Speakers presented a new report created by researches at Massachusetts Institute for Technology and City Life, which revealed that 70% of evictions in Boston are in communities where the majority of the population are people of color—Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan.
Ruby James Saucer moved into her apartment on Rexford Street in Mattapan in February 2016. In May of 2018, her landlord sold the building, and the new one asked for a rent increase of $700 per family.
Saucer said the new owner must have known that most tenants would not be able to afford this change, speculating that they wanted many of the families to move out so that the building could be converted to condominiums. To defend herself, Saucer reached out to the nonprofit City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots community organization fighting for racial, social, and economic justice, and the group held a protest outside of the landlord’s building in Jamaica Plain.
“We marched, and it was pouring rain,” Saucer said. “I even had my great-granddaughter outside in the rain. We marched, we sang, we chanted, we did everything. It felt empowering to get out and let people know you’re fighting for your home. You’re fighting for a roof over your head. We shouldn’t have to be doing this, during this time.”
Saucer and the tenants went to court with their landlord and eventually reached an agreement to bring their rent down to $1,750, with a 3% increase over the following three years. Still, she said her housing bill is more than she can afford, and that there are still so many other bills to pay.
“We don’t live to pay rent,” Saucer said at an event held by City Life. “Right now, we are in the process of living or working to pay rent. If we had rent control established, that would give us some resources, so we wouldn’t have to pay all of our money to rent. … You need a roof over your head, but you need to pay the light bill, the gas bill, you need to do other things. You have a car, you have insurance, you have all kinds of stuff. You just can’t live to pay rent, in this country.”
On June 29, City Life held a webinar titled “Bracing for the Wave: Mass Evictions in Communities of Color.” During the talk, speakers presented a new report created by researches at Massachusetts Institute for Technology and City Life, which revealed that 70% of evictions in Boston are in communities where the majority of the population are people of color—Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan. While 37% of market-rate evictions occur in neighborhoods where the majority of residents are Black.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation calling for a moratorium on evictions as a response to the coronavirus, but the measure is planned to be lifted in August. “When it ends, unless lawmakers pass legislation that would enact protections for working class renters and homeowners, many will be forced to leave their homes,” according to City Life Executive Director Lisa Owens.
“Our report shows a pattern of eviction filings and executions disproportionately impacting communities of color and in particular Black people,” Owens said. “That reality creates instability, anxiety, and a host of problems at the city, family, and neighborhood-wide levels. The coronavirus unsurprisingly impacts people who share those same risk factors, working class people and [those] likely to be essential workers. … These same communities are impacted over and over again, and coronavirus just accelerates and amplifies those preexisting conditions.”
The root cause of the eviction crisis in communities of color is systemic racism, Owens suggested. The housing market, set up to reward actors who can buy property cheaply and sell it for personal gain, is built on profit rather than people, she said. In determining the eviction rate of a neighborhood, race is the best indicator, but Owens noted, “the formation of race grew alongside capitalism, as it was being birthed in this country,” making it impossible to talk about class or race without referencing the other.
The history of racial segregation in Boston has demonstrably contributed to unfair housing practices we see today. Redlining—the process of rating neighborhoods partially by race of residents, making it difficult for families of color to obtain mortgages—is no longer legal but still persists in different, less overt forms, according to experts and activists. White flight, blockbusting, and predatory lending continue to occur. The latter is particularly toxic, said Zakiya Alake, a board member on the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending, as lenders often fail to disclose critical financial requirements or present them in a false light. Furthermore, said Kamau Walton, national communications organizer for the Right to the City Alliance, a group that helped to host the aforementioned June conference, certain tenants facing eviction may experience other difficulties, such as not having access to the internet needed for a virtual court hearing.
There are a number of ways to address the housing crisis among communities of color, according to the MIT-City Life report. Rent control would prevent landlords from arbitrarily hiking the cost of housing, while tenants could have legal representation and be educated about their rights. The city also needs just cause eviction ordinances, making it harder for landlords to evict if a tenant experiences a significant setback, while more funding should be accessible for affordable housing, the report states. Owens said that she hopes policy makers will come to better comprehend the gravity of the situation and make changes.
“Everything that will impact our state just has a heightened effect,” Owens said. “People who are responsible for taking care of not just their household, but because we’re essential workers, we take care of everybody else. If we have, as a state, our essential workers homeless or in danger of being kicked out of their home, during the time when we need them the most, that’s a huge wake up call.”
Walton said the housing issue doesn’t stand alone but is interconnected with other social concerns. The role of the police, for one, shapes communities and often plays a part in evictions and who gets access to public housing. If we are going to see housing justice change, Walton said, we need to address other systems.
“I think that it’s important that we see the work around evictions not just as an explicit housing issue but also as a racial justice issue, as a community control issue, as an issue of self determination, as a core piece of what we need to challenge how the world has been set up and how we prioritize profit over people,” Walton said. “We have seen the way policing has been used to displace folks from their homes and communities. … We’re really trying to transform that not just in this moment, but in the long term. We’re working to protect people from mass evictions in this moment, and we’re working to build alternative forms of housing in the long term.”