The defiant mood spread across the steps of the Massachusetts State House on May 2, as dozens of demonstrators from City Life/Vida Urbana and other members of the Right to Remain Coalition learned the Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act had been sent to study — a move that officially means it will not be voted on this legislative session, but that many activists and legislators regard as the death of the bill.
The Jim Brooks Act would require that large landlords in Boston report their evictions to the city, that information on tenant rights be distributed to renters facing eviction, and that banks foreclosing on homes have just cause for evicting former homeowners. The home rule petition passed last year in Boston City Council, but requires approval from the state legislature.
Earlier drafts of the bill contained additional protections for tenants, most notably extending just cause eviction requirements to tenants as well as former homeowners, but was watered down to the point many activists felt it was a modest compromise.
The rally outside the State House featured speeches from Boston residents, activists, and lawmakers, as well as live music and street theater about tenants rights featuring a landlord caricature from the fictitious “Shifty Realty.”
Darnell Johnson of the Right to Remain Coalition, the collection of housing advocacy groups that organized the event, said, “This bill started out as a strong community protection bill and it turned into a data collection bill.”
He said the next step for housing advocates was to regroup and push for stronger legislation with just cause eviction requirements and rent stabilization.
“We’re not going to be silent,” he said. “The voice of the community is going to be heard.”
Johnson said he thought timing, fear, and a misperception that they were pushing for special protections led to the bill being sent to study.
East Boston resident Elva Vanegas told her story to the crowd as an example of what community organizing and knowledge of tenant rights can accomplish. She said her landlord sold the apartment building where she’d lived for 20 years, and the following week she and the other two families in her building received eviction notices from the new owners giving them 30 days.
Vanegas organized the other families with City Life/Vida Urbana — also a member of the Right to Remain Coalition — and after a lengthy legal battle they won a three year lease.
“This is why the Jim Brooks Act is important, because families should know their rights, and that changes a lot. Right now they have us in a blind state,” she said in Spanish, while another rallier translated. “That’s why I’m inviting all the families that are being displaced to fight, and to look for organizations like City Life and the attorneys who help us to fight back.”
Doug Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords and a property owner in the city, acknowledged displacement as a major issue in the city but opposed the bill. He said the bill had been drafted without proper conversations with property owners and that attempts to establish that dialogue were ignored.
He said the requirement to report evictions was a violation of privacy rights based on federal and state fair debt collection law, a concern echoed by Richard Parritz, president of the Small Property Owners Association. The laws in question, specifically designed to protect against abusive debt collection practices, prohibit creditors from communicating with third parties regarding outstanding debts.
Quattrochi also opposed the bill on grounds that public record of evictions in progress could aid the organization of rent strikes or protests.
Segun Idowu, third vice president of the Boston NAACP and a state representative candidate who spoke at the demonstration, told Spare Change News that in addition to maintaining activist efforts, democratic action is a vital step for housing justice.
“Those who are being pushed out of their communities are going to let their representatives know by either making it more difficult for them to retain their office or voting them out entirely, that folks are looking to be actually represented, whether it be on Beacon Hill or Capitol Hill,” he said.