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TROUBLE ON THE HOMEFRONT

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How Boston homeowners and renters wound up with a common enemy,
and fought back together

Editor’s note: As noted in a previous installment of our series on the state of housing in Boston, I have personally covered City Life/Vida Urbana extensively, and have also consulted the group on social media matters. Those who consider that a conflict of interest can rest assured that DigBoston is in the tank for working class people rather than the entities evicting them. Housing is a rightnot a privilege, and we’re pretty sure you would agree in the event that you or one of your family members faced a situation like those endured in this story. -Chris Faraone, News & Features Editor, DigBoston

At the ceremonial beginning of every City Life/Vida Urbana meeting in the group’s Jamaica Plain headquarters, newcomers are gently beckoned to the front to share their stories.

Each tale is a unique but familiar heartbreaker, and the veteran housing rights crusaders in the room nod and hum, prying gory details of foreclosures and evictions from the neophyte participants.

Not everybody is from Boston. Tonight, a man from Cohasset explains that he is losing the home he’s lived in with his family since 1983; following him, a woman holds back tears to explain her shock and grief at discovering—through an online search—that her house had been sold at auction. For many, this is the first time they’ve shared their story. In some cases they’ve yet to even open up to close friends and relatives.

The room never stops buzzing as these stories are told. More than an organizing meeting, it’s a chance for community members to update one another on this eviction notice or that court date. Each time a newcomer finishes their story, an organizer places a long plastic sword in their hands and asks them the same question, “Are you willing to fight to stay in your home?”

“YES,” their new allies respond.

Suddenly, the rustling and chatter stop, and the room goes silent for less than a second. The crowd, which has swelled to more than 100 people, takes a collective breath and roars proudly, “THEN WE’LL FIGHT WITH YOU!”

The ritual may seem campy to outsiders, even odd. But for the person holding that sword, it represents a new beginning and a new community. Most people in the room have in the past or are currently facing an oppressive housing situation—from ridiculous rent hikes and evictions, to invasions of privacy by landlords, to all of the above.

A HISTORY OF HOUSING VIOLENCE

Landlord-tenant tension is as old as private property itself. Since Medieval times, owners have been granting vassals and the like use of their land, and wherever feudalism festered, so did peasant uprisings. Things are hardly different now—even in rosy liberal New England. Leading those uprisings around here since the 1970s, City Life has been on the front line of the fight for housing rights, defending the poor, the elderly, and countless people of color whose homes are disproportionally targeted.

The first City Life fists were raised in 1973 as a response to Massachusetts adopting rent control policies three years earlier that were meant to keep landlords and their greed in check. The legislation was aimed to assist tenants in the lower income brackets, but in some ways wound up doing more harm than good. In the Commonwealth, the policy lasted for more than 20 years, during which time the kinds of young professionals with whom Boston is now overflowing inherited many rent control benefits, while those with lower incomes remained chained to aging and decrepit properties. When landlords are legally prevented from price-gauging, they often scale back on maintenance to boost profit margins. Here and elsewhere, some have even been accused, tried, and convicted of incinerating their own buildings for insurance money rather than preserving them for poor tenants.

In 1994, a state referendum ended rent control. According to the Economist, in the three years that followed, decontrolled rents jumped 50 percent overall, with complaints of eviction shooting up more than 30 percent. Landlords are now free to price-out longstanding residents and evict renters for non-payment. That’s where City Life enters the picture.

For the past several decades, its focus has been keeping families in their homes while connecting them to legal and emotional support structures to shield them from predatory landlords.

Since the financial meltdown five years ago, City Life has discovered new areas where it’s needed to mobilize protective services. In addition to helping keep renters in place, the Jamaica Plain organization has expanded its umbrella of support to include many who lost homes after being dealt mortgages they couldn’t handle—mostly during the staggering height of the housing bubble, which has since popped to the tune of roughly 5 million foreclosures nationwide. Forces like City Life work with owners and evictees to help purchase their homes at the current market value, which is generally multiples less of what they bought it for during the inflated boom. But banks seem reluctant to sell back to the original owners, saying that doing so would be a “moral hazard.” Instead, properties often end up in the hands of third party realty corporations, even when their offers for the properties are right on par with those of the original owners.

In one instance, City Life affiliate Ray Fernandes tried several times to buy back his former Roxbury home from Bank of America. According to documents, the lender countered with a higher price every time. Bank of America ultimately sold the house to a cadre of investors called City Reality for $233,000—just $3000 more than Ray’s offer—which in turn put the property back on the market for more than double their purchase cost. Key City Life organizer Christina Maria Blanco believes the banks that opt out of selling to original owners are trying to make examples out of people who defaulted on their mortgages, and that the last thing banks want is to send the message that people can stop paying what they owe and then subsequently get their home back at a discount. That’s not good for business. For City Realty and other corporations, defaulted properties were theirs for the picking, while former owners are either evicted or turned into tenants in their own homes.

Fighting such incomprehensible greed is a seemingly impossible task, but City Life strives on the strength of those who have been bitten. Their mission these days is to keep folks in their homes—renters and owners alike—and to pit people against profiteers in ways even they’ve never done before.

 

SPACE INVADERS

For their apparent snubbing of the Fernandes family and others, ‘City Realty’ has become a filthy word around the halls of City Life; at the nonprofit’s Tuesday meetings, that name now elicits the same scoffs, groans, and boos as Bank of America, which is essentially the antichrist incarnate among this crowd. They’re not the only ones hating; Metro readers might recognize City Realty from way back in March, when City Life activists marched on their Brighton offices. A City Realty employee wound up on page one of the commuter rag, brandishing his middle finger at picketers.

Through a number of aliases, City Realty has been gobbling up properties around Boston and jacking up rents for years. According to a company spokesperson, the rent increases are often used for major improvements. Each property owned by City Realty must meet a set of standards that management created for the safety and comfort of its tenants; according to the specs, for example, each unit must have granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances. City Realty furnishes such renovations by increasing rents.

The Dig spoke with tenants who say they received notices from City Realty that their rent will increase by hundreds of dollars—just a month after the warning. In some cases, they were promptly evicted for refusing to pay. As such, many homeowners and renters have found themselves with a common enemy, and with an ace facilitator org to channel their collective anger.

In waging war on City Realty and comparable landlords, City Life organizers tell their members to continue paying the rent they were responsible for prior to the sudden increase. On that track, there’s a chance of luring the realty group into housing court so that tenants can negotiate a fair rent or a reasonable selling price. City Realty co-owner Steve Whalen says that, in the best possible scenario, they want to negotiate with tenants to keep them in their homes at a rent that’s reasonable for both parties; in practice, they seem more inclined to use intimidation tactics to force people who refuse to pay into moving out. Past and present City Realty tenants told the Dig of numerous intrusions, from contractors entering their homes without warning, to brokers walking in on women who are breastfeeding.

Though all sad in their own right, few stories are as wrenching as that of Lucky Omorodion.

Lucky purchased his home just before the 2008 crash. In 2011, his house was foreclosed on, and in 2012, his home was auctioned off by the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency to City Realty, which was operating under one of its many LLC aliases. Lucky and his family went from being owners of their house to being tenants of City Realty. They negotiated a rent, but within months City Realty moved to raise it by several hundred dollars. Lucky refused the increase.

“We went to Lucky even though if an owner is still in the house, they have limited rights because they are not a tenant and they don’t have tenant status,” says Whalen. “If he’s a tenant, not a former owner, it’s a 90-day notice period if I was going to evict him, but if he’s a former owner, it’s basically a 24-hour notice … If I was going to be cut and dry about it, it would probably been a better choice to say, ‘Former owner, 24-hour notice, okay, goodbye.’”

Lucky began paying rent to City Realty in the summer of 2012. Within six months, he received a notice to either leave or start paying $1400 per month—a $300 increase. Lucky brought the demand to housing court and was still fighting for his rights in that forum when City Realty workers arrived at his door in June to mete out what Lucky and his brother feel is retribution for refusing to pay more.

Whalen maintains that City Realty sent notices to Lucky’s family stating that their basement would be cleaned out, and produced for the Dig what he claims is a copy of a letter that was hand-delivered to the property. Lucky and his brother, however, claim they had zero notice prior to June 26, when a group of workers showed up at their home in Hyde Park. The workers met with Lucky’s pregnant wife, who was home alone. She says she pleaded for them to wait until Lucky or his brother could come there and remove the items. Ignoring her requests, she says the workers took power tools, a snowmobile, a rack of men’s suits, and electronics from their basement. Lucky says they also took traditional African wedding clothing and jewelry worth nearly $10,000, plus important marriage certificates and naturalization documents. According to police reports, Whalen had the items destroyed.

“He said, as long as [we] get the rent, there is no problem,” says Lucky’s brother Paul. “When the workers came again, I asked what they did with our things. They said they were trash, [but] trash is something that has no use to anybody. You can tell the difference between what they took and trash.”

 

HOME IS WHERE THE FIGHT IS

Organizer Maria Christina Blanco is perpetually outraged about Lucky’s plight. “When I heard this story,” she says, “I wanted to go straight to their offices and picket.” As she says this, Blanco pounds the table with her fists. She does this a lot when she talks about City Realty. Aggravation aside, however, the victims who City Life works with take the slow and prudent route through the legal system. They often hold protests or direct actions like blockades, which provide immediate support for people whose lenders have arrived at their door to put them out. Otherwise, most of the work City Life does is behind not the sword but the shield. They’re on the defensive, supporting and leading their members through court procedures and negotiations.

All of these dynamics are in play at weekly City Life meetings, where their metaphorical swords and shields are unsheathed.

At a recent Tuesday congregation in Jamaica Plain, broken off into a small affinity group for people battling City Realty, Lucky and his brother Paul speak of the struggle just to get their personal belongings back. Within this group, which trades stories and updates on progress, setbacks, and the various intimidation tactics they have weathered, a total of five legal cases are being brought against City Realty. In a moment of tragic hilarity, two women laugh as they unfold a tale of having multiple groups of supposed angry landlords coming to their door. One of the women points at Ray Fernandes:

“You could come to our door tomorrow and we wouldn’t know the difference!” she says through reluctant laughter. Yet she lives in constant fear of opening her door, and the week prior was in housing court with her neighbors trying to secure restraining orders against City Realty employees. With the actual ownership of their home unknown, these folks don’t know who to trust, who to turn to.

On this occasion, the two-hour meeting flies by. Announcements of upcoming actions follow requests for people to call government officials. Throughout the night, families mix with organizers, and people make intermittent trips to the front of the room for pizza and salad. Though livelihoods are in play, City Life’s meetings are as much about socializing as they are about organizing and strategies. People come for help, but they stay for community. The dispute with City Realty will be long, hard, and multifaceted. Considering their four decades of fighting—and the thousands of homes they’ve saved—there’s little chance that City Life will surrender before justice is delivered, and Lucky gets his shit back.

As the cost of living has increased in Boston, the number of foreclosures has also gone up, while the number of available rental units has diminished.

Here’s a quick look at some of the cold numbers:

292 – Number of Massachusetts homeowners who lost their
properties to foreclosure
in March 2013

940 – Number of foreclosures initiated in Massachusetts in January 2013

35% – Increase in number
of foreclosures across
the Commonwealth
from 2011 to 2012

25% – Percent of Boston residents who pay more than 25 percent of their income toward rent

$2,857 – Current average monthly rental price for a two-bedroom apartment in the Back Bay

$1,796 – Current average monthly rental price for a two-bedroom apartment across the Greater Boston region

6.7% – Apartment vacancy rate in Boston (2002)

3.8% – Apartment vacancy rate in Boston (2012)

3.1% – Apartment vacancy rate in Boston (2013)

Sources: The Warren Group; The Boston Foundation; Rental Beast


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