in Vice, June 30, 2014 by
Five miles south of Boston’s city center, in the neighborhood of Dorchester, an empty white house sits at the junction of Norwell and Athelwold streets. Rising from the peak of its roof is a red brick chimney and, next to it, a long, silver spear. It’s an uncommon roof ornament for a neighborhood of mostly working-class families—not as busy with prongs as the iconic rake antennae, and curiously taller than the chimney it parallels. But when members of Boston activist organization City Life/Vida Urbana occupied this house on the morning of June 7, the roof antenna was one of the first, and most pivotal, announcements of their arrival.
From Saturday until Monday, June 9, City Life organizers, members of the community, and a soon-to-be homeless Boston family occupied 193 Norwell Street as a response to a months-long tug-of-war between the house’s owner, federal housing agency Fannie Mae, and a local nonprofit looking to appropriate the property for affordable housing. COHIF, the nonprofit Coalition for Occupied Houses in Foreclosure, bid to take it off Fannie Mae’s hands at current market value, but the government organization denied COHIF’s offer, spurring Boston citizens to react.
“There are empty houses, there are people that need houses, and Fannie Mae is a government organization,” said City Life representative Michael Leyba, in an interview with VICE last week. “That’s why we showed up. When you look at it, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”
But instead of simply standing guard inside the property’s walls, members of City Life’s arts collaborative fashioned an FM-grade antenna on its roof and an ad hoc broadcasting station in its living room. These amendments converted the house into a platform for occupying another evicted community space: FM 106.1, or the previous home of TOUCH FM, a cultural emblem of Boston’s African American community that was shut down by the Federal Communications Commission in April for not having a broadcasting license. The recent occupants of this frequency, local radio legends Charles Clemons and DJ Skippy White, were in attendance and on air to reclaim—at least for a moment—this beacon of the community.
The operation was dismantled on June 9 at 2 PM, when Boston police forces arrived at the house at the request of Fannie Mae’s appointed property realtor. The occupiers and their makeshift radio station were ejected from the premises, but the antenna they installed has yet to be taken down.
While only taking place over a weekend, these occupations were assembled to retaliate against an equity draught that has been stymieing minority communities in Boston areas like Dorchester since before 2007’s housing crisis. Last decade, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston reported that houses in the Dorchester neighborhood decreased in value by 40 percent from 2005 to 2007, which was twice as much as Boston’s average decrease in property values during that same period. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times reported that Dorchester also experienced twice as many foreclosures as the state average during those two years.
The ripples of that devaluation, it turns out, are still putting people under water. An April 2014 reportby the Massachusetts Housing Partnership revealed that four of Dorchester’s 16 census tracts are currently the most distressed areas in Boston. Distress in this case refers to any household that has filed a petition to foreclose or seen their house put up for auction within the past year.
Yet what appeared at face value to be a crisis of housing vacancies reified into a crisis of a much different class and color in 2013, when the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland released its“Gentrification and Financial Health” study of major US cities. At the top spot, with an astonishing 61 percent gentrification rate of “low-price” census tracts from 2000 to 2007, was Boston. While this revelation unfurled across national headlines shortly after the study’s release, it was far from news to those who had lived and lost within the Dorchester area since the start of the millenium.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re on a Section 8 [government housing subsidy] certificate, or if you got a paycheck in your pocket. They’re making it nearly impossible for the average blue-collar working person to stay in this city,” said Paul Adamson, a Dorchester resident of 61 years, and the head of the family who tried moving into 193 Norwell during City Life’s occupation.
Adamson and his wife, Renée, both people of color, have been evicted twice in the past three years, even after negotiating with landlords and trying to supplement their rent payments by reallocating funds from Adamson’s 401(k) account. “They’re selling houses to the hedge-fund guys and large real estate groups, and they’re paying cash. If someone is battling for his house and he owes $325,000, yet someone comes and makes an offer with $165,000 cash, the owner is out.”
Except, as was seen with 193 Norwell Street, if that offer comes from a nonprofit group looking to resell the property to its original owner or turn it into affordable housing. But a politico from the state of Massachusetts is attempting to take Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to court because of this very trend. Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general, announced on June 2 that she was suing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac because of their failure to comply with the state’s Act Preventing Unlawful and Necessary Foreclosures, which was proposed by Coakley and ratified in 2012. Among other things, the law prevents creditors from denying nonprofits the chance to buy back a foreclosed house with the intention of remortgaging it, at a manageable rate, to its previous tenant.
There are certain banks in Massachusetts that do just this, such as Boston Community Capital, which purchases and resells bank-owned houses through their “Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods” program. Something which would have benefitted Paul and Renee Adamson, but in cases where the occupants have already moved, an organization like COHIF builds the next step by providing an affordable unit for those without homes. “This is why we would like to see nonprofit developers be given priority over absentee investors without community interests,” said Leyba.
Though negotiations between Fannie Mae and COHIF over 193 Norwell had been going on since the end of 2013, City Life’s occupation arrived right at the heels of Attorney General Coakley’s announcement, making June a particularly loud month for Massachusetts’ voice in the national housing affordability crisis. In addition to these, City Life’s national affiliate, Right to the City, released its Rise of the Renter Nation policy report on June 14, which revealed that Boston has the second-highest percentage of renters among the US’ 25 most populated cities, at 67 percent.
Many of these renters are in situations that mirror what Adamson and his wife, Renée, have experienced. After being pushed out of residencies by high-brow investors and a housing market that’s still recovering from last decade’s subprime-mortgage-instilled housing crisis, homeowners encounter hurdle after systematic hurdle in the path to getting back their homes. And while some are fortunate enough to land a spot on the Boston Housing Administration’s waiting list for affordable housing, what presents itself as a glimmer of hope turns out to be nothing more than a bureaucratic mirage.
“Some members of our organization have been on waiting lists for years, if not decades, for that housing,” said Leyba. Leyba told VICE that a woman named Cheryl has been waiting for BHA placement for nearly 18 years now, and another, named Clerida, is on a priority list because of her past foreclosure, yet it’s unclear how much longer she’ll have to wait. “She’s literally front of the line, and three years later she’s still living in a motel.”
But although these individual histories are unsettling enough to engender action on a local level, City Life’s occupation was blueprinted with the entire nation in mind. “We really wanted to use the occupation to say, ‘This is more than one family. This is more than one type of buy-back option. There really is a crisis of affordability, and we’re not going to settle for anything less than affordable and fair housing.’”
“Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac hold over half the mortgages in the US,” continued Leyba. “Tax-payers own them by 79 percent, yet people are still being strong-armed out of their houses. And that’s been a trend that’s happened for years. We think that’s wrong.” This is a sentiment no doubt shared by America’s eroding communities of color like Dorchester.
The sad truth, however, is that the correlation between foreclosures and gentrification isn’t just an unfortunate coincidence—it’s the corollary of something much more intrinsic to America’s history, something sinister and systematic that won’t be removed from our nation’s fabric anytime soon.
Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter.