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Photo courtesy of HSM Magazine

Hundreds of Roxbury residents speak out against displacement at landmark hearing

Last Tuesday, Roxbury residents filled the Bruce C. Bolling municipal building auditorium for the first Boston City Council hearing held in Roxbury in recent memory. Organizers, activists, and policy wonks joined them to raise their voices about some of the most critical challenges for long-term residents: gentrification and displacement.

Roxbury Councilor Kim Janey put in an order for the hearing in September. Several resident-led neighborhood associations and other organizations had approached Janey since the beginning of her term last year, and as she made the rounds at subsequent community meetings, the councilor learned that residents need relief. Janey agreed that a Council hearing was necessary and scheduled it to be held right in Roxbury, which has been hit hard by housing inequality.

By 5:30 pm, as the hearing was gaveled to order, the 200-person capacity room was already filled, with latecomers having to stand. People were still getting off buses at the Dudley MBTA station next door, looking to get in. Inside, City Councilor Lydia Edwards, chair of the body’s Committee on Housing and Community Development, joined Janey, Councilor-at-Large Michelle Wu, and South Boston Councilor Michael Flaherty, who opened by speaking about friends and family members who have been priced out of the Hub’s housing market.

Roxbury state Rep. Chynah Tyler testified about the importance of community development standards and said that she sends all potential developers to the appropriate neighborhood associations and to the Roxbury Neighborhood Council’s Land Disposition Committee for vetting. After background on the situation was given, a panel of direct stakeholders stepped up to give their opening statements.

A campaign has been gaining momentum in Roxbury for about two years, with resident associations and activists seeking to get city planners to stop giving public land to private builders before getting broad consensus from abutters and the neighborhood. Reclaim Roxbury organizer Armani White joined Robert Terrell of the Roxbury Neighborhood Council in setting the stage with a simple message: They want a moratorium on new development until the situation is settled, and they want it now.

Next up, a panel of city officials—Chief Economic Development Officer John Barros, Chief of Housing and Director of Neighborhood Development Sheila Dillon, among others—spoke to a thunderous silence. Their testimonies fell flat, with none of the appointed delegates answering specific complaints and accusations about displacement and the sale of city land.

On the other side, a testimony from Roxbury resident Louis Elisa touched a note heard all throughout the hearing: Various agencies that deal with land development, planning, and disposition are unhelpful at best and at worst part of the problem.

“As president of one of the oldest neighborhood associations in the city, the Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association, I am here tonight to ask whether or not the elected representatives of our city are willing to work with us as a community to assure that the seniors, working-class residents, and poor people in our community can count on you for support and assistance against the direct attacks on our quality of life by unscrupulous developers, lending agents, and large scale institutions.

Elisa continued: “Unprecedented loss of public access to playgrounds and recreation for our children and seniors has occurred in our community without a word of protest or information from anyone. The wholesale turnover of the Carter Playground deprives hundreds of residents in lower Roxbury, and we have yet to know the reason why.”

Roxbury resident Kimberly Lyle brought up the moratorium. We spoke after the event.

“I wonder if the people of Roxbury were heard,” Lyle said, noting “the body language of some of the officials coupled with their unwillingness to explore a moratorium as a anti-displacement strategy.” “A moratorium is by definition a temporary prohibition of an activity. We aren’t saying, Have a permanent ban of disposition of public land. We’ve elaborated and explained that we need an opportunity to come together as a community to discuss how to create a more equitable and less oppressive disposition of public land.”

Laura Younger of the Holborn, Gannett, Gaston, Otisfield Betterment Association (HGGOBA) addressed “the negative aspects of gentrification,” and the “displacement of black and Latino people and lower-income people in [the] Grove Hall neighborhood.” “What we need,” said Younger, “is the best of gentrification that includes us all, especially enabling our children to come home to or stay in the community when they have finished school or job training and are doing well.” She also offered a real-life example.

“This is why we fight for affordable homeownership and affordable rental housing available for local people ineligible for renting in the city/CDC projects being developed. At our October HGGOBA meeting, two young black men came to make a presentation because they want support to build a house for themselves on a small lot. They already are priced out of buying and created a good plan to be homeowners here by building. They now live nearby with their mother, and I’m sure it would be easier for them to relocate to the suburbs. These brothers will need some zoning variances to succeed. We want to encourage them to keep going and we expect the city to be helpful.”

By the end of the hearing, 60 people had signed up to testify, most of them residents of Roxbury or bordering neighborhoods. Councilors and many in the crowd stayed until 10 pm.

Neighborhood associations put a lot of work and hope into this hearing, all of them—the group includes Reclaim Roxbury, Tommy’s Rock Neighborhood Association, Roxbury Path Forward, and the others noted herein—unifying behind the theme of a moratorium, as well as a want to develop standards that could guide responsible development in the area.

“Tuesday’s hearing was very powerful. … We had two community panels and only one panel from the city,” Councilor Janey said. “And we began the hearing with a community panel, instead of the panel from the city, which usually goes first. We also weaved in public testimony throughout the hearing, instead of just leaving it until the end. … Everyone who wanted to speak [had] the opportunity to do so.

“I purposely designed the hearing to maximize community voice.”

Zakiya Alake is a member of the Roxbury Neighborhood Council and reported this article for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism community media program.

Zakiya is a writer and activist in Roxbury and is part of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism community media program.

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