Boston Housing Authority (BHA) Administrator Bill McGonagle announced this week he will retire – or in his terms, ‘transition’ – from his long-time post at the BHA, and he will do so with absolute confidence that the redevelopment efforts of properties like the Mildred Hailey Apartments in JP will move forward without him at the helm.
“I’m not using the word retirement,” he joked on Tuesday, after announcing on Monday his departure from the agency after 40 years.
He noted he still has a ceramic lamp in his living room given to him years ago by the Senior Citizens ceramics class from one of the elderly developments in the city. That lamp was something that symbolized his time at the BHA more than anything, as a man who grew up in South Boston public housing developments and shared a unique bond – rather than the animosity some directors have – with residents in Jamaica Plain and all over Boston.
“That’s one thing I am particularly proud of in my career,” he said. “Having grown up in public housing, I think that has given me a unique perspective and allowed me to develop personal relationships with our residents. I have the capacity to empathize, not sympathize, with the…challenges they’re going through…I’m on a first-name basis with our resident leadership and residents all over the city.”
McGonagle will retire on July 26, but it won’t be an end to his career.
After having worked a time as a janitor/groundskeeper at the BHA in the early 1970s, he pursued a degree at UMass Boston and worked with teenagers in Brighton and South Boston. Now, he said, he wants to return to that in a way, spending his time working with young people in recovery.
“Before I was at the housing authority, my first professional job was youth work,” he said. “I’m planning on doing some work in the recovery community, probably with young people, so I’m going to be busy.”
However, with the news of McGonagle leaving the agency – after truly spearheading the effort over the last few years to bring in the Mildred Hailey redevelopment project – many are left wondering if a void in leadership will mean a delay in the project.
He said he had no doubt the project would continue with Centre Street Partners, and he also said if there were any doubts, he would have delayed his retirement.
In fact, he said one of the hallmarks of his 10-year tenure as administrator was forging ahead on public-private partnerships like at the Hailey apartments, where new mixed-income communities are created alongside brand new public housing units.
“It has been a way to preserve these public housing units without the significant federal help we used to get,” he said. “One huge advantage we have in Boston that many other cities do not have is much of our older subsidized federal public housing sits on valuable real estate. That includes Bunker Hill in Charlestown, my old home at Mary Ellen McCormack (in South Boston), and our newest project which is the Mildred Hailey in JP.”
The redevelopment process of the Hailey apartments involves a one-to-one replacement of 232 existing public housing units that will maintain their affordability, a new Anna Mae Cole Center for the community, and construction of approximately 393 additional market-rate housing units to help support the preservation and revitalization of the existing affordable housing.
It is a long-term project that requires years of community outreach, planning, and city permitting. The BHA and the development team hope to break ground in 2021, and complete the first phase of the project in 2022.
McGonagle, 67, said he began his work at the Housing Authority in the 1980s when he responded to a help wanted ad in the Boston Globe. At the time, the BHA was under court-ordered receivership, and they had a position for an investigator.
After doing that for a year, he and five others were accepted into a leadership management training internship – which required classes at Boston University, as well as extensive work in the field.
That was followed up by assistant manager and manger positions for the Old Colony Housing Development in South Boston, and then the area director of elderly housing.
That was followed up by a very challenging assignment as executive assistant to former Director Doris Bunte. While the job title might not reflect it, the position was all about racially integrating public housing in Charlestown and South Boston. That effort was quite dangerous, and there were threats and violent vandalism that transpired against him, and also against the residents he was trying to integrate.
His work in that position earned him a promotion in 1993 to deputy administrator, where he served for 17 years before being appointed by late Mayor Tom Menino to administrator in 2009. He was re-appointed by Mayor Martin Walsh as well.
“When I got here decades ago during receivership, public housing in the city was in horrendous condition,” he said. “We had 4,000 vacant units throughout the city. Rows and rows of abandoned – not even boarded up buildings. Some in those days said public housing was described as free fire zones where no rules applied…It was a team effort to turn that around, an extraordinary team. But this agency has come a long, long way from when I first got here 40 years ago.”
Nowadays, many of the developments have been refurbished, including Mission Main (Mission Hill), Orchard Park (Roxbury), Maverick (East Boston), Franklin Hill (Dorchester), West Broadway (South Boston) and Washington Beech (Roslindale). Additionally, three are in construction, including Orient Heights (East Boston), Old Colony (South Boston), and Whittier Street (Roxbury).
Three are also in the works, including Bunker Hill (Charlestown), Mildred Hailey and Mary Ellen McCormick (South Boston).
There have been no announcements as to his successor, but that appointment will come from Mayor Walsh after July 26.