By Nafis H.
On Wednesday September 5, Stand Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) organized a teach-in with City Life/Vida Urbana’s (CLVU) Lisa Owens for Boston area housing justice activists. The event took place at Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain and around 30 people spanning a wide age range and different neighborhoods in the Greater Boston Area attended the event. The focus of the teach-in was the current housing crisis in Boston and its disproportionate effects on people of color (PoCs), and CLVU’s work and its significance in the wake of the YIMBY movement.
CLVU has been organizing low-income tenants and homeowners (often referred to as “bank tenants” since they essentially pay their rents to the bank) for the last 45 years in the city of Boston. Their goal is to unite the common interest of the marginalized, especially people of color, and gain community control of land and housing. CLVU envisions a world where we have collectively changed the political, economic, and social system that creates intersecting oppressive systems, of which housing is only one piece. Their work is based on their core values that 1) housing is a human right, 2) the people most impacted must lead and 3) land and housing should be collectively controlled by communities and sustained for future generations. CLVU also heavily invests in political education for activists and tenants alike, upholding their belief that a historical analysis is necessary to understand the housing crisis.
A History of Violence
The housing crisis is not new. It has existed for years and has been called many names, but it is the framing of the narrative of the crisis that has dictated proposed solutions. The framing of this narrative is in itself a “political act,” as Lisa Owens argued. The historical narrative of PoCs, especially that of African Americans, is one of displacement when it comes to housing, and therefore the housing crisis in major American cities should be described as a crisis of forced displacement and forced confinement. To completely understand why African Americans are fighting to stay in their homes and how they ended up in the inner cities, a historical analysis post-Reconstruction America is required. Lisa presented such an overview with vignettes of newspaper cuttings on the projector and vocal participation from audience.
The year 1890 marked a moment of significance in the history of African Americans in the U.S. — the state of Mississippi changed their constitution to disenfranchise African Americans and effectively end their status as citizens. In the era when backlash against Reconstruction was strong, and the fear was pervasive among whites, along with rampant racism, that Black people were going to replace them, other Southern states quickly followed suit. This led to the establishment of “sundown towns,” where African Americans were not allowed after sunset but were allowed to work during the day. The founding of these towns created violent and gruesome spectacles, replete with public lynchings and running Black families out of towns. These practices were usually justified through the alleged criminality of the Black population — often, a Black man would be accused of sexually assaulting one or more white women. The federal government was passively and actively complicit in these events, condoning the white vigilantes and enforcing ordinances set up through local policy.
Between 1890 and 1968, sundown towns cropped up not only in the South but also in the North and the West. Since emancipation and during Reconstruction, African Americans who were originally agrarian workers traveled as far as Montana and the Dakotas to live. In some cases, alliances grew between certain Christian denominations and the African American migrants. However, after the watershed moment in 1890, the national backlash against Black people took the form of violent racial terror; segregation and disenfranchisement once again became commonplace despite the 14th and 15th amendments, respectively (see Sundown Towns, Slavery by Another Name, and The Condemnation of Blackness for more details). As a result of this violence, and their eviction from residences and communities, African Americans started moving into the cities in the North and were confined in slum-like conditions, overly policed, given little access to housing beside overpriced tenement apartments, and denied access to a full range of employment. Thus, African Americans became a largely urban population in part through forced displacement and confinement.
Suburbia and Systemic Racism in Public Housing
During the Great Depression, the New Deal proposed by Roosevelt contained provisions for federally funded public housing, albeit including racial segregation; it should be noted that segregation was the liberal position, while the conservatives preferred to not provide any public housing to Blacks at all (see When Affirmative Action Was White). After the end of World War II, the federal government decided to construct subsidized housing for war veterans across the US, including construction on open track farmland (e.g. in Long Island, as the film Race, the Power of an Illusion shows). This subsidized housing took the form of single family homes to reduce the overcrowding experienced in cities, and was largely made available to white people; white veterans were also given low-interest loans, and 30 year mortgages to make it easier for them to become homeowners. Additionally, to incentivize white people to move out to the suburbs, away from their workplaces, the federal government invested in highways to make commuting easier. Overall, there was a massive investment by the federal government to create the American middle class and the myth of “The American Dream.”
At the same time, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), the precursor to US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), ranked different areas for development based on risk, with the color red representing high risk. These were the same areas where the majority of PoCs lived, and thus they were deprived of the subsidized housing by “redlining.” Moreover, mortgage companies did not provide the same incentives to PoCs as they did to white folks based on the set of recommendations and guidelines given by the federal government. Incidentally, the financial collapse in 2008 also revealed the systemic racism Black homeowners faced in their mortgages compared to their white counterparts, as detailed by Jackie Wang in her book Carceral Capitalism.
Today, white suburbia amounts to close to $1 trillion in generational inheritance, and African Americans are deprived of such wealth due to the continued systemic racism that pervades government policies. The intentional distortion of history by the right wing repressed the expulsion and eviction of PoCs from collective memory. It typecast African Americans as residents of Harlem and Chicago, Chinese Americans of Chinatowns in major US cities, and other ethnicities into specific enclaves, without recognizing that these confinements were the result of the eviction of these populations by white people (see Lies My Teacher Told Me for more details).
The Paradox of “Affordable” Development
The city of Boston has the 4th highest rent among metro cities in the U.S. The housing crisis in Boston is intensifying — people are being displaced, and are even forced to live in rental units illegally even as recently built luxury condos remain empty. As event attendees attested, multiple development projects across Mattapan, East Boston, and Jamaica Plain have been approved; in Cambridge working class families are being displaced to make room for luxury apartments or “affordable” units such as inclusionary zoning units, with “fun sized appliances” targeted towards temporary residents, who tend to be tech-savvy millennials. Affordability is in fact plummeting, and the city proposes tackling the crisis using a supply-side argument of more development, an idea echoed by developers and YIMBY groups as well. However, as history shows and CLVU organizers have learned over the years, building more doesn’t make housing affordable, but can instead worsen the situation. For example, when City Realty buys one property, the rent in the entire neighborhood increases; similarly, when investors dropped $10 million to build luxury condos in East Boston at the waterfront, the rent in the entire area went up dramatically. Even speculation of underdeveloped land raises rent, e.g. the city of Boston received promises of major luxury development in the Suffolk Downs on the rumors that Amazon might build their second HQ there, which would definitely raise rents along Route 1.
At the same time, the housing justice movement is gaining momentum and there is a lot of energy around organizing for affordable housing. Lobby groups that view the housing crisis as a supply side problem, such as the YIMBY movement (who advocate for deregulation and changes in zoning and planning processes to facilitate development) have joined the cause and are looking to create alliances with already existing housing justice organizations like CLVU. One such example is the Smart Growth Alliance, who have expressed interest in meeting with CLVU. However, the approaches and goals of the YIMBY groups may differ radically from the interests of organizations like CLVU. For example, in California YIMBY groups backed the SB 827 bill that stood in direct conflict with the interests of low-income communities, primarily composed of PoCs. In the city of Cambridge, the YIMBY group A Better Cambridge has been pushing for the aforementioned affordable units which are not suitable for families or elderly members of the community. The Cambridge City Council has not been much help in solving this problem, as an attendee who had experienced the problem first-hand attested.
In this tricky situation where alliances are drawn and redrawn, CLVU aims to control the narrative to uphold the interests of PoCs, who are the most impacted by luxury development and this displacement crisis. CLVU’s goal is to keep people in their current homes, build housing that people can actually afford, and ensure that tenants and homeowners can decide on the type of development entering their neighborhoods. To that end, CLVU evaluates any potential housing movement collaboration on the following grounds:
- Housing as a human right
- Does this policy stop displacement now?
- Does it create displacement pressure?
- Does it increase quality housing for us that we can afford?
- People impacted must lead
- Whose interests does this serve?
- What benefit does it provide our movement?
- Who made this proposal? Who gets to decide?
- Community control of land and housing
- Does this policy create true affordability so that people in the neighborhood can live there?
- Does it create housing that is affordable permanently or long term?
- Does it create community-controlled housing?
Organizing to Build Power
CLVU’s long term goal is community control of public housing, and requires tenant organizing to achieve that. In the Q&A period, Lisa described the previous successes tenant and homeowner organizing had during the foreclosure crisis in Boston — homeowners organized together to create a land trust in Roxbury, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s community land trust, which allowed the foreclosure of only one home in 20-odd years. While non-profit-owned affordable housing is not considered fully community-controlled, it can serve as a step towards that future. Given that communities rarely have the financial capacity to buy property and transfer it to a land trust, community development corporations (CDCs) could help move us towards community control through a land trust. On the question of whether organizing tenants can conflict with low-income homeowners’ interests, Lisa pointed out that the interests converge on the foreclosure cases — homeowners and tenants will organize together to fight for the common cause. She did stress that this is an ongoing question and more can be done by advocating for policies that would relieve the pressure on the low-income homeowners.
CLVU is not anti-development because they recognize that the people need housing. However, they want the development to occur on the terms of the people in the neighborhood where it is going to take place — with specific transit improvements, access to jobs in case of commercial development, mixed affordability, etc. They have already been able to take hold of the narrative and bring the displacement crisis from the shadows to the forefront of political platforms; the city authorities cannot deny the displacement anymore. CLVU also promises to hold Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards accountable on the promises she made during her campaign regarding affordable housing.
CLVU is also looking to collaborate with other housing justice organizations and is part of The Right to Remain Coalition. This coalition is hosting a Homes For All Boston Assembly to discuss a people’s plan for good development, and to end displacement, on Saturday, September 22, 12-4 pm, at 10 Putnam St., Roxbury, Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry. CLVU also holds weekly meetings on Tuesdays at 6:30 pm, at the Brewery Complex, Amory Street, Jamaica Plain, for anyone interested in organizing tenants or in CLVU’s work.