Remembering The Life and Legacy of City Life/Vida Urbana Leader Mary Wright By Steve Meacham
“I was born by the river in a little tent Oh and just like the river I've been running ev'r since It's been a long time, a long time coming But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will”
(“A Change Is Gonna Come”, Sam Cooke, Ben Sollee)
Listen to Mary's powerful rendition of this song here:
Mary Wright passed away on May 8, 2020. She played a leading role in the Housing Justice Organization City Life Vida Urbana. In our weekly mass meetings, she would often be called upon to sing this song by Sam Cooke. Although I heard her sing it countless times, it always brought tears.
The song symbolized her personal and movement for justice narratives. She moved from Selma, Alabama, where she witnessed the heart of the Black Liberation movement, to Boston.
I met her when she became involved with City Life. She started coming to our meetings when she and other tenants from her building received notices of a $1000 rent increase. Mary was an organizer, and she lost no time organizing those tenants to come to City Life. She led a multi-year struggle to defend her and her neighbors’ homes.
Mary wrote letters, held meetings, spoke to media, and led protest pickets. She helped arrange legal defense with the aid of the famous David Grossman, a lawyer at the Legal Services Center and later the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Mary ended up winning a 10-year collective bargaining agreement for all affected tenants that kept rent increases modest during that period.
During this fight, Mary became more and more active with City Life. She attended countless rallies for other tenant associations, spreading the gospel of solidarity. When the foreclosure crisis hit in 2007, she extended her understanding of solidarity to the flood of small owners who were flocking to City Life meetings. Mary was at many eviction blockades where members risked arrest to stop auctions and evictions.
Mary was fearless. At one City Council meeting where a huge gathering demanded some form of tenant protection, the vote went against us. Mary led the huge crowd in singing the Sam Cooke song as people slowly marched out the door, pledging to return.
When we had the ability, City Life hired her. For years over 100 people have been attending City Life’s weekly mass meetings. Mary was an emotional anchor there, singing, educating, giving testimony. She represented City Life at many events. Mary collaborated with Dave Grossman to talk at Harvard Law classes.
One memory all City Life members share is the relationship between Mary and Jim Brooks. They came into City Life together. They helped lead most Tuesday meetings. Jim was a wheelchair user (he passed four years ago), frequently chaining his wheelchair to the balustrade of a front porch to stop an eviction. They became close friends, bantering back and forth in front of our meetings to give courage and community to many isolated and fearful people. Jim would frequently ask Mary to sing the Sam Cooke song to accomplish that goal.
Mary had a stroke just as City Life was renegotiating her collective bargaining agreement. She was placed in a nursing home, but continued to receive all kinds of visitors. Recently she tested positive for the Corona Virus and was taken at a much too early age of 76.
Mary was a deeply spiritual person. She was part of two churches. One was her beloved New Hope Baptist Church, where she was a long-time leader. The other was City Life, which has sometimes been called “housing church”.
Therefore it’s fitting to end with this (slightly amended) verse from the Sam Cooke song.
It's been too hard living, but I'm not afraid to die 'Cause I know there is someone, up there, beyond the sky It's been a long, a long time coming But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.
We're proud to announce that we've hired two new Organizers for the East Boston area: Frances Amador and Gabriela Cartagena! Both live in East Boston and are deeply connected to the immigrant communities that we empower in the area.
For a long time, Gabriela has been part of our campaign to win real affordable housing at Suffolk Downs as a leader in East Boston's PUEBLO Coalition. Frances discovered City Life/Vida Urbana in 2018 when her landlord gave her an eviction notice. Frances is still in her home, and now, alongside Gaby, is courageously leading our movement and empowering new leaders. We welcome this powerhouse team to our staff!
Residents across Massachusetts take collective action to win strong ban on evictions and foreclosures
April 20, 2020 – Massachusetts Governor Baker has signed into law one of the country's strongest moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 crisis, H.4647. Well over 1,000 residents took collective action to win the passage of the law - including sending hundreds of emails urging Baker to sign it in the days leading up to its passage.
Here's what Massachusetts' moratorium does:
✅ Stops landlords from sending Notices To Quit ✅ Stops courts from hearing eviction cases or entering judgments ✅ Stops sheriffs from enforcing executions for possession ✅ Stops late fees + negative reporting for COVID-impacted tenants ✅ Moratorium on residential foreclosures ✅ Moratorium on evictions of small businesses
Among the thousands of families who benefit from the moratorium is a New Bedford couple, Robert and Lauren. The moratorium became law on the eve before a constable was set to physically evict them from their apartment. Robert is a construction worker whose company has no work for him due to the pandemic, and Laura is immunocompromised. They've been unable to make rent lately, like thousands of other households across the Commonwealth.
After receiving a 48-hour eviction notice on their door last Thursday, Robert called our popular housing hotline. The couple received legal assistance and quickly began to share their story in hopes of not only saving their home but helping others across the state as well.
Hours before Baker signed the law, Robert recorded a selfie video to share with neighbors across Massachusetts. "This will be our home," Robert said, pointing to his car, "if a moratorium is not put into effect." Watch the powerful video below:
Tearful upon hearing the news that the moratorium had passed and will protect the couple from eviction, Robert wrote us an email saying, "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Robert still plans on consulting with a legal aid attorney immediately to make sure that the new rules are enforced and the couple is safe.
Moments after Baker signed the bill, City Life/Vida Urbana tweeted: "OVER 1000 PEOPLE this weekend contacted @MassGovernorto win a strong #EvictionMoratorium in Massachusetts, helping families across MA keep their homes! Together, with our hearts and values, we defeated the real estate lobby's attempts to stop it."
Large real estate groups had argued against the bill in recent days, some saying that it violates the state's constitution. Many took issue with the bill's ban on eviction notices.
"Eviction notices often lead to families just packing up and leaving. Big real estate companies know that well. Most people don't know their rights and they panic," said Alex Ponte-Capellan, a Housing Justice Organizer at City Life/Vida Urbana.
"At heart, we value people over profits," added Alex. "It's just sad how real estate lobbyists tried to stop these protections. It's a life or death issue," he added.
"The old rules, where real estate groups legislate our housing system, don't apply anymore - we have to move beyond that unjust system for our survival now," said Ponte-Capellan.
Community leaders view the strong moratorium bill as an important step in addressing the disparate impact the COVID-19 crisis is having on communities afflicted by institutional racism and economic injustice.
“Before the pandemic, displacement was already wreaking havoc on working class neighborhoods and communities of color,” noted Isaac Simon Hodes of Lynn United for Change. “Evictions and foreclosures have always had a terrible impact on health, and now the coronavirus has turned them into even deadlier threats. A lot more needs to be done, but this moratorium is an important start in protecting vulnerable people during the coronavirus crisis.”
The urgency of the problem is clear, with over 700 new eviction cases filed statewide since March 13, and community groups reporting a flood of calls from people panicked by foreclosure letters or notices of eviction.
Betty Lewis, a grandmother and tenant association leader in Mattapan, received an eviction notice just days ago because she can't afford the $300 rent hike that Corcoran Management is asking from her.
"A lot of people don’t have money, we’re just getting by. We're real humans, real people, we deserve to have a place to stay,” said Betty, who was elated by the news of the bill's passage.
The Legislature’s action follows broad public support for a strong eviction and foreclosure moratorium, which reflects the widely felt impact of the crisis on both tenants and homeowners.
“In just over one day, more than 200 community groups, congregations, and unions signed on to a letter in support of a moratorium,” says Lew Finfer of MA Communities Action Network. “That coalition is ready to push for the longer-term mortgage and rent relief discussed in the letter. We’re really encouraged that key leaders in the State House are already talking about the need for additional measures and we look forward to working with them on that effort.”
We commend the legislators who helped to push the moratorium forward, including Representatives Mike Connolly, Kevin Honan, Nika Elugardo, Aaron Michlewitz, Speaker DeLeo and others. Senators Karen Spilka and Michael Rodrigues were also behind the bill.
In addition to temporarily halting residential and small business evictions and foreclosures, the final measure also requires that lenders offer small homeowners a mortgage forbearance, adding payments at end of the loan term.
“This bill is a good start, but we also need parallel relief for renters to prevent a wave of evictions after the emergency is lifted,” says Rose Webster-Smith of Springfield No One Leaves.
“Also, we’ve got to make sure that no one is burdened by crushing housing debt in the aftermath of the crisis," added Rose. "We hope to move forward rent relief for tenants alongside additional help for homeowners, owner-occupant landlords, and others impacted by the crisis," said Rose.
"Anyone who wants to support that should sign the petition from Homes for All Massachusetts at www.HousingGuarantee.org,” Rose said.
Photo above: Ms. Betty Lewis, a Boston grandmother who received an eviction notice during the COVID-19 pandemic.
City Life/Vida Urbana is lucky to announce that Noel Sanders recently began working with us to support people who have intersecting housing and health struggles. Noel is working with us through the Boston Community Health Initiative (BCHI), a community health organization "dedicated to addressing the racism & classism in our state’s healthcare system."
From Noel: "The Boston Community Health Initiative is a project that addresses healthcare inequality. Our goal is to seek out patients who have gotten compromised care, help them gain access to quality care, and empower them to fight back. We understand that the healthcare industry is a for-profit model that is not meant to serve those who need it most; it actively makes money off of people being sick. These disparities are present disproportionately in communities of color. In Boston, these communities are Dorchester, Roxbury, and East Boston. We empower patients to fight for the quality care they deserve, and through that, we are working to create an equitable healthcare system Boston!
Along with City Life, we’re fighting the biggest forms of oppression that Boston faces: gentrification of housing, and gentrification of healthcare access. The two work together to keep racism, ableism, and sexism alive. They keep residents from having access to the human rights of housing and health. It often presents as tenant health issues that are caused or worsened by housing conditions. We’re standing with you to say NO to that! We work directly with community residents to identify their health needs and the extent to which they’re currently being unmet by existing institutions, laws, and policies.
BCHI is currently working with Covid-19 mutual aid networks to connect those that they serve with healthcare support. We are helping people deal with barriers that arise with their healthcare providers, both in seeking care during the pandemic and with their preexisting needs."
If you know anyone who needs access to affordable medical care or medical advocacy, reach out to Noel Sanders at [email protected]!
Effective immediately, City Life/Vida Urbana's OFFICES ARE CLOSED to the public through at least Monday, 3/30/20 (two whole weeks) due to the COVID-19 crisis.
BUT our movement for housing justice, dignity and care for all won't stop! We're moving our weekly meetings online, starting this week. We won't meet in person at all for our our weekly Tuesday night meetings in Jamaica Plain, nor our Wednesday night meetings in East Boston, until the crisis is over. But please do join our meetings online - FIND OUT HOW TO ATTEND OUR ONLINE MEETINGS HERE:clvu.org/virtualmeetings
Our organization is continuing to work hard for mutual aid and other forms of social and economic justice in this crisis. We're turning our attention to the many ways that we can support each other right now.
IF YOU'RE STRUGGLING WITH A DISPLACEMENT EMERGENCY: CALL OUR HOTLINE DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC at (617) 934-5006.
IMPORTANT NEWS: A Massachusetts judge has postponed most evictions in our state. Please call our hotline (above) with any questions about how the eviction postponement affects your case.
Every week, between 80-125 people from all walks of life, including many who are facing displacement, come to City Life meetings in Jamaica Plain and East Boston to build a vibrant local movement for housing justice. Our culture is one of deep relationship and connection to each other, and we hold that very dearly. We are committed to protecting both this crucial movement space as well as the health and wellness of the hundreds of people who walk through our doors.
Today, we launched a petition for a state-wide moratorium on evictions in Massachusetts during the COVID-19 State of Emergency. Massachusetts residents, please sign the petition and share! No one should have to choose between saving their home and being exposed to #COVID19, especially folks with the least resources. And no one should have to lose their home due to the pandemic's impact on their income. #HealthNotEvictions
Public statement by City Life/Vida Urbana on COVID-19 and evictions: Shut down the eviction court during the coronavirus crisis.
Trips are cancelled. University classes are going online. Conferences and conventions are postponed. All of this is due to the coronavirus, which is clearly a real public health emergency. One obvious place not mentioned which should close down is the housing court. It is one of the worst places to leave open if you want to prevent a spreading infection. More specifically, all evictions except those by owner-occupants should be stayed.
1. There are hundreds of people squeezed into a small space without adequate ventilation.
2. Even a person who is ill will feel that they must go to Housing Court. Otherwise they will be defaulted and forcibly removed from their home. In other words, you can’t “self-quarantine” when you’re sick.
3. Places where people go to get help with displacement will become much harder to reach during the crisis. Hundreds of people get legal and social support each week in an attempt to prevent displacement. But legal systems will be compromised during the crisis. Access to back rent help and mass informational meetings may have to be postponed or curtailed.
4. The stress of eviction court, the stress of threatened displacement will contribute directly to both contracting an illness such as the coronavirus and to how severely it affects you if you do contract the illness.
5. Losing your home will disrupt a family’s ability to secure heath care and necessary medicines, thus adversely affecting an individual family and encouraging the spread of the virus. Therefore, we demand, “Close down the eviction court at the Eastern Housing Court, except for evictions by owner occupants, until the coronavirus crisis is past.”
Cerrar el tribunal de desalojo durante la crisis del coronavirus.
Los viajes están cancelados. Las clases universitarias son por internet. Se posponen las conferencias y convenciones. Todo esto se debe al coronavirus, que es claramente una verdadera emergencia de salud pública. Un lugar obvio no mencionado que debería cerrar es el tribunal de vivienda. Ese es uno de los peores lugares abiertos al público si se desea prevenir la propagación de una infección. Más exactamente, se deben suspender todos los desalojos, excepto los de los ocupantes propietarios.
1. Hay cientos de personas aglomeradas en un espacio pequeño sin ventilación adecuada.
2. Incluso si una persona enferma sentirá que tiene que ir al Tribunal de la Vivienda. De lo contrario, perderán por incumplimiento y serán expulsados de sus hogares. En otras palabras, no pueden "estar en cuarentena" aunque estén enfermos.
3. Los lugares a donde las personas acuden por ayuda con el desplazamiento serán mucho más difíciles de accesar durante la crisis. Cientos de personas obtienen apoyo legal y social cada semana en un intento por evitar el desplazamiento. Pero los sistemas legales se verán comprometidos durante la crisis. El acceso a la ayuda de alquiler atrasado y las reuniones informativas masivas pueden tener que posponerse o cancelarse.
4. El estrés del tribunal de desalojo, el estrés del desplazamiento amenazado contribuirá directamente a contraer una enfermedad como el coronavirus y a la gravedad de esa enfermedad si se contrae.
5. La pérdida del hogar afectará la capacidad de las familias de asegurar la atención médica y los medicamentos necesarios, lo que afectará negativamente a esa familia y fomentará la propagación del virus. Por lo tanto, exigimos: "Cerrar el tribunal de desalojo en el 'Eastern Housing Court', a excepción de los desalojos por parte de los ocupantes propietarios, hasta que la crisis del coronavirus haya pasado".
In January, we held our 5th mass meeting for Section 8 tenants so that we can all learn our rights and fight for our homes! We've been meeting in different zip codes around the Boston. In 2019, we gathered with Section 8 residents in Mattapan, Roslindale, Dorchester and Roxbury, and in January, 2020, we met with Hyde Park residents. This formation is a kind of city-wide tenant association for Sec. 8 tenants, and it represents our historic collaboration with the Boston Housing Authority and Metro Housing.
In recent years, we've seen an uptick in Section 8 tenants struggling with rent hikes above the payment standard because there is no rent control in Boston, not even for Section 8 voucher holders. We're organizing so that we can all keep our homes in the face of real estate greed!
In the Spring of 2018, real estate speculators Josh Cohen and Christ Stamatos bought a 6-unit apartment building at 22 Rexford St. in Mattapan. By that September, they were demanding hundreds of dollars more per month from their tenants.
Ms. Ruby James Saucer and Ms. Michelle Ewing are grandmothers who've made a home at 22 Rexford St. for years. Ms. Saucer moved there at the start of the decade after being displaced from her last home during the foreclosure crisis. Both of the women are very involved in their neighborhood - recently, Ms. Saucer became a councilmember of the Mattapan Neighborhood Council.
When Stamatos and Cohen notified the grandmothers of the astronomical rent hike, they marched over toCity Life/Vida Urbanafor support. They knew they were completely unable to stay in their homes at the raised rent; both live on limited, fixed incomes. The very real prospect of homelessness hung over their heads. So, they committed to fight the increase.
With legal help fromHarvard Legal Aid Bureauand public actions alongside dozens of Boston supporters, the grandmothers fought the rent hikes in Boston Housing Court over the course of 17 months and multiple housing court appearances. They also spoke out publicly about their story: they appeared on Boston 25 News and BNN, and in September of 2019 they led a march to Cohen's house in Jamaica Plain.
Ms. Ewing and Ms. Saucer finally brought Cohen and Stamatos to the negotiating table. In November 2019, Ms. Ewing won a 3-year lease with moderate rent increases, and in January 2020, Ms. Saucer also won a 3-year lease at an affordable rent. Both will remain in their homes.
The grandmothers have also joined the campaign to lift the state-wide ban on rent control. In October of 2019, they spoke at a rally in front of the State House about how rent control would shield people like them from outrageous rent increases and displacement.