The Coastal Post - May, 1997

Safety Net For Poor Cut


Mary Murtagh has completed 10 years as Executive Director of the Ecumenical Association for Housing. She wishes Martin Luther King were here to "unleash his powerful commentary on the state and country in which we live as it moves to cut to ribbons the safety net for the poor. She is worried that "4.5 million of the 15 million families nationwide who need housing assistance are not receiving it, and HUD programs are being drastically reduced.

"Families must choose between paying for heat and buying food. Kids are being bounced through multiple homes because their parents can't afford stable housing, and pediatricians report substantial percentages of undernourished children amongst families without housing assistance." She pleads "pick up a pen, turn on a computer and let your legislators know what you think. Let's keep up the good work until the world is a better place."

Mary wasn't always into good works. After getting a B.A. degree (cum laude) from Wellesley, she got a Master of Architecture degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I couldn't afford affordable housing until graduate school," she said. "Then one of the professors took all of his students to a public housing project, one of the worst in Boston, and assigned us to spend the rest of the term building a bus shelter out of heavy timber."

That opened her eyes. She had grown up on a farm in New Hampshire where people had enough money to at least feed themselves. For the first time she saw life in an urban city. "The neighborhood was utterly crime-ridden," she said sadly. "People were robbed at knifepoint. The elevators were unusable two-thirds of the time, and were filled with urine and feces the rest of the time."

That was when she abandoned architecture and got very interested in urban problems and housing policy. She also fell in love with a biochemist from Berkeley, so she moved to San Francisco where she immediately became involved in the renovation of the Arlington Hotel at the first sober residential complex for recovering alcoholics. Murtagh still sits on the Board of Directors of the Arlington.

Along the way she married her biochemist and they now have a son and an adopted son. Her 10 years at EAH have just flown by. She says, "I didn't expect to like it so much." She likes the staff, "a great group of people, very motivated." Besides Murtagh, four other people are celebrating 10 years with EAH this year. They are Mike Farrel of Property Management, secretary Mary Johnstone, and Resident Manager Melody and her husband Richard Howard of Mackey Terrace in Novato. The Howards work at Mackey Terrace and love it." Mackey Terrace is a wonderful complex," Melody says. "It's nice and quiet and out of the way."

Richard works at maintenance. He does the painting and repairs appliances, and Melody depends on him to get the jobs done right.

Melody says, "I enjoy working for EAH. A lot of good people work there. I've always felt I was treated fairly and with respect by the people in the main office."