deal the racial and ethnic makeup of the surrounding communities that they were in … so McCormack was not unique in that regard,” McGonagle said. “Mary Ellen McCormack today I can safely say is one of the most diverse Census tracts, certainly in the city. And I would venture to guess it’s one of the most diverse Census tracts in the country.”
McGonagle, who began his long career at the BHA as a janitor and groundskeeper, said he has “very fond memories” of growing up in public housing.
The McGonagle family, he said, lived paycheck to paycheck but was not “poverty-stricken.”
Mom stayed at home and dad drove a bus.
“Most of our neighbors at the time were public servants of some kind – firefighters and mailmen [and] bus drivers – and there was a significant population even then of single moms,” McGonagle said. “Some of my best friends growing up in those days were from single-parent families where I would certainly categorize them as poor; struggling literally day to day to make ends meet.”
During McGonagle’s time living in public housing the BHA did not have a good reputation. Conditions were bad and the agency ended up in court-ordered receivership for terrible management.
McGonagle became involved in a tenant organization at that time to organize against the agency he would later lead.
“There were 4,000 vacant units in the years prior, right before the court put [the BHA] into a receivership,” McGonagle said.
Those units, McGonagle said, “were vacant because they were in such terrible condition and given the need for affordable housing I think is a pretty telling statistic about mismanagement at the time.”
The BHA’s occupancy rate for fiscal year 2018 was 98 percent, according to McGonagle. He said the tenant organizing now is vastly different from what it was when he got involved.
“Although much remains to be done, the tenants are not organizing against the BHA anymore or against the conditions necessarily,” McGonagle said. “The organizing is now more around maintaining, sustaining [and] keeping the affordable units we have.”
McGonagle would know because he said he’s on a first name basis with tenant organizers across the city.
The 67-year-old man said most of his beef is with the federal government’s lack of funding for affordable housing and most of the tenants would agree. After all, over 80 percent of federal funding is what keeps his agency going.
“Quite frankly I think the city is producing a significant amount of affordable units, it’s hard to keep pace,” McGonagle said. “One of the things that I think is critically important is that we need to get the federal government back into the development of and the building of affordable housing.”
McGonagle listed off several housing developments that have gotten a significant amount of money from the Walsh administration for redevelopment – one of those being the Bunker Hill housing development that is set to be “the largest public housing development in the nation” when it breaks ground next year, according to McGonagle.
He even praised the Baker administration for coming up with solutions – in particular a bill proposed by the governor earlier in the year that would ease zoning restrictions to build more affordable units, particularly by public transit.
McGonagle said this year’s budget was not something he’d “hold a ticket-day parade for and celebrate“ but what was proposed by the Trump administration, in particular by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, would have been worse than the cut his agency saw during the budget sequestration of 2013.
During that time the BHA laid off over 100 employees and almost terminated some families from its Section 8 housing voucher program to stay afloat.
McGonagle described those days as his toughest.
“There were two or three-year periods where from an operating perspective we were spending down our emergency rainy day fund to fund day-to-day operations … they were extremely challenging times and we were literally worrying day to day whether we were going to be able to keep this place a float,” McGonagle said.
Asked if the BHA should fear another sequestration or budget cut, McGonagle said we live in strange, uncertain “and to some degree scary times right now” from the national political perspective. And this is coming from a man who had his BHA vehicle shot at when the agency began to integrate.
His wife and kids were at the breakfast table that morning and he was upstairs shaving at the time.
“The same morning that I was quoted in The Boston Globe about a racial incident that had happened at the Bunker Hill housing development in Charlestown … I think it would be accurate to say it was a little disconcerting,” McGonagle said. “Whoever was responsible was never brought to justice.”
McGonagle stayed on the job and kept the BHA informed about every family of color that moved into predominantly white housing developments. Often, he was walking in those neighborhoods and reporting back to the mayor’s office while plain clothes officers monitored and investigated civil rights violations.
“It was a very hands-on, out-in-the-neighborhood approach for the first five or six years,” McGonagle said. “Meeting with the tenant organizations and just staying in close touch with what the vibe was if you will on the ground.”
He stresses that the real heroes are those first families of color and individuals that moved in to desegregate developments, including Bessie Payne and Liz Clinkscales.
“They were certainly some very difficult times in the early years but I say with every confidence that those communities are extraordinarily diverse and the folks of various ethnic and racial backgrounds are living in relative peace and harmony in those communities now,” McGonagle said. “That’s certainly something that all of us, the entire city of Boston should be proud of.”
On June 26, McGonagle was replaced by his second in command, BHA Senior Deputy Administrator Kate Bennett, an MIT Grad who has been with the agency for 21 years.
As for McGonagle, he hopes that he can continue to work with people in need, specifically those who are in recovery.
“I’m hoping that I have many good years left of service to this community,” McGonagle said