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King’s enduring legacy of housing advocacy

A Joint Commentary

Boston lost a giant last week with the passing of Mel King, but his vision, impact and legacy provide us with a clear guide in creating a more equitable city. Born in the South End in 1928, then an ethnically diverse mix of poor and working-class people with little political power, King dedicated himself to improving his neighborhood and city through community-led development. Over the course of his life and through his last years, he mentored local youth, organized job services, passed legislation, published books on political strategy and poetry and led campaigns for affordable housing and against urban renewal policies and displacement. He believed people should shape the development policies that directly affect them and their neighbors — particularly in Boston’s Black community and in other communities not given the investment, representation and resources they deserved.

Everyone knew Mel in the South End, but he collaborated with people across Boston’s neighborhoods. He stood with activists in Chinatown protesting institutional expansion by New England Medical Center in the ’80s. He managed, as the first Black person to run for mayor of Boston, a city ugly with racial violence and polarization not long after busing, to unite a famously diverse coalition of supporters called the “rainbow coalition.” He brought together Bostonians of every color, age and demographic in a positive campaign centered around the vision of development by and for the people. They shared his belief that everyone — regardless of race or class — should have a decent home and the community resources available to thrive, and that it was possible to create this reality. They rallied behind his housing agenda: a strong rent control program, more mixed-income housing, funding and maintenance for public and affordable housing, and community control at the local level and advocacy for a better and more expansive housing plan from the federal government.

When the renowned mixed-income Tent City project was finally built after 20 years of community organizing, Mel didn’t retire. He continued fiercely advocating for rent control, affordable housing, and criticizing the city’s development processes alongside local housing advocacy groups. He fought adamantly against displacement — he was arrested as recently as 2013, at 85 years old, while protesting no-fault evictions by banks with City Life/Vida Urbana outside Boston’s Housing Court. The same year, he protested with the Chinese Progressive Association against more luxury development — and a lack of affordable housing — at the South End/Chinatown border.

Since his passing on March 28, prominent legislators have been speaking publicly to honor King and his persistent fight for social justice and equity in Boston. They’ve asked how the city and the state can help realize his vision. We believe the answer is simple: The best way to honor Mel King’s legacy is by moving forward and passing the policies he fought so hard for. Boston just voted overwhelmingly in favor of rent control and a majority of Massachusetts voters support capping rents. Rent control bills now sit in the State House, and our legislators and governor can make it possible for Boston to have rent control and to give cities and towns across the state the option to enact it as well. TOPA (Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act) and transfer-fee legislation will help working-class people gain a stake in the city and fund desperately needed affordable housing projects.

For decades, until recently due to his health, Mel opened his doors to the community on Sundays, offering us brunch and a chance to meet others, talk politics, strategize, share poetry and build what he called the “chain of change.” He continued to mentor the younger generation of community activists in the South End, Roxbury and across the city. He inspired and advised the leaders who created Reclaim Roxbury, carrying forward his idea of community-driven development. Mel told us all, “It’s not that hard to do the right thing.” We call on our elected officials to do the right thing and pass the policies in front of you that he fought so faithfully for to realize the vision of good, stable housing for all, and the opportunity for all of us to thrive.

Denise Matthews-Turner and Mike Leyba, City Life/Vida Urbana; Dwaign Tyndal, Alternatives for Community and Environment; Armani White, Reclaim Roxbury; Karen Chen, Chinese Progressive Association; Mimi Ramos, New England United For Justice