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Boston activists call for policies in Renters Day of Action demonstration

Tenants rally to demand gentrification protections

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Boston activists call for policies in Renters Day of Action demonstration
Protesters gathered before the Greater Boston Real Estate Board headquarters downtown, criticizing what they said were practices that favored profit over people.

Demonstrators marched into Chinatown. Many called for a law that would curtail no-fault evictions.

Tenant activists from across Boston came together last Thursday bearing banners highlighting issues in areas from the Fenway to Chinatown to Dorchester and emphasizing the same over-

arching message: that housing, tax and land use policies must change to ensure longtime residents are not displaced as rent increases outstrip wage growth.

Chanting in English, Spanish and Chinese, protesters gathered before the Greater Boston Real Estate Board downtown headquarters, criticizing what they called missing tenant protections and practices that favor profit over people. The advocates then marched to City Hall, where they outlined demands for policy change and — illustrating predictions of community destruction should change not come — conducted a die-in. The protest concluded with activists’ speeches in Chinatown’s Reggie Wong Park, one of the last in a handful of publicly-owned neighborhood parcels, whose future many residents fear will be beyond their control.

‘Up with the wages, down with the rents’

Demonstrating as part of a national Renters Day of Action, the local activists called for access to housing to be recognized as a human right. They highlighted several policy goals, among them a halt to rent increases and a pay increase to living wage standard — the level deemed necessary to afford basic needs, which currently is higher than the minimum wage.

“Developers make all these luxury buildings, while the minimum wage is only $10,” said Pei Ying Yu, a Chinatown resident, with English translation from Karen Chen, Chinese Progressive Association co-director. In Boston, a living wage is $26.12 for a family with two children and two adults working full-time year round, and $12.97 for a single, childless adult, according to research by Amy Glasmeier, MIT professor of economic geography and regional planning.

The city recently reported signs of rent stabilization in the Fenway as more units came online, with rents in older units declining by 0.4 percent as the neighborhood’s housing stock grew by 6 percent since 2011. However, according to information distributed by protest organizers, rent increased by 7.4 percent in Roxbury this year. In Jamaica Plain, rents rose 10 percent in 2014, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s PLAN: JP/Rox final draft report.

An Egleston resident spoke similarly of the stark contrast between earnings and rent. The affordability level outlined for units created under the city’s PLAN JP/Roxbury remains out of reach of many residents in a neighborhood where the average annual earning is $35,000, he said. According to that report, 15 percent of households in the area are at elevated risk of displacement, because they make less than $75,000 annually and live in market-rate rental housing.

Some Jamaica Plain and Roxbury residents have raised complaints that under the city’s plan, 30 percent of units created would be affordable, while they want to see 70 percent.

Some activists in Chinatown called for public land to be turned over to community control.

“That’s not our affordability,” the Egleston resident said.

Authors of the JP/Rox report state that limited funds for subsidizing affordable development means that any deepening of the levels of affordability comes at the cost of reducing the overall number of such apartments created.

Protestors at City Hall raised the spectre that much of the working class could be pushed out of Boston, thus destroying communities and damaging the city’s economic diversity and viability.

Ownership and evictions

Activists called for measures to prevent landlords and developers from speculating on real estate, increase emphasis on affordable housing and promote turnover of public land to community control. Groups such as land trusts would be able to ensure continued affordability or that land use reflects other resident priorities, several activists said.

“It’s not good enough to fight gentrification and rent increases,” said Suzanne Lee, CPA president emeritus and board member of the Chinatown Community Land Trust. “We must control the land in our community. That’s the only way we can make a dent and stem the tide of gentrification.”

Many expressed frustration with what they said was limited community voice reflected in development plans. Among these were members of the Fenway who were protesting Emerson College’s plans to house students for two years in the neighborhood. Protestors said that plan seemed to be progressing, despite local resistance.

Activists said that residents are better able to hold landlords accountable when they are local individuals or community groups, as opposed to large corporate owners. Among protesters’ requests were passage of a just cause eviction law, which would prevent corporate landlords from evicting tenants without providing an acceptable reason, such as property damage or failure to pay rent, thus curtailing their ability to make no-fault evictions. A draft of the just cause eviction bill is with Mayor Martin Walsh and the city council, Darnell Johnson of Right to the City told the Banner.

While an earlier version of the bill gave tenants access to non-binding third-party mediation with landlords prior to any significant rent increases to see if an alternative solution can be found, that provision was removed during negotiations. It was replaced by a requirement that landlords file notices to quit both with the tenant and with the city’s Office of Housing Stability. With many residents unaware of their rights and resources in such a situation, this will cause the city to provide tenants with information, Johnson said.

Once evicted, residents often struggle to find living quarters they can afford. Pei Ying Yu said that when a developer bought their home on Hudson Street, she and other long-time tenants were forced to leave so repairs could be made. Yu qualified for subsidized senior housing, but said her sister, who also was displaced more than a year ago, remains homeless.

Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said in a Banner phone interview that procedures already are in place for handling a situation in which a landlord tries to evict a tenant early. In his view, the just cause eviction ordinance seems designed to prevent a lease from ending on its expiration date, something he said tenants should work out before signing.

Vasil also said there is a danger in tenants’ calls for a rent freeze, stating that national developers testified in a March hearing that rent control in Boston would discourage them from building here. When the city had rent control, many landlords could not afford to make repairs, he said.

“The form [of rent control] that we had resulted in properties that decayed in place,” Vasil said. “Rents were stable but quality of life over time decayed.”

The way to reduce rents, he said, is not to hold rents still but to increase housing stock enough that supply outpaces demand and prices naturally drop.

Brenda Jarvis spoke of her time being homeless, calling the experience traumatic.

Community Preservation Act

The local Renters Day of Action protest drew speakers such as Brenda Jarvis, who suffered from homelessness after she lost her job in 2013 and unemployment benefits were delayed in arriving. She spoke of sleeping in shelters — at times on cots, at times on the floor — and finally managing to get a bed reserved for her on Long Island only for the shelter to close a month later. She found out the same day that she could not return and lost most of her possessions, which were in a shelter locker.

One measure that could help prevent such homelessness, activists said, is a housing voucher program. If the Community Preservation Act passes, revenue generated from it could be directed to underwrite the vouchers, said a member of the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants, who called for quicker city action on the vouchers.