City Life/Vida Urbana Is Fighting For Housing Stability As Threat Of Displacement Looms For Many Bostonians

By Saritha Ramakrishna for Brain Arts Organization

July 28, 2020

“I used to drive by Exit 18, Expressway 93. I used to see some people, who were homeless standing there asking for change. I questioned that. Why are they here? What happened to them? Did they make a mistake?” Ronel Remy describes what was once a familiar scene to him. He came to conclude, “This is what society told me to ask about their situation in regard to mine. But then you ask, why am I not there? When I think about it, I am a few paychecks away from being there.”

Remy is an organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana, a Boston-based housing justice organization that has fought to keep people in their homes in the face of eviction or foreclosure. While the work is about the protection of people, it also is about imagination - a rethinking of what people’s lives and neighborhoods could be if not for the way things are now. Since the pandemic began, City Life has fielded over 1,000 calls from individuals being threatened with evictions. Via Zoom sessions and a telephone hotline, Remy and many other organizers have helped tenants access aid and learn their rights in situations where power dynamics are often dramatically tilted.

While the work is about the protection of people, it also is about imagination - a rethinking of what people’s lives and neighborhoods could be if not for the way things are now.

Though Governor Baker recently extended the state’s eviction moratorium, the threat of displacement still looms. No one knows what the pandemic will bring come fall, whether lofty plans for reopening will be cut short by a second wave. While Gov. Baker has announced some monetary relief for renters and homeowners, the pandemic has created impossible economic circumstances for so many. Boston already had one of the worst housing crises in the country before anyone had even heard of coronavirus; so many people live at a knife’s edge in order to make rent. Despite the pride Bostonians and Commonwealth residents may take in their generosity, moral clarity or status as a city upon a hill, cruelty makes diminutive so many lives here. By the sides of freeway exits, in the Mozart blaring from the Downtown Crossing 7/11 to keep the unhoused away, and in the creeping rent increases dropped in letterboxes, deprivation is meted out year after year.

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Since 1973, we’ve been organizing for racial justice, gender liberation & working class power by helping oppressed people fight for the housing we deserve. Now more than ever, we need your solidarity. Join our movement by signing up for our Action Alert List: #healthnotevictions

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On June 30th, Representative Mike Connolly filed HD.5166 (now HB.4878, An Act to guarantee housing stability during the COVID-19 emergency and recovery). The bill and the Senate version of it would extend the moratorium for a full year, through what is guaranteed to be a long and uncertain recovery process. It also extends just cause protections, which ensures that landlords cannot terminate leases early purely for the purpose of bringing in wealthier tenants. In addition, the bill includes relief for small and nonprofit landlords.

The legislature has until the end of the session on 7/31 to pass it.

While the Governor’s extension of the moratorium buys precious time for tenants, federal supplemental unemployment payments are slated to expire on July 31st. In the current moment, the crisis is nationwide, where around 28 million households face the prospect of eviction - three times the number of households as the Great Recession ten years ago. A $1,200 check distributed to those who qualify has served as a paltry substitute for care.

Eviction is a familiar catastrophe, one that has been a part of daily life prior to the virus, the police crackdowns, and everything else that has unfolded in 2020. According to a report co-written by City Life and researchers from MIT, property owners filed more than 50,000 evictions in Boston Housing Court over the past ten years. This is likely an underestimate of the actual number of families and individuals forced out of their homes outside of court proceedings.

According to a report co-written by City Life and researchers from MIT property owners filed more than 50,000 evictions in Boston Housing Court over the past ten years.

Prior to becoming an organizer for City Life, Remy faced the loss of his own home; he is originally from Haiti, and knows all too well the types of power imbalances that exist in these proceedings: for the poor and especially for immigrants. “I was losing my mind,” he describes, as he faced the loss of his home simultaneously with other crises in his life. Prior to attending his first City Life meeting, he “refused to believe that anyone was trying to help...I thought it was a scam.” So many extractive institutions brand themselves as benevolent; it’s easy to see how an offer of help could be mistaken as some scheme. Referencing the bailouts offered to corporations during the pandemic and the recession, he observes “they were all too big to fail.” He pauses, and then remarks, “But I wasn’t too big to fail.”

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[español abajo] Massachusetts’ #EvictionMoratorium was just extended until October 17th. This is a real win for our movement. But we’re still pushing hard for the long-term solution our people need: the Guaranteed Housing Stability bill, HD.5166 in the MA State House. HELP WIN long-term protections from #eviction & #foreclosure by calling your state legislators! Use our easy calling tool at #HousingGuaranteeMA La #MoratoriaEnDesalojos de Massachusetts se extendió hasta el 17 de octubre. Esta es una verdadera victoria para nuestro movimiento. Pero todavía estamos presionando mucho por la solución a largo plazo que nuestra gente necesita: el proyecto de ley de Vivienda Garantizada y Estable, HD.5166 en la Casa del Estado de MA. ¡AYUDE A GANAR protecciones a largo plazo de #desalojos y #embargos por llamando a sus legisladores estatales! Use nuestra herramienta de llamadas en #viviendagarantizadama

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Ruby Saucer is a great grandmother, and has been living in Boston for over three decades. She originally came to City Life while losing her home in Dorchester in 2010. She was among so many Black homeowners in the position during the Recession. Historic lending discrimination sanctioned by the government meant that banks and financial institutions were and are less likely to provide fair loans and credit in these neighborhoods. Often, these conditions forced Black households to turn to unfavorable lending agreements, pushed heavily by financial institutions. Now, Saucer currently lives with her granddaughter and 5-year old great granddaughter in an apartment in Mattapan.

As property values in Boston swelled, speculators and development companies saw opportunities to purchase homes in Black neighborhoods for cheap, and then flip them to attract higher income, often white tenants. Roxbury’s eviction rate is seven times that of Allston-Brighton, and six times that of South Boston, Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Meanwhile, whiter, wealthier and suburban communities have avoided constructing affordable rental housing, oftentimes in the euphemistic language of “preserving local character.” Denser, urban neighborhoods have often borne the brunt of new development as a result.

Roxbury’s eviction rate is seven times that of Allston-Brighton, and six times that of South Boston, Back Bay and Beacon Hill.

In Mattapan, Saucer was originally paying $1,500 in rent for her apartment . Then, the original owner sold the building, asking for a $700 monthly increase in rent, which Saucer was unable to afford. Saucer rarely deals with the landlord himself. These situations are common given the impersonal nature of the transaction; evictions happen at a rate 24 percent higher in properties with absentee landlords, who are less willing to negotiate with tenants. City Life organized a protest at Saucer’s landlord’s home, which was enough to begin negotiations. While Saucer still had to accept a rent increase, the terms were acceptable enough to allow her, her granddaughter and her great grandchild to stay in their home.

Housing court is tilted towards landlords, especially those that are well-resourced. As Remy describes it, “Not only do they know the language of the court, they could switch it on you to agree with something...they might say, ‘you’re a good tenant we want you to stay in our apartment , we want you to stay for years. Sign this document, and pay $100 a month until you catch up and you will not miss a payment.’ Most people will say ‘oh wow, this is great, I can stay.’ But where are you going to find this $100 from? You’re going to cut down on groceries or get an extra job? Little did you know that once you sign that document you give up all the claims you had against them. Say you’re sick and you miss a payment, the judge will evict you in a heartbeat.” Negotiations play-act fairness, where tenants are oftentimes up against what feel like unstoppable forces if they’re not otherwise supported. Efforts to create a Right to Counsel program, which would provide tenants in housing court with legal support, have stalled over the years.

Meanwhile, evictions produce their own violence. According to research by the Harvard School of Public Health, evictions increase the likelihood of childhood lead poisoning and other health hazards, since evicted tenants are severely limited in their ability to quickly find decent housing.. Saucer describes how “It’s unsettling. You think about it at night, you think about it in the morning when you get up. How are you going to deal with this? It’s not good for the mind. Your health, your blood pressure goes up. Your diabetes gets out of control. It’s not good.” As Remy puts it, “Folks cannot be whole when they don’t understand what’s happening to them. Why am I this way? Why does this happen?” The shortage of affordable housing in the Commonwealth is the result of a number of policies and practices: a suburban aversion to building multifamily, affordable housing, a lack of Federal support for affordable housing as well as social or public housing, and not enough resources and little political will to develop new revenue sources at the state and local levels to subsidize affordable construction. Amendments on the Governor’s economic development bill to enable communities to levy real estate transfer taxes and more easily create zoning requirements for affordable housing were overwhelmingly voted down on 7/27.

“Folks cannot be whole when they don’t understand what’s happening to them. Why am I this way? Why does this happen?”

The result is the crisis of the moment. Under the pandemic’s conditions, the situation becomes especially dire. After October, it’s likely that COVID-19 will still be a part of daily life. It’s also guaranteed that back rent, owed housing debt, and precarious employment situations will result in evictions and displacement. Remy asks, “Where are they going to go? Nobody is safe.” As so many failures have made themselves apparent since March, the question seems to be “what do they expect people to do?”

It’s a question that under current conditions, has no morally acceptable answer. It’s one that Remy asks during our interview, and echoed by Saucer and her granddaughter. ‘They’ might refer to a landlord who’s never met their tenants and simply following standard procedure, an indifferent politician on Beacon Hill incapable of imagining a Commonwealth world where safe housing is guaranteed, or a developer that only sees a neighborhood for assets that they can capitalize on.

Thinking back to March, Remy points out that the same neighborhoods being affected by COVID are those that see the most evictions; most strikingly, these are the neighborhoods whose workers are actually needed in an statewide emergency.

Referring to the beginning of the pandemic when evictions were still being carried out, Remy points out that “When they refused to close housing court those who would be evicted are the essential workers - we are the nurses' aides, we are the nurses... we also have the folks who are construction workers, hotel workers, hospital workers, we clean, we do blood work, we are cooks. The working class is the essential worker. You’re evicting them, while an emergency is going on? You’re trying to give them this while they’re thinking about surviving?” While the work of marketing managers, customer relations representatives, intellectual property lawyers and data analysts is rewarded with wages that allot them housing here, it’s often people whose work allows the entire region to function who struggle. Their labor and the presence in the city is not only required, but made invisible.

To support housing stability in the Commonwealth, call your legislator and urge them to act to move this legislation forward. Look up your legislator here.

Cover photo for this article originally posted on City Life/Vida Urbana Facebook page.

Saritha is a Brain Arts Organization board member and can be found on Twitter @saritha_