Insights on Tenant Organizing from Stonybrook Village: A Conversation with Boston DSA Housing WG Comrades

Boston DSA housing working group comrades, along with City Life/Vida Urbana folks, have been actively canvassing residents of Stonybrook Village in Hyde Park since last August. After close to a year of hard work, the Stonybrook Tenants Union held a public rally against the abusive management on June 2, drawing over a hundred people. PEWG blog sat down to talk with comrades Evan L, Adam H and Ben S from the housing working group on effective strategies to organize tenants. 

PEWG blog: Can you speak briefly about how you decided to canvass at the Stonybrook village?

Evan L: The decision to canvass at Stonybrook for the first time was similar to a lot of other buildings we’ve canvassed – City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) told us that this was a building that might be experiencing a clearout; it had been sold a few months previously for ~12.5 million dollars to Lincoln Ave Capital, a company owned by the Bronfman family (heir to the Seagram liquor fortune). But we had canvassed at a lot of different buildings before through CLVU or using our own scraper data for similar reasons. Maybe what’s more relevant here is what made us decide to commit to organizing in the building. I think that was a combination of feeling a little bit more confident in our abilities after around a year of plugging into other CLVU work, and the initial canvases that we went on where we heard about the issues that people were experiencing at Stonybrook. 

PEWG blog: How were the first months of tenant canvassing at this location? How would you compare your experience here with that in other properties you have been to, such as Fairlawn in Mattapan?

Evan L: In the first few months we were really just trying to build relationships with folks and understand what they were dealing with. The broad issues were made obvious when talking to people: mold, pests, flooding, rent increases. These were all consistent issues, and one issue that began to stand out more and more over time was the relationship of the tenants to the onsite manager. All the tenants agree that she is rude and very difficult to deal with, and she is often retaliatory towards tenants that get on her bad side. She has had the cars of multiple tenants towed even when they had parking passes, has given out rent increases to tenants who she got in a fight with, and has made recertification of the lease a harrowing experience for everyone as she demands many obscure documents from tenants which were never required before. At the beginning of our canvassing, people were describing these issues to us, but they didn’t really trust us enough to organize with us. Compared to organizing at Fairlawn, I think the broad issues are very comparable. I think we generally agree though that early canvassing was tougher at Fairlawn than it was at Stonybrook. Tenants were in general more mistrustful, and getting into the buildings was just physically harder because you had to be buzzed in, whereas at Stonybrook all of the doors to the apartments are on the outside. 

Ben S: An additional challenge was that the management sent a letter to the tenants after our initial canvasses saying that we worked for management. This added to the general barriers that organizers experience as individuals not from the community. Organizing at Stonybrook has been easier for me than organizing at fairlawn because I’ve gotten to know the tenants while working here. 

PEWG blog: Do you think there was one particular aspect of your canvassing that convinced the tenants to organize into a union?

Adam H: I think when we showed up there was a lot of dissatisfaction and anger directed at management, but there was also very little trust for us as tenant organizers. Of course, this was to be expected, but it was also because management sent around misinformation and told the tenants that we were working with them! Two tenants in particular who later became leaders in the union, independently told us that they had not trusted us initially partly due to misinformation put out by management. Later, when management targeted them for eviction — in both cases as a retaliation for complaints about poor housing conditions — one tenant contacted CLVU for help with his eviction case. By a very lucky coincidence, we were at housing court for the hearing, and we bumped into the second tenant’s family as they prepared for their own defense against eviction. During these protracted legal fights, which they eventually won thanks to the legal support of Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and CLVU, both tenants were harassed by the management company with cynical, petty requests for various unnecessary forms and documents, which would only be replaced by new requests as soon as the tenants frantically produced them. Organizers from CLVU and DSA Housing working group showed up for these tenants again and again, which I think, built the core of trust that was the foundation for forming the union.

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Stony Brook Tenants Union Represent!

PEWG blog: What are the main difficulties you have faced in organizing at Stonybrook? And in general, while canvassing?

Adam H: Each building has its own advantages and disadvantages for organizing. At Stonybrook, all of the apartments have their own outward-facing door which means organizers can directly knock on a tenant’s apartment, while at other buildings, we have to first gain entry to the complex, which can be difficult in the early stages of organizing a building (as we build relationships with tenants, it’s less of an issue). Another challenge is management’s attempts to hinder our work, such as sending out misinformation to the tenants and telling organizers to leave if they encounter them. At other buildings, management has put up ‘No Trespassing’ flyers and installed security cameras. We usually interpret these actions as signs that the landlord is worried, and while they can be intimidating, they are therefore also encouraging.

The biggest challenge we face is to help the tenants feel a sense of ownership and leadership of the union. Many tenants work extremely long hours and face the disproportionate burden of hardship caused by the structural inequities built into capitalism. So it is naturally difficult for them to take up the fight against their landlord. But we have seen in our organizing at Stonybrook that as tenants engage in this struggle and experience how much power they have as an organized collective, they increasingly link their struggle to other working class fights — for example one tenant realized the parallels to the strikes of the Stop & Shop workers that were going on — and feel empowered by and committed to their union.

Ben S: What Adam said. Also there’s the constant challenge of knowing what issues will galvanize people into action. You’d think it might be raising rents or failure of management to fix things, but sometimes people have accepted those as just the way it is. At Stonybrook, the rudeness of the onsite manager was the main issue, that then connected in to the other issues the tenants are facing. At Fairlawn, it’s the fact that kids aren’t allowed to play outside that can get people talking at the door and interested in fighting back. 

PEWG blog: Following up, what are some ways tenant canvassing can be made more effective?

Evan L: Our main focus is always getting the tenants themselves to be the ones doing the canvassing and organizing. They are so much more effective than we could ever be, because they live in the building and they know exactly the issues that their neighbours are experiencing, and they have credibility when they talk about them. When we were canvassing to get 50 signatures on the list of demands, we tried to make sure that we were with tenant leaders on every single canvass. This made the work a lot easier and more effective, and of course was great for getting the tenant leaders to feel more ownership over the project. In future organizing efforts, it would be good to get the leaders from Stonybrook or Fairlawn to go on those initial canvases with us. They could connect the struggles between their building and whatever building we are organizing at in a way that would be really powerful. 

PEWG blog: Now that you have made tenants aware of their organizing power, what or how else can you work on building a class consciousness? And how would that tie into a “base-building” strategy?

Evan L: I think that the raising of class consciousness is a pretty integral part of organizing in your building, and we haven’t had to do all that much intentionally. To give an example, I was talking to one of the tenant leaders to set up a meeting for the next week, and right before we got off the phone she said “Oh wait, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this, isn’t what we’re doing at Stonybrook exactly like what’s happening at Stop and Shop?”. Engaging in collective struggle is itself a transformative experience, and the breakdown of some of the atomisation that we experience in our daily lives means that people begin to identify with the people around them in opposition to the things that are causing their shared problems. That being said, we have certainly tried to highlight the fact that this is a class struggle, and especially the fact that the landlords of the building are literal cartoon villain billionaires. And we want to continue connecting the struggle at Stonybrook to broader struggles against gentrification and displacement in our discussions with tenant leaders. 

Ben S: Evan’s point about collective struggle being a transformative experience is key. Connecting this struggle to the broader struggles in the housing justice movement and the struggle for liberation at large is more difficult, but that’s why we organize the tenants. 

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Two of the core tenant union organizers spoke about the abusive management at the rally in Stonybrook Village

PEWG blog: What are some of the next steps the housing working group are looking to take in regards to tenant organizing?

Evan L: We would love to start organizing another building; at this point it’s a question of capacity. Stomp Out Slumlords in DC goes on biweekly canvasses to people facing eviction both to give them know your rights material and encourage them to go to court, and also to identify new buildings to organize in. We have done similar canvasses in the past, we have the data to do them, and we would love to reinstate them as a regular thing so that we can keep identifying new buildings to organize in. We just need someone to bottom line making that happen.. So if anyone reading this wants to volunteer let us know!

Ben S: Come to a housing WG meeting (third Mondays of every month)! Or one of our tenant organizing trainings – the next one is on Monday July 8, 7-9 pm at the Democracy Centre (45 Mt. Auburn St, Cambridge). Or just post on the slack asking to get involved. Or email us at boston-dsa-housing@googlegroups.com! We always need people, and we started this having no idea what we were doing, so it’s always a collective learning process. We want to do this but more, which requires building up our capacity.

PEWG blog: What’s next for the Stonybrook Tenants Union? How can Boston DSA members keep supporting them?

Evan L: This is a little up in the air right now. We are starting to see some reactions from management after press coverage came out about the rally – the CEO of Lincoln Ave Capital replied extensively in the Boston Banner piece. They are denying a lot of the issues, especially around large rent raises, but according to the tenants some of their behavior is starting to change. Two of the tenant leaders reported that they got their lease renewal notice and didn’t get any rent increase for the year. Management has also started making a few cosmetic changes to the building, like repainting the stairs. That being said they still refuse to acknowledge or meet with the union, and that ultimately is our goal. The tenants are prepping for a meeting with two politicians on July 2nd – Sonia Chang Diaz and Michelle Wu are planning to come to Stonybrook to meet with the union. We’re also talking about ways in which we can continue to pressure management and to grow the union. For the latter point, the tenants want to host a more low key social event over the summer, like a potluck, where tenants who have been hesitant to get involved can come and talk to their neighbours and learn more about what’s going on. 

Ben S: What Evan said. Boston DSA can support them by being ready to show up when needed. Or by plugging in to our housing work. Like we’ve said, we always need more people and everyone is welcome.

 

 

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.

The Housing Crisis Is a Displacement Crisis

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:

  1. 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?
  2. People impacted must lead
    • Whose interests does this serve?
    • What benefit does it provide our movement?
    • Who made this proposal? Who gets to decide?
  3. 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.