Before the start of the Occupy movement, Steve Meacham participated in a conference call with representatives from twenty different cities. The topic of discussion was occupation—housing occupation. Meacham is an organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana, a 38-year-old organization devoted to defending housing rights in Boston, with a history of success that others hope to emulate.
Indeed, if one were looking for immediate inspirations for the Occupy movement, City Life/Vida Urbana would stand out both for its steadfast commitment to economic justice and for the undeniable power of its methods. So, when Occupy Boston and CL/VU announced an alliance in mid-December, it felt less like a risky new investment and more like coming home for the holidays.
There are two large maps on the walls of the City Life’s Jamaica Plain office: one charting the foreclosures in Greater Boston and the other charting violent crimes in Boston. Dorchester and East Boston stand out like deep wells of red ink on a white canvas. The message is clear: the social cost of eviction are huge. “City Life works with people to stay in their homes,” says Cynthia Peters, who has been involved with the organization since the 1980s.
Peters outlined City Life’s process: “When a homeowner is facing eviction, we pressure the bank to reduce the principal of the loan, which is often much higher than the current market value of the property. With the help of volunteer lawyers, we try to convince a judge to intervene on the homeowner’s behalf.”
But what happens when the bank and the justice system deny homeowners a renegotiation of their loan? “If these steps fail,” Peters said, “we perform an eviction blockade.” An “eviction blockade” is when “City Life staff and members link arms or chain (themselves) to railings. We let the banks know that we aren’t leaving except under arrest.”
Peters points out that it isn’t just homeowners who are facing unlawful eviction. Renters also lose their homes when the property they are living in is foreclosed on. In these cases, the tenant has done nothing wrong. They are up to date on their rent and willing to continue paying rent, but often the bank won’t accept it. “We ask the bank: ‘Why should you evict these families? Why not just accept their rent?’” The choice to evict may make short-term sense from the point of view of large financial organizations, but, as the maps at CL/VU make clear, the social cost of eviction is the destruction of communities and an attack on what many are calling “the right to the city.”
The Right to the City
Over the past forty years, there has been a growing consensus that the city cannot be treated simply like another space, but that it actually maintains a special position in the larger economy. As French philosopher Henri Lefebvre wrote, “The urban center can no longer consider itself outside the means of production, their property and their management.” In other words, because the value of urban property is created by the collective desire of the community to live there, that same property cannot be simply sold off.
The community has a role in producing the value of a house or an apartment building, and so they have a right to help decide the fate of that property. In late 2010 several banks, including Bank of America, briefly halted foreclosures nationwide, following revelation of widespread legal violations in the foreclosure process. Although foreclosures resumed soon afterwards, ongoing evidence of unlawful and deceptive conduct in the foreclosure process — including false and fraudulent documentation—has recently led Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley to file a lawsuit against five of the nation’s largest banks.
“People are being foreclosed on without the proper paperwork,” City Life member Antonio Ennis told the crowd at a rally of Occupy the Hood, which is organizing in black neighborhoods in Boston, earlier this year. “Families are being put out on the street. The only thing that is going to stop it is people power.” “People power” created the value the banks now seek to seize, and this same “people power” is now the only thing preventing the wholesale destruction of the community.
Reform vs. Systematic Change
James Theckston, a former banker for Chase, told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that his bank pushed subprime loans on minority borrowers, even when they qualified for a prime loan. Kristof explained: “[Theckston] says that some account executives earned a commission seven times higher from subprime loans, rather than prime mortgages. So they looked for less savvy borrowers—those with less education, without previous mortgage experience, or without fluent English—and nudged them toward subprime loans. These less savvy borrowers were disproportionately black and Latino, and they ended up paying a higher rate so that they were more likely to lose their homes. Senior executives seemed aware of this racial mismatch and frantically tried to cover it up.”
This kind of systemic failure shows the difficulty community organizations like CL/VU face. How can they hope to work within the system when the laws that exist, such as those prohibiting discrimination in mortgage lending based on race or ethnicity, aren’t enforced? “We identify as radicals,” Peters says, “in that we look to attack the root of the problem. While we work for reform, we are constantly asking ourselves, ‘How can we also be addressing systematic change?’ Much of our work is trying to stop evictions, but how do we also take aim at the banking industry or capitalism?”
One of the results of this interest in radical change has been City Life’s participation in the Radical Organizing Conference, held in collaboration with other grassroots organizations in Boston. There have been six such conferences in the last eight years. Here, workshops on different styles of organizing mix with forums for sharing ideas on how to move forward. “The question,” Peters says, “is how do we create a larger left out of all the different activist organizations doing great work in really specific, focused ways?”
The alliance between Occupy Boston and CL / VU is in keeping with national developments in the Occupy movement. On December 6th, activists in more than twenty cities took part in a national day of action called Occupy Homes. In Brooklyn, Occupy Wall Street rallied to support a homeless family as they re-occupied a vacant foreclosed home as part of the Occupy Homes initiative.
In Boston, the publicly announced alliance between CL / VU and Occupy Boston was the result of a learning process that dates back to the establishment of the Dewey camp on September 30th. In the first weeks of Occupy, relations between the two groups could be rocky, as each learned how to work with the other. “Community-building is tough,” says Katie Gradowski, a member of Occupy Boston’s Outreach Working Group and liaison to CL/VU. “Occupy Boston comes in as kind of blank slate—it’s this big, crazy, unwieldy, beautiful project, with a lot of heart and a slightly incoherent message. We have a lot to learn from community organizations, and a lot to bring to the conversation. After a month or so of working to develop these relationships, we’re in a better place to actually get out beyond Dewey Square and start doing stuff.”
Investment in relationship-building has produced stronger and smarter “people power.” In recent weeks, participants in Occupy Boston have increased their participation in CL/VU events, according to occupier Bryan MacCormack, who says that members of Occupy Boston now “consistently attend meetings in JP and East Boston, and auction protests.” Protesters have attended recent anti-eviction actions in Dorchester and Cambridge and several even traveled to Springfield to attend a regional action with CL/VU and several affiliated organizations. Those at Occupy Boston who participate in CL/VU actions often speak of their work as an apprenticeship in community organizing.