How East Boston tenants fought, and won, the right to stay in their home

A success story of a tenant-organized building reveals the depths of an eviction crisis worsened by the pandemic. 

By Anh Nguyen, December 2, 2021

BOSTON, MA – At the beginning of 2021, housing justice group City Life / Vida Urbana (CLVU) received a call from a desperate tenant through their bilingual housing hotline. 

The caller was Anna (last name omitted for privacy), 47, who has lived with her family on the second floor of a three-story building on Chelsea St. for over 20 years. She was referred to CLVU through the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center after expressing concerns to her doctor about her landlord frequently showing people the apartments in the building, but never receiving an official notice that he was trying to sell it. 

“We’re struggling the way we’re living right now,” Anna said in Spanish, as a staff from CLVU sat beside her to translate. “We don’t own a house, we’ve always been at the disposal of the landlord telling us when we have to leave.”

CLVU encouraged Anna to organize the building and set up an outdoor meeting with all the tenants to come up with a solution to fight back. The solution was to approach the East Boston Community Development Corporation (EBCDC) with an offer to buy the building. 

In September 2021, this Chelsea St. building became the first tenant-organized building in East Boston to be purchased by a non-profit dedicated to affordable housing.

“This is a big win for CLVU because we made history in East Boston with the first tenant association successfully organizing to take their building off the private market and stabilizing it long-term. They will no longer face no-fault evictions,” said Gabriela Cartagena, 26, communications director and Northside organizer of CLVU.

CLVU helps people in struggling communities fight housing displacement through coalition building, education, and advocacy. The organization believes that one way to fight the housing crisis is to put more buildings into social ownership, either through a community land trust, cooperative housing, or through a community development corporation acquiring the building. 

Gabriela Cartagena (center) regularly meets with the residents of the building, Anna (right) and Nadia Agouram (left) to follow-up and address their concerns. Photo by Anh Nguyen.

While awaiting EBCDC’s decision, the landlord continued showing the apartment. CLVU provided tenants with bright orange signs to put on their doors and windows that said: “We shall not be moved” in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole. These signs are known symbols of resistance. 

During one showing, a potential buyer asked Nadia Agouram, 32, who lives on the first floor with her family, how long they have lived there. When she said they had been living there for 10 years, the buyer no longer wanted to purchase the building.

“He just said: ‘No, I don’t want to buy this. You should still live here. You should keep living here,” said Cartagena. “That proved how much the signs worked and detracted potential buyers to buy us time to put in the work to convince EBCDC to purchase.”

“The desperation of the tenants there was so obvious, and we knew they would be displaced,” said Salvatore Colombo, 71, deputy director of EBCDC. “We felt that the numbers were tough, but we decided to go a little bit further than we might normally…Because if there’s a gap, like in this case, we put the money in as equity to solve the gap.”

East Boston is one neighborhood where the eviction crisis takes many forms. Although East Boston recorded the highest COVID-19 infection rate during the first year of the pandemic, it had among the lowest eviction filing rates of all Boston neighborhoods, according to a recent report published by CLVU and MIT researcher Benjamin Walker.

One explanation for this discrepancy, according to the report, is that Black and Latinx immigrant renters face distinctive informal, often illegal, pressures to move.

“In any immigrant community, I feel like you’re going to see a pattern of low eviction filings in court, because many people don’t even make it to that step,” said Cartagena. “It’s just that informal verbal eviction notice that scares them. It puts them in a state of fear, where they think they need to go or Immigration can get involved.”

For Cartagena, the most rewarding part of her work has been seeing the mindset of families transform from anxiety and misery, into hope. She said this happens when she encourages them to organize, trains them on how to best share their stories, or just listens to them because they don’t have many people who are willing to.

The importance of community solidarity was a sentiment also shared by the two women who still reside on Chelsea St. with their families.

“I feel safe for my kids and my kids are happy because they don’t have to move from their school, from their friends,” said Agouram. “And my mom is also happy because she can stay in the house she’s lived in for 10 years, where she knows her neighbors, her friends. It’s hard to make friends here.” 

Nadia Agouram, 32, in her living room. She lives on the first floor with her mother, husband, and three children. Photo by Anh Nguyen.

Agouram currently works as a housekeeper at the Intercontinental Hotel in Boston. Although she is happy to stay, she said a better job would improve her quality of life. 

Anna is currently unemployed. At the beginning of the pandemic, she had to let go of a new job in order to stay home and help her children attend online school. 

“When you go through an eviction, and then, recently, a family member passing away, you don’t really feel stable,” said Anna. “And when you’re not receiving these improvements in life, you feel like you’re in a cycle of sadness.” 

Anna came to the US looking for work to provide financial support for the family she left in Guatemala. With the tenants on the third floor having moved out recently, Anna’s family is planning on moving upstairs, where there will be more space and better utilities to accommodate her family. They will be able to make this move because of financial support through housing vouchers secured by EBCDC. 

“I’m really happy to stay in my home,” said Agouram, visibly relieved by the turn of events. “Well, I hope I can call this my home.”

Cartagena quickly added, “This is your home.”

Nadia Agouram (left) and Anna (right) enjoying Moroccan tea and dishes made by Agouram. Photo by Anh Nguyen.