City Life marks 40 years of helping residents

May 10, 2013
By
(Gazette File Photo) Members of City Life/Vida Urbana, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation and the Egleston Square Neighborhood Association march to promote the “Campaign of Conscience” against high rents on Centre Street in central JP in 1999.

(Gazette File Photo) Members of City Life/Vida Urbana, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation and the Egleston Square Neighborhood Association march to promote the “Campaign of Conscience” against high rents on Centre Street in central JP in 1999.

City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), a JP-based nonprofit, is celebrating 40 years of empowering struggling tenants and homeowners with a May 18 dinner fundraiser in Dorchester.

Founded in 1973 as the Jamaica Plain Tenants Action Group by activists “who wanted to commit themselves to making life better for working-class folks,” according to CLVU Organizing Coordinator Steve Meacham, CLVU has grown from its small JP roots to an organization with a national reach and many regional offshoots.

Its official mission is “to fight for racial, social and economic justice and gender equality by building working class power through direct action, coalition building, education and advocacy,” according to its website. That currently means working with homeowners who are undergoing foreclosure and helping them fight their proceedings, or arranging for other ways to help them stay in their homes, like paying rent to the banks.

“[CLVU] has been active on housing displacement since the beginning. It’s been our core issue over all these years,” Meacham said.

When CLVU was founded, it was very active in labor efforts and supporting desegregation. It worked to fight rising rents by advocating for rent control and fighting gentrification.

“Our core thing has always been opposition to coerced displacement,” Meacham explained. “Real estate value is created by the actions of thousands of homeowners and tenants who work to reduce crime and improve their neighborhood.”

That leads to a tension between tenants and landlords—as tenants work to improve the neighborhood, landlords want to increase the rent, eventually driving out the people who worked to better their environment, Meacham said.

In the 1970s, JP was a prime example of that dynamic. Partly due to the westward shift in the Orange Line into the Southwest Corridor Park, partly due to the efforts of neighborhood residents who worked to improve the community, rents started to soar, despite a major victory in creating rent-control in Boston.

Thpse market forces led to the implementation of CLVU “Eviction-Free Zones” in the 1980s, including a large one in JP. By organizing tenants of a building into single coalitions, CLVU effectively slowed down and even stopped thousands of evictions.

“It got to the point where court personnel could tell a tenant, ‘Don’t worry, you’re in an eviction-free zone,’” Meacham said.

The “sword and shield” model, pioneered by CLVU, has now become a model for many efforts around the country, Meacham said. That model involves education and counseling from legal professionals and students (the “shield”) and public protests and pressure on “predatory” lenders and landlords (the “sword”).

In the 1990s, however, CLVU and working-class tenants suffered a major blow with the removal of rent-control in the City.

People in cities voted to keep rent control, but the state-wide decision came down to 51 percent in favor of striking it down.

“Real estate lobbies understood that they couldn’t defeat rent control in the municipalities,” Meacham said, so they took it state-wide. “[The result] was devastating…The real estate industry has a lot of power.”

CLVU tried to counteract the effects of the loss of rent control by advocating for units “outside the market”—subsidized affordable housing as we know it today. It is still active in that kind of activity, partnering with the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation to create more affordable housing in the neighborhood.

In the late 1990s and very early 2000s, CLVU tried to fight condo conversions in JP. While the organization sometimes won much better deals for evicted tenants, it failed to stem the tide.

Around the same time, CLVU started to shift its focus to the rest of Boston when tenants from Dorchester and Mattapan started approaching the organization, asking for help in fighting $400 rent increases.

Bringing back old tactics, tenants were directed to form coalitions to bargain collectively with their landlords.

“At one point, we had over 1,000 units in such contracts all over the city,” Meacham said. “City Life had a profound effect on the whole idea of radical community organizing.”

The early 2000s were not kind to renters and homeowners, Meacham said.

“There was a really palpable sense [of residents trying] to weather this terrible period and improve their communities while the wealthy were driving them out. We were offering a sense of hope and purpose,” he added.

In 2007, as the foreclosure crisis hit, CLVU realized that the biggest evictors were banks. They quickly launched organizing campaigns that even more quickly became their dominant activity.

“People just flooded into our office,” Meacham said. A regular weekly meeting and support group for foreclosed homeowners was organized—it’s still going strong, with 80 to 100 participants every Tuesday.

“It’s an ongoing fight,” Meacham said.

But with such an effective resistance model, CLVU quickly gained national attention, including a New York Times article in 2010.

They expanded their meetings and shared the model. According to Meacham, 10 cities outside New England now successfully use the “sword and shield” model to fight evictions. Weekly meetings are now held in various municipalities in both the South and North shores, as one single meeting in JP could no longer contain all the people who were traveling from all over the state to attend.

CLVU continues to organize for “radical organization”—though Meacham is quick to clarify that “radical” does not imply violence.

“It means getting to the root of a problem,” he said.

“There’s increasing consciousness between people’s individual battles and how the system is organized. It started with the 99 percent movement, with people realizing that America has plenty of money. It’s just in the wrong hands,” Meacham said. “There’s a lot of things like that. But there’s something fundamental here. We can’t just tackle this symptom, we have to tackle what causing all these things.”

CLVU has its 40th anniversary celebration Sat., May 18, at the 119/SEUI Hall in Dorchester. For more information, see clvu.org/40th.