Renters Day of Action: Bostonians March Against Displacement and Gentrification

All photos: Anthony Williams

As rents in Boston continue to increase, housing activists rallied and marched from City Hall to Chinatown demanding a freeze on rent increases and better eviction prevention for city residents. After a brief introduction at One Center Plaza, a giant prop fence reading “Eviction Free Zone” proceeded to lead the moving rally as part of the nationwide Renters Day of Action in September.

“Boston is killing itself,” announced two speakers atop City Hall Plaza’s steps, young women from Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. “It’s killing its diversity, it’s killing its children’s futures.”

Ralliers lay down on the brick ground, representing the human toll of displacement and gentrification.

The two speakers spoke against new developments that advertise affordable housing, noting that such affordable units are slated for people making $60,000 per year—well above the median income of many residents of Jamaica Plain’s Egleston Square and many Roxbury neighborhoods.

City Councilor Tito Jackson also spoke to the crowd, pointing out the wealth disparity between white and black Bostonians. He quoted a stat from “The Color of Wealth in the Commonwealth,” which found that the white households in Boston have a median net worth of about $250,000 while black households have a net worth of only $8.

Additionally, the topic of rising rents hits close to home for the councilor. “A three family house in Roxbury was $150,000 in Roxbury. Now the house two doors down from me sold for $600,000,” Councilor Jackson told Spare Change News. “Fifty percent of Bostonians make $35,000 or less. We have rising costs, no more income for people, and 15,000 new—that is a catastrophic collision of displacement and gentrification.”

He also called out the Boston Planning and Development Agency (formerly the Boston Redevelopment Authority), which currently focuses more of its efforts on building upper- and middle-income housing than lower-income units. “The problem with the [BPDA] is the planning and development functions are together. Our planning is determined by developers. So the people who have the most means and resources are going to drive that process,” he said.

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With all the construction happening in Boston, the trip downtown was a tight fit but grabbed the attention of many onlookers, with ralliers handing orange flyers to shoppers, the homeless, suited businessmen and food vendors alike.

The march made its way through Chinatown, which has been shrinking ever since high rises moved in, and ended at Reggie Wong Memorial Park. The park—a renowned volleyball hub—is part of a parcel of land that the state Transportation Department is shopping to developers.

“We need to keep this park,” said one longtime Chinatown Resident through a translator. She also called for neighboring blocks to be used for affordable housing, not more luxury high rises.

“Public land for public good,” added Suzanne Lee, a member of the Chinatown Community Land Trust. Lee and her organization emphasize the need for local neighborhoods to own and control the land they live on. “Only then can we even make a dent against the wave of gentrification,” she said.

Renters’ concerns aren’t new, and Boston’s increased cost of living is well documented. Outlets like Forbes and realtors like Zumper have declared Boston one of the priciest cities to live in, and the Brookings Institution declared Boston the most economically unequal city in the United States earlier this year. In 2015, rent increased citywide by 6.6 percent, slowing to a 2.7 increase in 2016.

Renters also called for better protection for tenants, pushing for a just cause eviction law that would force landlords to provide reasons for the eviction, protect homeowners from banks after a foreclosure and provide means for collecting data on evictions and rent increases.

Union leaders were also present at the rally, noting that a fair wage is crucial to keeping people housed. A raised minimum wage, many advocates argued, would make Boston much more livable.

For Brenda Jarvis, a member of the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee, losing her job in Boston resulted in a difficult, years-long period for her. She soon ended up homelessness, and while she managed to earn a contract (guaranteed) bed at the Long Island shelter in 2014, the shelter, along with the whole island, closed down following safety concerns about its only bridge.

“That was the first time I really felt homeless, that desperation,” Jarvis told Spare Change News. She was still going to school at the time but now found herself without a bed, no toothbrush and no clothes. Before the end of the year, she found housing in Lynn. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth is an expensive place—Jarvis still has to work two jobs, including a night shift in Boston at the weekend. Additionally, public transportation isn’t always helpful, and Jarvis finds herself stuck in the city, away from home, for the entire weekend.

“I’m still struggling to regain my footing,” said Jarvis. “I’m always exhausted. But you find your strength from somewhere.”

The organization Right to the City of Boston arranged the local Renters Day of Action. The organization is an alliance of community groups like Alternatives for Community and Environment, Chinese Progressive Association and City Life/Vida Urbana. Groups like Keep It 100% for Egleston, Make GE Pay and Mass. Alliance of HUD Tenants also showed support.

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