When We Fight We Win: Historic Affordable Housing Victory in East Boston

Today we’re writing to share some exciting news of a huge organizing victory. 

This past week, with support from the East Boston CDC, City Life / Vida Urbana, and other local partners, our movement acquired a portfolio of 114 apartments across 36 buildings in East Boston, which will affordably house hundreds of working-class families.

Photo: HONK! Parade (2022; credit: Lauren Miller)

If you’ve ever been to one of our weekly tenant meetings, you’ve heard us talk about our organizing strategy: the sword, the shield, and the offer. At City Life/Vida Urbana, the sword represents the power of community organizing for dignified and affordable housing, the shield represents our collaboration with legal services partners who help tenants assert their legal rights when faced with eviction, and then we have the offer. The offer can take many forms based on the organizing goals of the tenants, but in some cases, the offer is the sale of the property to a nonprofit organization that agrees to affordably rent the unit to the tenants living inside. 

Between 2015 and 2017, City Life’s East Boston organizer was seeing many families come into our Wednesday night meetings who had a new corporate landlord who had recently purchased their homes. This landlord was trying to evict low-income and immigrant families so that the landlord could lease out their units to higher-paying tenants for a huge profit. In response, our organizers and the tenants used the sword to organize a public pressure campaign against this harmful corporate landlord. They organized many marches across the neighborhood and built a network of building-based tenant associations. Meanwhile, our shield partners Greater Boston Legal Services, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, and Harvard No One Leaves organized canvasses to inform tenants in this landlord’s newly acquired buildings of their rights, taking care to address tenants’ fears over immigration status. And today, 7 years later, we were able to make good on our offer – to buy these homes and create permanently affordable housing for generations to come.

In the last year we have celebrated some important milestones using this innovative strategy of combining direct action, legal defense, and the permanent preservation of affordable, socially-owned housing: 

Last fall, we celebrated the purchase of 209 Chelsea Street in East Boston. Tenants in this building came to City Life after learning of the building owners’ intent to sell their homes. They were able to connect the owner with the East Boston CDC (EBCDC) who purchased the occupied building and preserved these tenants’ housing. 

In May 2022, we celebrated the acquisition of 6 Humphreys Place in Dorchester by the Boston Neighborhood Community Land Trust (BNCLT). This sale was finalized in December 2022 after several years of struggle with several owners who all tried to displace the tenants instead of working with them, that is until BNCLT stepped in. The City of Boston’s Chief of Housing, Sheila Dillon, said at this celebration that “when they write the history of housing, 6 Humphreys will have its own Chapter.” 

And now, we can add 36 buildings in a newly established community-governed organization to this list. 

City Life has worked closely with EBCDC to create a new organization called the East Boston Neighborhood Trust (EBNT) which will take ownership of the buildings and will eventually become a self-sustaining organization. The East Boston Neighborhood Trust combines the strength and stability of community-based housing justice organizations (City Life/Vida Urbana, the PUEBLO Coalition, and East Boston CDC) and combines it with the deeply democratic resident governance, long-term affordability and social ownership ideals of the community land trust movement. Importantly, it protects the portfolio using a perpetual purpose trust– a legally binding agreement with an independent enforcer– which is designed to protect these tenants and their new organization from market pressure and speculation in a quickly changing neighborhood. 

Protecting over a hundred apartments for families in East Boston against the pressures of gentrification is not an easy or inexpensive feat. The purchase of the properties cost over $47 million, which we were able to raise through the efforts of some amazing partners – the Center for Economic Democracy, Boston Impact Initiative, the Hyams Foundation, The Boston Foundation, The Eastern Bank Foundation, Kataly Foundation and several individuals who, when combined with the City of Boston’s support, totaled over $20 million of support for this project. We are deeply grateful to our partners who trusted us enough to take this journey alongside us. 

We’ll share more information about this story in the coming months but we wanted to take a moment to celebrate this momentous occasion and a huge victory for housing justice. When we fight, we win!

In Solidarity, 

Mike & Denise

Ps. This incredible victory would not have been possible without the strength, tenacity, and organization of tenants across multiple buildings over many years. A victory like this takes years and significant resources to come to fruition; and we can’t do it without your support. If you are just as proud of this victory as we are, please consider making a donation so that we can continue this important work across the city. Thank you!