Collective Reflections on the Boston Housing Struggle

By Edward P

On Thursday, September 6th, 2018, the Boston DSA Housing Working Group (HWG) and the Political Education Working Group (PEWG) held a discussion about housing strategy in Boston DSA at the Democracy Center in Cambridge. The goal of the meeting was to talk about how to organize around housing issues to further the anti-capitalist cause.

The Story So Far

The event began with the HWG co-chairs Rose L and Mike L talking about the 13-month history of the working group. The HWG has, to this point, mainly coordinated canvasses of tenants in buildings identified as being likely to organize with City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU). CLVU is a 45-year old organization that began as a socialist feminist collective that consciously reshaped itself into a movement-oriented non-profit in order to better serve their base in Jamaica Plain and East Boston.

Their relationship with CLVU started small — just sending people to regular weekend canvasses. As they earned the trust of CLVU’s long-time organizers, the HWG was able to operate more and more independently, planning an anti-eviction canvas based on public court records and attempting to organize tenants in the Seaverns-Brown building after tenants were hit with a large rent increase.

But neither of those efforts has been an unqualified success. Organizing around anti-eviction is difficult when cases are geographically spread out, and gaps and delays in the court records sometimes meant canvassers were arriving too late to help people. Likewise, with the Seaverns-Brown building, while HWG members made great progress in getting people to move towards creating a tenant union, they had arrived too late to get people together before the large rent raises hit.

Next Steps and Differing Visions

After the presentation from the co-chairs, the meeting attendees went around the room to the introduce themselves and talk about why they were there. The introductions were followed by a  breakout session of small groups and then a full group discussion.

A few major points of contention emerged across these discussions, such as how should the DSA handle its relationship to CLVU? Several attendees expressed concern that Boston DSA was not attempting to build something independent of another organization, citing Philly Socialists and their Philly Tenants Union project as an example of how a socialist organization could use tenant organizing for “base-building”. Others pointed out the necessary work CLVU did to help keep people most threatened in their homes and speculated on our ability to be similarly successful at helping people in need.

Some attendees also argued for concrete policy proposals the HWG could pursue. Members of Socialist Alternative were on hand to talk about the work they had done with Boston City Councillors to try to get more non-profits to pay into the Payment In Lieu Of Tax (PILOT) program. PILOT asks otherwise tax-exempt organizations, such as universities, to pay part of the property taxes they would have otherwise paid. Others talked about Somerville’s low home ownership rate (34.7% vs 64.2% as the national average) and if socialist policies could change that especially policies encouraging cooperative home-ownership.

Other people talked about the need for housing organizing to have a revolutionary perspective. One member made the point that any program must be focused on “serving the people”. For them that meant going directly to people who are hurt by the capitalist system and organizing around their needs. Others elaborated on this idea an argument for why we have to build independent power, saying an important question for the group was whether DSA should be serving as a source of canvassers for other organizations or building something of their own.

What can we do?

Throughout the discussion, members kept coming back to one question in particular — not what should we do, but what can we do? What are our capabilities? In the absence of any kind of national campaign from DSA, we’re relying on ourselves and what we can learn from history and work others have done to figure out an effective organizing strategy around housing issues.

This discussion lead to some practical thoughts about what a housing program would need, whether it was organized independently or not and whatever its political goals were. First, it needed to make realistic promises; we can’t talk about how great socialism is and make commitments we don’t have the ability to keep. Second, it needs to based on building community and solidarity. We have to be able to meet and talk to people repeatedly, share food, and get to know each other. Finally, any program needs to be flexible; we have to be able to constantly re-evaluate what we’re doing in order to find what works.

Self-Reflection and Moving Forward

While the different arguments presented at the meeting, independent work vs coalition work, working for reforms vs serving the people, seemed to represent opposites, the actual discussion, and general feeling of camaraderie and respect at the event, helped show that wasn’t the case.

Any program needs to take into account the practical lessons learned by the HWG over the last 13 months of organizing. It needs to find ways of organizing people around their needs, immediate ones like eviction defense and longer term ones like housing cooperatives. It can both work with established coalition partners and work toward independent power.

Most of all, events like this are important to developing any kind of program. As socialists, we have to engage in constant experimentation and revaluation of our methods on the road to finding a practice that moves the balance of power toward working people. When we meet together and discuss what is and isn’t working about our practice and debate ways forward, we’re engaging in the critical work of finding that way forward.

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