William Onuoha ’16, Executive Director of the City of Boston’s Department of Fair Housing and Equity, oversees efforts to protect and advocate for fair housing and equity on behalf of residents, with special emphasis on Boston’s most vulnerable populations.
Before attending New England Law, you spent several years in the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services. What were your motivations for attending law school?
I was working for Boston Mayor Tom Menino when I started to think about getting a master’s degree. I hadn’t zeroed in on exactly what type of program I wanted, and I asked for his recommendation. He said he would gladly write me a letter of recommendation for law school but in a few years’ time.
I’d never contemplated the potential benefits of a legal education because I had no interest in being a courtroom attorney. Mayor Menino’s remark, however, sparked my curiosity. I began to look more carefully at the work of the attorneys in the mayor’s office and realized that their training applied directly to many activities within city government.
What made New England Law the right choice for you?
When the time came to start applying to law schools, Rilwan Adeduntan ’07 happened to be working in City Hall. At lunch one day, he told me all about the great experiences he’d had at New England Law. I added it to my list of options and started my research. The more I learned about the school in general and Dean John O’Brien in particular, the more I thought, “I want to be like this man someday.”
Meeting and getting to know Dean O’Brien was what ultimately sold me on New England Law. He was so invested in developing our relationship, and I could see how his caring translated to the larger culture of the school. He also convinced me that New England Law was a place where a nontraditional student like myself with a full-time job could excel.
The Academic Excellence Program—really a first-year survival guide for me—and the amazing bar exam prep program are just two examples of how the school combines caring and the pursuit of excellence in the overall student experience. As it turned out, every course I took helped me develop a much more investigative habit of mind. Through it all, faculty and staff members always encouraged—and occasionally pushed—me to greater achievement.
What is at the top of your agenda as Executive Director of the Department of Fair Housing and Equity?
We have several initiatives to end housing discrimination and desegregate the city, from undercover investigations and civil rights prosecutions to affirmative marketing and awareness-raising campaigns that better inform residents about the full range of rental units available in Boston. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and fair housing advocacy organizations such as Citizen’s Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) are key partners in this work.
The pandemic, of course, exposed just how deep systemic inequities run. We’re doing everything we can to raise the alarm that, when it comes to housing, Boston isn’t truly livable for Bostonians. We’re also working with the City Council to expand our toolkit to include additional punitive and positive incentives. We need the ability to levy greater fines, revoke permits, and publicly out chronically bad actors in the marketplace alongside mediation, training programs, and accessible reentry housing. If we take decisive action now, we can set the pace for the nation and avoid another massive housing crisis.