City council race: Kenzie Bok running for reelection in District 8

Ollie Steinberg and Ha Ta

Incumbent City Councilor Kenzie Bok is running unopposed for the city councilor seat of District 8, which include Mission Hill, Longwood, Audubon Circle, Fenway, Kenmore, Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and the West End.

A lifelong resident of Bay Village, Bok was elected to represent District 8 in 2019 and her priorities have been increasing affordable housing, improving transportation infrastructure to ensure people’s safety, tackling climate change, and historic preservation.

Before joining the council, she helped lead the campaign in 2016 to enact the Community Preservation Act in Boston, a community-wide endeavor funded by a 1% property tax-based surcharge on residential and business property tax bills and is used to improve historic preservation, affordable housing, open space and public recreation in Boston neighborhoods.

The Scope spoke with Bok to discuss her campaign’s top issues and her plans to address them if re-elected. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What has your experience living and working in Boston been like?

Boston City Councilor Kenzie Bok at a park in Mission Hill.
Boston City Councilor Kenzie Bok at a park in Mission Hill. (Photo: Delaney Murray)

I grew up in the city and one of the things I was really lucky to grow up with was a lot of stories about how every part of the city has come to be. I grew up hearing a lot about, you know, this is how this park was created, and this is how this affordable housing happened, then this historic building was almost knocked down, but then it was saved. 

So [I] grew up with a very strong sense that people make the city and it doesn’t happen by accident and if you want to have an inclusive city with great public goods and people from all walks of life [to be] able to live there, you’ve got to be making the collective land use and public investment decisions every day. That’s a story that’s been crafted by both the city government and civic participants and all the neighborhoods.  

I think I was lucky to grow up within Bay Village, the city’s smallest neighborhood. Then a few years ago, I really found myself looking around and noticing how who got to live in the city was changing and started worrying a lot about losing this window of opportunity to make sure that we did have a Boston for all and not wanting the city to turn into a silent playground with people who have already won life lotteries. That was really what pushed me into the Community Preservation Act campaign in 2016, then working on public housing and then eventually into running [for office]. 

What are the most important policy issues on your platform? 

I think we have to improve every public service in the city, but housing affordability is about who those public services are for, who gets to be included in our “we” in Boston. That’s critical to me, doing that at every level. It is an unfortunate tendency to argue over which segment of the population is the most critical to provide housing for when obviously we need to provide both very low income housing and middle income housing, and we need affordable homeownership, and we also need affordable rental opportunities. 

I’m like, how do we have an abundance of housing choices for people and how do we keep the people who often have really forged our community in the city and welcome new folks. So that’s the number one thing.

I care a lot about public goods in general. I think about the public libraries that we really treasure, the parks, I have amazing parks in my district. And they’ve been such a balm for people during COVID and, and I think they really stand for a testament of what we can do for the common good together, like having a public garden in the Commons is, in my opinion, way better than everyone having a little postage stamp of private land, right?

There’s this like collective greater thing that you’re able to create together. The current moment of climate crisis calls on us to kind of take that sense of stewardship about our parks and green space and really expand it because suddenly it’s like, ‘Oh, we need open space…and natural barriers for flood mitigation and stormwater management and to prevent the urban heat island effect, right? 

There’s all these kinds of very practical, critical aspects of dealing with the climate crisis but also become a piece of that green infrastructure stuff. So, I’ve been pushing really hard to get the city to invest more in green infrastructure and do it more creatively and figure out ways to hire more local people into those careers.

That’s been a big focus. So affordable housing, tackling climate change, and historic preservation. I’m a historian by training. I got my PhD in history and Boston’s a really historical city and I think we treasure what we have saved. We can do more to save and reuse more of our historic buildings and landmarks creatively.

And I’m especially interested in how, as we kind of run towards America’s 250th and the city’s 400th anniversary, but they’re 2026, 2030 so it’s like a little ways away, but it’s coming fast. Like how do we use that moment to really celebrate Boston’s immigrant history, its Black history, its native American history. We’re really telling a full story. 

What major goals and policies have you set for your next term? 

I think, expanding on a bunch of, our work on housing. I put out this idea of a Boston reaching back towards the Faircloth limit [Faircloth refers to a limit on the number of public housing units a PHA can own, assist, or operate], which means creating more public housing. 

I think there’s a real opportunity with housing being creative infrastructure on the federal government’s bill. That’s up for debate right now that we could really be in a position to think pretty creatively about social housing for all income levels, putting housing on public land, you know, mixing it into every neighborhood in the city. That’s something where I’ve started to sketch out the vision and the plan and I think we can really put that into practice in the coming couple of years. And I was very proud to work with councilor [Lydia] Edwards on really furthering the Fair Housing zoning amendments. That really, I think, shifts the way we do development into thinking more about inclusive integrated communities.

I think there’s a lot of, a lot of exciting work to do putting that into practice. [In terms of] climate, I’m really pushing for a Conservation Corps that would really create a new workforce development path for young people in Boston and get a lot of our Black and brown youth involved in like the job opportunities that come from the huge quantity of climate related capital work we need to do and accelerate our progress towards that.

That’s pretty important to me. There’s also a whole set of really critical pedestrian and vehicle goals for me. I’m a pedestrian. That’s how I get around the city. I walk or ride the T, occasionally I bike. I don’t have a car. And so things like improving our signalization so that pedestrians have longer to get across the street and working with the city to run a pilot on snow sidewalk clearance for the arteries so that it’s easier for folks with accessibility challenges and mobility challenges to get around in the winter, after a big storm or fixing sidewalks. There’s just a bunch of pedestrian experience of the city level stuff that I’m also working on.

What have you achieved during your last term that you think benefits your constituents the most?

I think speaking up for that pedestrian experience and speaking up for the parks. We’ve been able to do a lot of advocacy for investment in our green spaces and investment in how pedestrians and bicycles get around the city.

I think the housing [issue] is huge. 

And to be honest…The truth is that my number one focus over my term ended up being, combating the pandemic, right? In the early months of the pandemic, we organized a huge food drop operation and my office got 3,000 boxes out to folks and in the process really helped the city think about how to do food access more systematically. And so doubling their operating budgets has been a kind of permanent thing that we’ve achieved in that process and just meeting a lot of food needs that was going on before [the pandemic] in Mission Hill and Fenway, parts of my District.

We also, you know, we ran a whole volunteer network [who made] 3,000 calls to help our seniors feel like they were not alone in that moment of crisis. I’m hoping to get involved to try and get people housed in an emergency context because we’ve got all these families who didn’t have housing or shelter and that was inadequate. So we get people matched up with housing opportunities. And now as we come out of the pandemic, it’s a lot about how do we — as we take care of our main streets — trying to try to make sure that we keep a good environment for independent businesses and restaurants, and that we don’t in this moment lose our main streets to lots of capital chains. The stuff we’re working on now is a little bit of a fusion of things done and things we’re doing.

And then there’s been some concrete wins. I would say the Mission Hill community, collectively organized and prevented the MBTA from cutting the Heath Street line off at Brigham Circle. We saved a bunch of transit access. We also just got word last week that our protests to get the MBTA to bring back the 55 bus in Fenway has been successful.

Both of those were frustrating and they’re big victories, but they’re battles that I shouldn’t have had to fight for transit access for my community. But we have fought them and won them. So that’s been important. 

What do you like about District 8 and what do you want to continue to work on? 

Well, I love the fact that it is so walkable. I love the fact that I took the Green Line out and the Orange Line back when I went out to dine outside in Mission Hill yesterday.

And I love the built environment of our districts, the combination of greenery and buildings and historic buildings. I think it’s great. And I think it’s really important. I represent a lot of neighborhoods [that] people on the outside think of as ‘Oh, that’s like a commercial district,’ because again, there’s so many jobs in them with the hospitals and the universities and everything. 

But actually, these are very proud, resilient, residential communities, with just thousands of people living pretty densely together, spending a ton of time making the city a good place to live. So I love that and I’m very proud of those folks and I love it. 

And I love the sense, I think this is a district that literally helped give the world the vaccine and that feels like if there’s a challenge like we’re up to the challenge, and we really do have resources that we can marshall.

I think the thing to work on is kind of what I alluded to earlier. It’s marshaling [resources] more for the benefits of all, right. It’s ‘How do we have housing that’s affordable in every neighborhood? How do we make jobs in one part of the city accessible to residents who grow up in another? How do you bring together different worlds? How do you further fair housing zoning ordinance? How do you undo some of the dynamics of decades and decades of housing segregation?

I guess the way I feel about both the inequality crisis and the climate crisis and recovery from COVID is we can’t do any of these things in sequence because we don’t have time to wait on any of them.

We have to do all of them together. That’s a big part of the reason why the Conservation Corps idea is so critical for me as a way to do equitable recovery work and climate work at the same time. 

Is there anything else you’d want to share that I didn’t ask you about?

I can tell you in my district all day. I think we’re in a really hard moment for the city when it comes to just the number of people who’ve been hurt by this pandemic and the people we’ve lost in the pandemic, the amount of grieving that we haven’t done yet, the divides that have deepened, all those things. 

It’s been a hard season and I definitely felt that but I also think ‘We’re in this moment, with an open mayor race and having a really serious, steady conversation about where we want to go as a city and how, how Boston really can lead the way in this moment on a bunch of fronts.’

I’m excited to be part of that conversation, not as a candidate for mayor, but as I stand in it for reelection for city council to be a partner with whatever mayoral administration comes in. And I think it’s a good chance for us to put the big picture, important things on the political agenda.

So that’s sort of what I’m hoping for in the next six months, that there’s that opportunity. 

I guess I probably should have mentioned the one other thing in the context of the really big challenges we’re grappling with, the schools and thinking about how our students have experienced the past year, how do we use the federal money to really wrap around our students and build them up is going to be a big, a big theme of the upcoming month.


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