Bob McKay had no illusions that his work would be easy when he arrived in Boston in 1967, fresh from 15 years as a social justice and housing advocate in the Midwest, to become the first director of the nonprofit Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association.
“Housing is unfortunately not an issue with sex appeal,” he told the Globe that September. “It simply concerns how people live.” He added that “the fact is, substandard housing is increasing constantly. We must combine demolition of worn-out structures with adequate new construction, as well as other programs to get low-income families into decent housing.”
That declaration was a succinct roadmap for the course he followed the next 35 years in Boston and Washington, D.C., as he coordinated efforts locally and nationally to make better housing more available for lower-income families.
Mr. McKay, whose modest, thrifty ways were apparent in everything from the clothes he wore to his weekly visits to Haymarket seeking bargains among the fish and produce vendors, died Jan. 22 in the Chestnut Park at Cleveland Circle senior living community in Brighton of complications from dementia. He was 91 and previously lived for many years in Brookline, Washington, D.C., and Newton.
“Over the course of about 40 years, Bob had a remarkable impact on housing, especially issues of housing equity and housing for the poor at the local level, the regional level, and the national level,” said Harry Spence, a former court-appointed receiver of the Boston Housing Authority who now is court administrator of the Massachusetts Trial Court.
“His impact cut across all three levels and was very substantial in all of those realms,” Spence added. “The breadth of his impact was very, very significant.”
Amy Anthony, who was secretary of communities and development through much of the 1980s during the second administration of Governor Michael S. Dukakis, said Mr.
McKay “was a very understated and kind of deliberately self-effacing man. It’s in that context that I think about the huge impact he had. He really had a very big impact.”
A large part of that, Anthony and others said, came through Mr. McKay’s ability to bring others together to work toward a common goal. “He used his self-effacing nature very effectively,” said Anthony, who also is the founder and former president of the national nonprofit Preservation of Affordable Housing. “It allowed him to support all the surrounding egos that needed to be fed.”
Mr. McKay “had a low-key way of getting things done,” said Dan Wuenschel, former executive director of the Cambridge Housing Authority. “With Bob, it was always about the product and not about Bob. He was a joy to work with.”
Wuenschel added that “another trait was his tirelessness. He had a family of nine children and he probably worked at least a 12-hour day, and was always at it for all the right causes: fair housing, affordable housing, adequate funding for public housing, and services for poor people. I’m, I guess, 13 years younger than Bob and I had a hard time keeping up with him as I got older.”
Robert E. McKay grew up on Chicago’s South Side and was the last surviving sibling among the five children in his family. His father, Edward, was an accountant. His mother, the former Sarah Lamb, died when Mr. McKay was a teenager.
He became involved with Friendship House, which was part of a Catholic social justice missionary movement, not long after it opened in Chicago in the 1940s. “He grew up in the church – Catholic schools, including university,” his son Vince of Newton said in a eulogy during a memorial service. Mr. McKay graduated from DePaul University in Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in economics.
At Friendship House, he met Norma Ketchmark, another activist. They married, had nine children, and moved to Greater Boston before their marriage ended in divorce.
“My family’s commitment to social justice was a way of life, and for my dad, he was able to make it his daily work,” Vince said.
Mr. McKay became a community organizer in Chicago, working for the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Council on Working Life. Moving to Minnesota, he directed community services for a housing authority in St. Paul before moving to Boston.
As the first director of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, he coordinated efforts and cooperation between advocacy organizations and developers, government agencies and bankers, residents and lawyers. Mr. McKay also was a consistent voice arguing against consolidating affordable housing into high-rise buildings that, in an imposing visual sense, labeled all of their residents as low-income.
During his later years with the association, he helped establish and served as the first director of the national Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, eventually moving to Washington, where he lived for about a decade.
In 1989, as many cities began to tear down deteriorating high-rises, Mr. McKay told The New York Times that “the days of dense public housing projects are gone. They are the disasters of the ’50s and ’60s.”
He added that the newer approach of scattering affordable, public housing among smaller buildings and condominium complexes in communities “allows people to live in dignity. People can live like anyone else in society no matter what their income is.”
For several years in the 1990s, while based in Washington, Mr. McKay directed housing and homeless programs for the Child Welfare League of America. In more recent years, he worked as a consultant and with the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare.
“Bob was the most extraordinary node in networks,” Spence said. “He was constantly on the phone, all day and night. Everybody loved talking to him, so he connected endless numbers of people.”
While in Washington, Mr. McKay met Ann Mariano, whom he married in 2006. She died in 2009.
A service has been held for Mr. McKay, who in addition to his son Vince and former wife, Norma, leaves three other sons, Peter of Kenai, Alaska, Robert Jr. of Gloucester, and David of Cambridge; four daughters, Clare Gallup of Medford, Frances of Warren, Vt., Paula of Salisbury, and Catherine of Newburyport; a stepdaughter, Mai Mariano of Columbus, Ohio; a stepson, Tony Mariano of California; and nine grandchildren.
Mr. McKay “was a fidget, constantly in motion,” Vince said in his eulogy, though that activity didn’t often bring him into stores. “I think he only had two suitcoats in his life,” Vince added, and he was known to “show up for meetings wearing two different shoes.”
When it came to work and the people he encountered every day, however, Mr. McKay “always believed there was time, time to do one more thing,” said Vince, who added that “relationships were everything to him – even his weekly visits to Haymarket to buy fish and produce. Yes, he went because he loved a bargain. He was famously frugal. But just as much, he went to visit with the vendors, men he knew through generations.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@