Bill McGonagle, Boston Housing Authority

7 min read

His Door’s Always Open 

William “Bill” McGonagle literally has spent nearly his entire life involved with public and affordable housing. The esteemed administrator of the Boston Housing Authority was born and raised with his five brothers and sisters in a small apartment in the Mary Ellen McCormack public housing development in South Boston, and every job he has held has, in some form, been devoted to that demographic of people.

“I came from a large, Irish-Catholic, working-class family, and my memories of growing up in the McCormack development are very fond,“ he says. “It was a wonderful community that provided decent, safe housing for poor and working families. And I want to see that this continues.”

The Boston Housing Authority last year selected WinnDevelopment to renovate McCormack, which was the first, and one of the largest, public housing developments in New England.

“Bill is a lifelong civil servant who has dedicated his professional life to the betterment of public housing residents in Boston,” states NH&RA Executive Director Thom Amdur. “Throughout his career, he has been directly involved in some of the most impactful and transformational initiatives at the BHA, including the integration of public housing developments in the 1980s, and later the revitalization of numerous BHA communities through HOPE VI and Choice Neighborhoods Initiatives.”

On one level, Bill’s dedication was a product of the times. “I was a teenager in the 1960s, and many of my political notions were shaped by the activism and the Civil Rights movement. That was also the time of the Boston tenant movement and the struggle for social and economic justice.”

He was also influenced by his close friend and mentor —and eventual brother-in-law—John Patrick Connolly, a social activist from an early age who formed the first tenant task force and became the first tenant appointed to the Boston Housing Authority Board of Commissioners.

“I started attending meetings and caught the bug and commitment for advocacy and service from John,” Bill says.

After a Catholic school primary education at St. Brigid’s grammar school and Gate of Heaven High, Bill enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, graduating with a degree in political science. His first job after college was as youth program director for the YMCA in Brighton. “I noticed that few of the public housing youth were accessing our facilities, so I started an outreach at several of the developments to get them involved with day camps, basketball leagues, swimming and arts.”

His next job was as a youth worker for the South Boston Boys and Girls Club, where his caseload was predominantly teenage boys from the D Street housing project, now known as West Broadway. His first position at BHA was as a public safety inspector, where he confronted violence and drug abuse. He has been at BHA ever since, including stints as development manager, area director, overseeing the management of the BHA’s 37 elderly/disabled public housing developments throughout Boston, and executive assistant to a previous highly accomplished administrator, Doris Bunte. He became deputy administrator in 1991. He was appointed administrator by Mayor Thomas Menino on June 11, 2009, and now serves under Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “I’ve known Bill for 50 years,” says Doris, who also served as a state representative who was honored this year by having the Walnut Park housing complex in Roxbury renamed for her. “He’s a man who puts his money where his mouth is.”

Doris and Bill worked together in the heroic effort to integrate public housing in South Boston and Charlestown. “I’ll tell you, it wasn’t simple,” she recalls. Integration anywhere is difficult, at best, and it was particularly difficult here in Boston. One thing you find when you go down that road is you hear a lot of myths and untruths. It was a long, hard road, and we met with everyone. But it has been successful. And now, more than ever in these times, I’m so happy we undertook that effort.”

“I’ve known Bill for about four years,” says Tiara Murphy, president of the Charlestown Resident Alliance at the Bunker Hill development. “He’s a great guy, amazing. He cares about everyone’s living situation. Whether it’s mice, not having hot water, enough food on the table, whatever it is, he cares. He has an open-door policy. He’s like a father figure, always there to talk.”

“I do have an open-door policy,” Bill confirms. I am extremely accessible. Most tenants have my cell phone number, so they can get me 24/7. I have developed deeply personal relationships, and in many cases, they are my close friends. I have been to their weddings, their baptisms, and unfortunately, their funerals. I have tried not to get incapacitated in a bubble in my 11th floor office. It’s too easy to lose sight of the personal struggles our residents go through, so I relish the opportunity to get out into the developments.”

“He has a lot of great stories of things he’s experienced over the years,” says Lydia Agro, BHA’s chief of staff. “He’s a lot of fun to work with. He’s very close to residents and we, as part of his team, try to do the same.”

“My mantra to my staff in the context of looking at any issue, policy or management decision, is to ask, ‘How will this impact the residents we serve?’” Bill explains. “We make no decision until we have seriously weighed that. And if it is not in their best interest, we don’t do it.”

Massachusetts has perhaps the most progressive affordable housing policy in the nation, but also one of the greatest needs. Like San Francisco, New York and other major metropolitan areas, Boston real estate has become increasingly expensive and out of reach for a sizeable percentage of the citizenry. BHA and its associated organizations and stakeholders fight a constant battle to keep up with the affordable housing requirement.

“Two things don’t solve the problem but help mitigate it,” Bill states. Despite serious cuts in aid from the federal government in recent years, we maintain 98 percent occupancy. I consider this an extraordinary accomplishment. We utilize all Section 8 certificates and we’re leaving nothing on the table. And when we approach our redevelopment efforts—and there are several going on at this moment—we insist on a one-to-one replacement and strive for a wise, appropriate use of our resources.

Having said that, we still have 42,000 families on the waiting list.”

“He even cares about people on the wait list,” says Tiara. “He is constantly interacting with residents; he doesn’t steer anyone away.”

“I am familiar with state law and federal law, and I don’t know anyone who has dared to make a one-to-one commitment,” Doris Bunte declares.

Bill and his wife Ellen have been married for 46 years, having met when he was 17. “We have three wonderful children – Matthew, Mark and Alyson, and I am the very proud papa of five grandchildren: Maggie Claire, ten; Andrew, eight; Lucy May, five; Evelyn, three; and Calvin, three months.”

He has been honored for leadership and public service by the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants and the South Boston Citizens Association.

“I think it’s extremely important to maintain direct contact with the community. I don’t know how you can do your job without those interpersonal connections, and I have thrived on that for decades.”

“If there is a problem, he addresses it,” Tiara notes. “All of his efforts are for the preservation of low-income housing. He has a heart, and that’s why he’s been so successful.”

“I can’t think of anyone more deserving of [the Vision Award] than Bill,” says Doris. “He’s my hero.”