“Without City Life, many people wouldn’t know how they can do anything [to fight for their right to housing,]” said Gabrielle, one of the organizers for City Life/Vida Urbana. City Life is a grassroots group that organizes communities to fight against the forces that fuel displacement in Boston. The Jamaica Plain based organization frequently works with Project No One Leaves (PNOL), a student practice organization at Harvard Law School that informs low-income tenants of their rights. On January 10, PNOL hosted several City Life organizers to speak to the HLS community about the ramifications of gentrification in Boston.
According to City Life leaders, an overwhelming majority of Roxbury residents are at risk of being displaced. The cost of housing in Roxbury increased by 70% between 2010 and 2015. The devastating mix of displacement, capitalism, racialized gentrification, and property exploitation is what some call antithetical to local economic development in Boston. Even still, landlords are aware of the influx of newcomers that can afford to pay higher rents, thereby pushing out current residents in favor of higher profits from new residents. As more and more properties in Boston are becoming increasingly expensive, middle- and low-income individuals and families have fewer options to secure housing. When landlords raise the rents and attempt to evict residents, people are often not given sufficient notice to find suitable housing. The stress of losing one’s home and scrambling to find an alternative has serious consequences on people’s mental, physical, and emotional health. The trauma of housing insecurity affects children and young people, altering how they navigate the world and their feelings about financial security. Long-time residents lose their social ties and networks to their communities, which can in turn affect the physical systems that help fight against chronic conditions and diseases. “The social costs for displaced families, such as intergenerational health impacts, is not borne by the landlords,” said Lawrence, another organizer with City Life. Landlords and urban developers prioritize profit over community welfare. Organizations like City Life develop community leaders to fight against the forces that fuel displacement and its harmful effects through direct organizing of tenants in protest and advocacy strategies, connecting tenants to legal representation, and informing residents of their rights.
It’s an uphill battle for many residents to try and retain their housing through the court system. Landlords and property owners often have legal representation, while many tenants cannot afford a lawyer. Tenants are not fighting a fair fight – starting off with the disadvantage of representing themselves in a convoluted system that can leave people feeling culpable if they lose their home. “People are left to represent themselves in these hearings, and you don’t understand the language of the court,” Gabrielle exclaimed. Gabrielle is determined to spread public awareness of City Life’s work to helps other residents like her. “I came to City Life to get legal help after I attempted to fight with my bank on my own. I couldn’t understand what was going on even though I had nearly ten years of banking experience and a master degree in business. My bank gave me the run around for years until I came to City Life and was empowered with information about my rights. The bank was very deceptive. Many people don’t know their rights, that’s why I have decided to become an ambassador and organizer with City Life.”
Fighting against housing displacement is how City Life and PNOL work jointly to combat racial, social, and economic injustice. PNOL sometimes refers residents struggling to retain their housing to legal aid organizations like the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), which provide representation to low-income and marginalized communities in civil matters. The difference can be life-altering. Keeping people in their homes helps keep families whole and counteracts actions that destabilize communities. Boston is a historic city, but loses significant remnants of its past when communities are removed and remade. “Preserving communities and cultures are more important to me then preserving bricks for historical purposes,” said Lawrence. PNOL plays a critical role in raising awareness of tenants’ legal rights and legal services available to them. In partnership with City Life, both organizations work to develop a community-based model for social and systemic change, one tenant at a time.