Doris Bunte: Hub's housing director knows territory from the ground up

Once a public housing tenant herself, former state Rep. Doris Bunte left a secure seat in the Massachusetts Legislature to take over one of the two or three toughest jobs in Boston as director of the city's housing authority. With no illusions, but clear goals, Mrs. Bunte simply says, ``I love this job.'' Doris Bunte was once a tenant in a public housing project here. Now she is Boston's public housing landlord.

``I love this job,'' says the director of the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), ``but I don't enjoy being the biggest slumlord in the commonwealth.''

Her agency provides homes for 59,000 tenants, 10 percent of the city's population. Mrs. Bunte, on the job for only three months, has set definite goals for her first year.

``My first duty,'' she says, ``will be to create good relations between the authority and the residents.''

After serving 12 years in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and being reelected last November for a seventh two-year term, Bunte gave up her House seat in January, when Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn asked her to become BHA director.

Her additional priorities:

Rehabilitate all vacant public housing units to meet state building-code and sanitary regulations. ``We have a waiting list of 9,000. We have 2,000-plus empty units. That's intolerable. We're going to redo the vacancies, and get rid of code violations.''

Provide housing to people regardless of race, color, or creed in compliance with the federal Fair Housing Law.

Encourage public housing residents to exercise their rights -- to vote, to get an education, to receive public services.

Bunte earned her job through practical experience.

``Hey!'' she says, ``I've been that route. I came to Boston -- a black woman with no money, no job, and no place to stay.''

In 1953 she and her three children arrived here and moved into the Orchard Park public housing project in Roxbury, near Dudley Station. She was a native New Yorker whose mother reared six children alone while participating in New York City politics as a New Deal supporter at the ward level.

Following that example of community and political involvement, Bunte blossomed in two decades into an influential Bostonian.

Bunte is taking over local public housing at a crucial period for subsidized housing. The city's 17,778 housing units (13,843 federal and 3,935 state) have been returned to local control after five years under receivership order by state Superior Court Judge Paul Garrity.

The BHA runs 13,217 family and 4,150 elderly units, 1,216 managed by a tenant management corporation, 592 run by private management, and 247 for the handicapped. The BHA is authorized to lease up to 5,500 rental-assistance units.

The cards ``are stacked'' against the public housing resident, says Bunte. Local tenants don't vote, so politicians cut them short of public services, she says. ``Politicians listen to voters,'' she insists. ``There's no glamor in the public housing cause. I'm encouraging every BHA tenant to register and vote.''

Nationally, she says, the mood is ``cut, cut, cut'' public housing budgets. ``Society feels that being poor is a flaw in character.'' Income limits for BHA tenants are $12,180 for a family of one to $21,750 for a family of eight.

Two major local projects will affect the BHA -- the Columbia Point development, which cuts the number of BHA low-income units from 1,504 to 400, giving control of all other units to a private developer; and a proposed $750 million Roxbury renovation, which may include the selling of a number of federally subsidized units to private or nonprofit interests.

Bunte says her 31 years in Roxbury have prepared her for the BHA and its problems. She has been married and divorced; she has reared her children and is now a grandmother; she has worked in factories; she has moved out of public housing into her own home.

She has stormed through several political battlegrounds to achieve her present position. This saga began in 1969, when she became the first public housing tenant appointed (by Mayor Kevin H. White) to the BHA board. In 1971 the mayor dismissed her from the board, and the Boston City Council upheld the dismissal in a 5-4 vote. But in 1972 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reinstated her on the BHA.

``You beat City Hall,'' people told her as they urged her to run for the state Legislature. She did, and in November 1972 won the first of seven straight elections.

Bunte says she began her role as an activist by going back to school. ``I didn't have an education. I dropped out of high school in New York. So it was back to learning for me.'' She also wanted an education because race relations were not harmonious in Boston, Bunte says. ``We are kept very separate, but not very equal,'' she says. ``If I can survive as a person of color in Boston, I can make it anywhere.''

Bunte worked during the day and studied at night to earn her GED (high school equivalency) diploma. ``I'll never forget that piece of paper,'' she says. ``I received it April 4, 1968, the night Dr. [Martin Luther] King was slain, just three months before my oldest child, Yvette, finished high school.''

Next stop: college. ``I was 45 years old when I decided I needed a degree,'' Bunte reminisces. ``My children told me, `Go for it!' ''

She did, and now she has bachelor's and master's degrees from Harvard University. She is enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Bunte says she has three personal goals -- to make public housing really work in Boston, to teach at a college, and to earn her Ph.D. degree.

Calling herself ``the eternal optimist,'' she says she expects support of the BHA from Mayor Flynn and Police Commissioner Francis Roache. ``They've been wonderful to me,'' she says. ``They understand that public housing needs their services.''

Racial harmony is improving in Boston, Bunte says, adding: ``Many good people are working together, and I believe the whole city will be accessible to all its citizens.''

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