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“We Have a Call to Action”: Affordable Housing Professionals Discuss Boston’s Current Crisis

On Wednesday, the first of UEP’s online Cities@Tufts colloquia painted a bleak picture of housing in Boston post-COVID-19.

Lisa Owens, executive director of local community organization City Life/Vida Urbana (CL/VU), pointed out that communities of color in the city were already at high risk for eviction and displacement before the pandemic. In the period between the start of Massachusetts’ lockdown and the passage of a statewide eviction moratorium, a large majority of evictions occurred in at-risk communities of color, she said. When the moratorium expires, an estimated 100,000 people across the state could face housing instability.

“These numbers are staggering.” Lisa Owens, CL/VU Executive Director

UEP student and Dorchester Not for Sale organizer Sharon Cho agreed that conditions on the ground in Boston are difficult. Before the pandemic, the Dorchester-based grassroots group arose in response to a wave of market-rate housing development. The organization aims not only to prevent displacement of residents, but also promote their quality of life and preserve immigrant enclaves.

After the pandemic, activities such as door-to-door canvassing, community dinners, and an annual parade become hard or impossible, Cho noted. However, “what we’ve been fighting for all along is more urgent,” she said.

For the current crisis, Owens recommended a variety of solutions, including legislation to extend the state moratorium, “longer-term investments in anti-displacement strategy,” and increased community and nonprofit ownership of property.

Meredith Levy, executive director of the Boston Neighborhood Community Land Trust (BNCLT), focuses especially on the last goal. In community land trust systems, a not-for-profit corporation owns property with the goal of preserving long-term affordability. BNCLT currently maintains low housing prices for 15 residents, with the goal of helping to “keep people in their neighborhoods” and build up their financial resiliency.

Levy said that the current housing crisis has led to “a growing understanding… we can’t do things the same way we’ve been doing them.” BNCLT is looking into acquiring more property though channels such as the City of Boston’s Acquisition Opportunity Program, or purchasing mortgaged homes from banks. Levy hopes that lessons learned from 2008’s Great Recession can lead to a greater variety of solutions: she also supports initiatives like the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which would help renters buy their own homes.

Owens added that despite the setbacks, there have been innovative ways of gathering and organizing people during this time. She cited “standouts” that CL/VU has organized over the last three months, in which tenant associations raise their visibility and show support for each other by holding signs outside their buildings. Car caravans, in which drivers gather at a predetermined time in lieu of in-person meetups, are another alternative.

“People really want to feel connected, now more than ever.”

Cho too has been involved in innovative types of community-building, including mutual aid to redistribute food and other necessary resources with nearby residents in need. Like the other speakers, she emphasized the importance of an approach which “centers those that are most at risk” – especially in the pandemic era.

After the panel discussion, moderator Nick Pittman, a recent UEP alum and project manager for the Fenway Community Development Corporation, helped field questions from the virtual audience of students and faculty.

In a response to a question about useful research topics for the current moment, Lisa Owens brought up the potential consequences if Massachusetts’ eviction moratorium is not re-extended past October 17. She also hopes to find out how renters are coping with economic hardship, the impact of corporate landlords on the market, what patterns in displacement exist, and what civil rights violations they might result from.

Meredith Levy added that she’d like to look into ways to detect which landlords are willing to sell or let go of their properties, in order to preserve or expand affordability.

Answering a question about the difficulty of balancing landlord and tenant interests, Owens said that “we need a wide coalition of interests and forces” in order to create systemic change. That includes both struggling, working-class renters as well as homeowners who may be at risk for predatory loans.

Levy said that in order to achieve the long-term vision of placing property in residents’ hands, it may be necessary to partner up with unexpected allies, such as small landlords. Building stronger communities may also require branching out beyond housing: “reaching this goal] includes agriculture, it includes good jobs, it includes cooperatives, it includes thinking about models… for building equity.”

The next Cities@Tufts colloquium, “A Journey to A Black Queer Feminist Urbanist Ethic and Practice,” takes place on October 7. Find the official event description here.


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