City Life/Vida Urbana by Tal Moss-HaarenGentrification and Housing

City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) is a Boston based organization whose mission is to promote working class power by providing free services regarding tenant rights and preventing housing displacement. With the rise of gentrification in certain neighborhoods of Boston, City Life has been active in areas such as Egleston Square. At City Life weekly meetings are held that are open to the community. There, people voice their concerns with their housing situations, are offered free legal assistance, and are notified about events and meetings in the community. I first connected with this organization two years ago, where I interned two days a week. When I was there, I remember being assigned to canvas around the streets of Egleston Square, asking people to sign a petition for an area on Washington Street to not be remodeled.


Throughout my work with City Life, I was able to connect with two organizers, Ronel and Alex. Collectively they were able to demonstrate how the work of the organizers at City Life empowers and strengthens the communities in Boston. Although they have two very distinct backgrounds, they both strive for housing equality in different ways. I was first introduced to Alex, and then was able to speak with Ronel. Alex is a 25 year old man who grew up in Boston, specifically in the Roxbury area. He has lived in Boston his whole life, attended five different high schools, and is now finishing his studies at Bunker Hill Community College. Alex became involved in organizing five years ago, when he founded Youth Against Mass Incarceration with a friend. This organization worked towards prison abolition and the fight against police brutality. After a few years, his organization broadened to work against gentrification as well. That is where he connected with the organizations Keep it 100 and City Life. Shortly after, he began working with these organizations. Alex has now worked at City Life for six months, where he organizes meetings, works with cases, and sets up meetings with tenants. Ronel does similar work, though brings a different perspective due to his experiences with housing. Right now Ronel lives in Brockton, and he has been for the past 10 years. He has lived all over Boston, but would move somewhere and in a few years he couldn’t afford it anymore and would have to move out. “I was being pushed away all the time,” he said. I asked him if he saw gentrification in Brockton, and he said of course. At one point, Brockton led in foreclosures. “They come to rescue the neighborhood, but start a new neighborhood in a way.”


Both Alex and Ronel shared similar perspectives on the changes occurring in Egleston Square. Alex told me that “some change is inevitable,” but there is still much to be done to stop it. He sees some businesses being displaced in Egleston Square now; the transformation is happening slowly but it is just starting to gain speed now. Because Egelston is a “little bit rougher, folks were more reluctant to move here.” Ronel shared similar sentiments to Alex of the changes in Egleston. Ronel is originally from Haiti, and when he first moved to Massachusetts in 1994, Ronel remembered hanging out in Egleston Square. Because he is from Haiti, he would eat at the Dominican restaurants in Egelston, which have similar food. He said that Egleston square “changed for the worse” and he “used to see such a happy community.” For the past 6-7 years he has been seeing changes in the square and everything is getting newer and newer. When telling me about the massive amounts of housing being built up on Washington Street near Forest Hills, he said, “When you build something like that, where will the community live?” Many people have to juggle 3-4 jobs just to live in the small apartments that are being built up right now. “That’s shameful,” he added. Alex was also actively involved in the fight against the buildings up on Washington. At one of the weekly Tuesday CLVU meetings I attended, he announced his work on School Street in Jamaica Plain. Alex pointed out that there is only 18% affordability in this building, where City Life fights for 25% affordability in a given building. When speaking to me individually, Alex told me there are four units in the School Street building he is working with who are all facing similar struggles with high rent and displacement. If they can’t come to the CLVU meetings, Alex will set up meetings in their apartment that they can all attend. Usually, they discuss strategies, possible negotiations, and next moves.


Ronel told me that he hasn’t seen the people in Egleston Square change yet “but eventually it will happen.” People who live in Egleston can’t pay a premium for a nice, expensive apartment. He thinks that in 20 years, we will see big differences, and it will be a lot worse. Gentrification will have fully hit Egleston Square at that point. Ronel’s work with many immigrants who don’t believe they have rights has brought him to be familiar with the stigma around eviction. He knows this, he assures me, because he has faced eviction before. With all of his hands on experience, he told me, “this job chose me.” Ronel believes that organizers must be at the forefront of the people. “If you’re not ahead, who’s organizing?”


Ronel and Alex both have a history of organizing, which is very present in the way they are devoted to organizing. When Ronel was 17 in Haiti, he began to organize. In his neighborhood, the government wouldn’t go pick up the trash for close to a month. Even though his family payed for this benefit, the trash was left. He and his friends took all the trash and put it in the middle of the road for it to be picked up. He called a press conference, and spoke on TV about what he had done. Within a few hours, the trucks came to clean up the pile of trash. For the first time in his life, he said, “I see how media can be useful.” When I asked Ronel about his passion for organizing, he told me, “it’s rewarding.” Alex echoed that sentiment as well, having devoted much of his life to organizing for the past five years.


The community oriented work that Alex and Ronel do is reflected in their weekly Tuesday meetings. At the beginning of the meeting, Ronel told people “We are all going through the same thing you are going through.” This was something often said in these meetings to make sure no one felt embarrassed or ashamed. Ronel requested that the new members to the meetings introduce themselves to the audience. After the new members shared their stories and voiced their concerns, Ronel told them, “You must invest in this fight, but if you do, we’ll fight to the finish line with you.” After he said this, the whole crowd in unison said, “We’ll fight with you!” Throughout these meetings, I would hear the crowd chime in “That ain’t right!” When a member shared a story about a landlord that has raised the rent for the past three months, the crowd would boo.


These meetings only reinforced the strength of community within this organization. Many people knew each other well, but the new people were welcomed in open arms. Ronel and Alex exemplified the work of City Life through their daily interactions and assistance with the community of Boston.