Tenants Take a Stand: The Struggle in Boston

Residents and UFAD members lead a protest against rent hikes at Grant Manor

Gentrification has been reshaping Boston’s neighborhoods for decades. Many formerly working-class neighborhoods are now filled with expensive condo buildings and pricey restaurants. The former inhabitants have either moved to other, less-gentrified neighborhoods in Boston or have been forced to move out of the city entirely to working-class suburbs like Lynn and Brockton. The process of gentrification in Boston has happened alongside de-industrialization and a tech boom which has left many working-class Bostonians without job prospects and facing rising rents.

This onslaught of gentrification is being unleashed upon Boston’s working-class residents by developers, construction companies, and the city government. Although these forces clearly want to gentrify the whole city and displace everyone they can, there are still large working-class communities in Boston, especially in largely Black and Latino neighborhoods like Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury.

UFAD members in Boston started organizing in such a neighborhood early on in the pandemic. We knew that people were up against a lot, between the pandemic, the city’s meager services, and the economic situation. Our initial plan was to go among the homeless population, who spend a lot of time in a park in the neighborhood, and to build up a struggle to force the city to provide basic amenities for them. With the pandemic, even the basic services that do exist were being closed, cutting their service hours, many businesses were not allowing anyone to use their bathrooms, and homeless people were being left out to die from the virus. We hoped to get some basic organization going among the homeless people in the park, and to then link up their struggle with the struggle of tenants in the surrounding buildings.

Attempts at organizing with homeless people

We started going to the park multiple times a week to talk to people and familiarize ourselves with the situation. We also distributed some basic provisions to homeless people, but the key task was to talk with people about the situation and the basis for coming together and getting organized. People were generally very supportive of the idea of doing something to change the situation for homeless people. The pandemic was only worsening the situation, forcing people to choose between risking contracting Covid in a shelter and sleeping out on the streets.

The cops were also regularly messing with people, allowing them to stay in the park for a week or two and then forcing them to move on. They often push people towards a part of the city known as “methadone mile” because of the concentration of methadone clinics. “Methadone mile” is not somewhere most homeless people want to end up, since there is a lot of stealing, violence, and heavy drug use. The police know this stuff is going on and don’t do anything to stop it, preferring to push homeless people from across the city into a situation where they’re likely to get caught up in violence, have their stuff stolen, or fall back into addiction.

Given the heavy amount of oppression they face, a lot of homeless people expressed enthusiasm about doing something to change the situation, but there were a lot of barriers to bringing people together. Sometimes people would not be around and we wouldn’t be able to find them. Other times, people would be high or drunk, which made it difficult to have conversations about the key issues and created issues when it came to follow-up. Some people in the park were also stealing from people around them, or preying upon them in other ways, which created a lot of conflict and distrust between people. In particular, the homeless women in the park often experienced various forms of harassment, sometimes reaching the point of serious beatings and sexual assault.

These dynamics have created significant divisions between homeless people in the park and working-class residents of the surrounding projects and apartment complexes. Many residents have grown frustrated after dealing with unsafe conditions in the park for years, from needles left on the playground to stabbings, fights, and other violence. These problems have so far been a significant barrier to bringing residents of the apartments and the homeless population together.

The major divisions we saw amongst people in the park and between them and local tenants are not unique to this one part of Boston. They reflect a larger strategy that the ruling elite use to keep people down by creating conflict and division between people who really should be organizing together. For instance, the police push homeless people to move into the park and the city fails to provide services or sufficient shelters to them. They do this knowing that it will lead to various negative effects for people living in the area: needles and broken bottles in the park, violence, and so on. Then a section of the tenants will start to blame the homeless for these problems, and potentially support increased police patrols and the like as a result. Then two groups of people, homeless people and working-class tenants, who have a common interest in opposing gentrification are at each other’s throats instead of organizing together.

To fight gentrification we must confront these issues and divisions and work to overcome them. But although we aspire to unite all we can in the struggle against gentrification, we found that after a good deal of time talking to people living in the park we weren’t able to make much headway there. So, after several months of work in the park, we decided that it made sense to refocus our efforts on the tenants in the surrounding housing complexes and project buildings.

The Lenox Street apartments in Boston

Tenant organizing

We heard from a tenant in the nearby Lenox Street project complex that tenants were facing a renovation which was likely to displace a large number of them. This project was built with federal funding in 1939, making it one of the oldest public housing projects in Boston. During its long history it has played a central role in the Black community in Boston, since it was one of the first housing projects that Black families were able to move into. Recently the whole complex was privatized through the Obama-era Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which handed management and ownership of the buildings over a private company called Beacon Communities.

Beacon planned a renovation for the complex which was clearly aimed at furthering their control over the complex and over the residents. The renovation plans require residents to move out of the complex while their building is being renovated, and the company openly plans for a number of residents to not come back due to what they call “natural attrition.” In addition to forcing residents to relocate during the pandemic, they’ve also created a series of rules which will disqualify some residents from returning after the renovations are complete. This allows them to effectively carry out evictions despite the federal eviction moratorium during the Covid-19 pandemic. Residents will also not be allowed to return to their current apartment, so many will lose appliances they’ve installed or renovations they’ve done.

Beyond just evicting some tenants, the renovation will also increase the amount of control that the company has over the residents. After they come back they will have to sign a new lease, but instead of being with the Boston Housing Authority they’ll sign a lease with Beacon itself. This will let Beacon profit off the residents’ rental payments as well as collect various federal subsidies and tax-breaks, turning the complex into a cash cow.

We started working at Lenox Street, knocking on doors to talk with people about the renovation and holding meetings to talk about what was going on. We had a lot of conversations about frustrations with the management company and their reckless decision to force everyone to move for renovations during the pandemic. A number of tenants expressed enthusiasm about coming together to get involved in the existing Lenox tenant association, which has so far been acting as a rubber stamp for Beacon’s schemes. However, these efforts have been slow to get off the ground. Many expressed not wanting to stick their necks out, worried about retaliation from the management and about being criticized by others in the community for stirring up trouble. Although efforts to call for re-elections of the tenant board and challenge the ongoing renovations are still ongoing, these dynamics have made it challenging to get a basic group of people to come together.

Grant Manor apartment building

A breakthrough came when we heard, from a tenant at Lenox, about a protest happening in the park about conditions at Grant Manor, a nearby subsidized housing complex. Tenants there angrily denounced the current management of the building, who had signed off on a major rent increase which would increase the rent for some tenants by over a thousand dollars per month. The rent increase was justified by the management as “necessary and unavoidable” in order to finance a renovation of the building, but no assessment of the needs of the building had been completed, so it was neither clear this renovation was necessary nor how much it would cost.

This building is formally owned in part by its resident association, the Grant Manor Homeowner’s Association, which is supposed to put the residents in control of the building. Right now this is control in name only, since the board of the resident association has been in the hands of one older resident of the building for the past several years. He uses his position to provide his family with apartments and jobs in the building, and has filled the board with his relatives and cronies. They run the whole building, and the attached food pantry, like a little kingdom, and they intimidate and harass tenants who speak up about it. Tenants have been dealing with his corrupt management of the building for years, and for them the rent increase was simply the final straw. They couldn’t tolerate him running roughshod over everyone else any longer.

This rent increase is also about more than just the rent going up. This building is located in Boston’s South End neighborhood, just on the edge of a wave of gentrification spreading outwards towards Dudley Square, Malcolm X’s one-time stomping grounds. Many tenants have spoken about how if they are forced out of the building by rising rents they will, like so many others, be forced out of the neighborhood to make way for cookie-cutter condo buildings and expensive restaurants. Taking a stand against this process of gentrification has inspired a lot of tenants to get involved.

Residents rallied behind Grant Manor in October to speak out about how the plans for Grant Manor are part of a larger push to gentrify all of Boston

To stop the rent increase we have worked with tenants to organize a petition nullifying the current board of the resident association. Over half of the units in the building signed on, and a lot of people have gotten actively involved in the struggle. After years of being intimidated and harassed by the management and the board, people are coming together and standing up. The first few protests we organized were located in the nearby park, but as tenants have gotten more emboldened to confront their oppressors we’ve organized several rallies right on the property.

The militancy and directness of the protests and the strength of organization among the tenants have gotten the management worried. So far they haven’t given in to the tenants’ demands for a new board, but they are clearly aware of the threat to their power. They have resorted to trying to intimidate some of the key organizers by sending them eviction notices, claiming without proof that they are behind on rent. Tenants and UFAD activists worked together to support the targeted organizers when dealing with these notices, figuring out how to document that they had in fact paid their rent and calling out the intimidation for what it is.

This has been the biggest change in the situation as people have gotten organized and as the struggle has developed. When people are alone it truly is daunting to stand up to the power structure, and the oppressors can easily crush one person standing alone. But when people get organized, and start supporting each other in the struggle, that changes. The oppressors will of course still try to attack and intimidate people, but when the people are organized their bonds of solidarity are much stronger than the attacks of the oppressors. We have seen this first-hand, and it’s an inspiring thing to see.

Threats to the struggle

As the struggle has developed, various forces have tried to come around and use the tenants’ struggle for their own ends. Several city councilors showed up, trying to reinforce their brand of being “for the community”. Although these city councilors talked a big talk and used a lot of progressive-sounding phrases, they ultimately have not shown up consistently to support the tenants, and multiple promises they made to follow-up and help out have fallen through. This exposes how they’re using the struggle opportunistically. They didn’t come out to try to advance the struggle or even just to passively support the tenants, but to build their street cred and convince tenants to re-elect them in the next election.

The mayor’s Chief of Housing and Director of Neighborhood Development, a woman named Sheila Dillon, also showed up and promised to look into what was going on with the management of the building. At the protest she came to, UFAD members challenged her and were able to expose that she didn’t understand basic aspects of what was happening in the building. We also did some research into her background, and found that she was on the board of directors of Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation (MHIC), a front for big banks which allows them to invest in low-income housing and get tax breaks.

Not only is MHIC a shadowy agent of gentrification, it was actually the former part-owner of the project building. So Sheila Dillon is not only linked up with the big banks driving gentrification, she is also literally on the board of the corporation which is partially responsible for the current situation of the building. Exposing these connections really helped to expose the city government’s promises of help as silver-coated bullets, designed to sell the tenants the lie that they could address their problems by working within the system.

The city councilors and Sheila Dillon tried to present themselves as being on the tenants’ side, but it was still clear to a lot of people where they stood. The efforts of UFAD members who looked into Sheila Dillon’s background, and especially her connections with MHIC, also helped to dispel illusions about where she stood.

A more insidious force which tried to sell out the tenants struggle was a local housing non-profit called City Life. This group was formed in the 70’s and has since then built up a strong reputation of fighting for “housing justice”. They often lead eviction blockades when tenants are threatened with eviction, and they provide free legal aid for tenants to try to win victories in the courts. A lot of progressive-minded people in Boston look to City Life as a paragon of organizing which can do no wrong.

What we saw in the struggle disrupted this happy picture. When City Life was contacted by the tenants at Grant Manor they sent one of their main paid organizers as a representative. He listened to their concerns about the rent increase and how it would make the building unaffordable for many of them and force residents to leave. City Life “acknowledged” these concerns, but told the residents they were wrong about the rent increase: it was, in City Life’s eyes, a good thing because it would “bring more money into the building.” They said even if a few tenants have to leave it will be better in the long run, so the tenants should just accept the rent increase and move on.

Tenants were rightly insulted and outraged that City Life treated them this way. How could this organization claim to be opposing gentrification and displacement on the one hand, and tell working-class tenants that they have “no choice” but to accept a massive rent increase on the other? What became clear to us as the struggle developed was that there is actually a close relationship between the city government, the city councilors, and City Life. When a tenant struggle gets going the city councilors and people from the mayor’s office come and tell the tenants to call City Life. City Life then comes in and “manages” the struggle, telling the tenants that they are struggling for them while really working to contain the struggle and ensure it doesn’t threaten local power holders.

When City Life told residents they would have to accept the rent increase this really exposed the role they were playing, and tenants decided to continue with the struggle and push City Life out. This was an essential step to take, because City Life was really a wolf in sheep’s clothing that threatened to sell out the struggle.

Now the struggle at this building continues. Tenants are still fighting to install a new board, and even after the new board is in place the struggle to beat back the banks and other forces circling around the building will continue. Even if the rent increase is successfully stopped at this building, there are many other buildings in the area which are facing similar issues. To truly build up the struggle against gentrification in Boston we will need to build links to those buildings too, and build solidarity between the buildings. It is a long-term struggle, but the successes that we’ve seen in the struggle so far show that people can really come together to struggle for change, and that a lot of people are excited to do so.

The struggles in these buildings and complexes in Boston are also not isolated incidents. The same forces which are working to push tenants out of public or subsidized housing here are also working across the country, and more and more public housing is being privatized or simply demolished. Across the whole country, 50% of HUD buildings have been lost since 1990, so the writing is on the wall. If people are going to defeat this, and the wave of gentrification and displacement accompanying it, they will have to get organized and support each other in the struggle.

We’ll also have to link up struggles between different areas, share ideas, and discuss what has worked and what has not worked in our organizing. It’s in this spirit that the Boston branch of UFAD has shared these reflections on our work together so far. We hope that they are helpful for people struggling against gentrification and displacement in other areas, and that they can inspire people to come together and fight back!

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