IN 1973, IN the class- and race-polarized city of Boston, City Life began as a socialist collective fighting against evictions and gentrification in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Over the years, it has evolved into a radical non-profit organization with a long history of doing tenant organizing and tenants’#8221; rights work all across the city. City Life was able to avoid sectarian debates to maintain itself as a radical center for housing organizing.
Using Banker and Tradesman magazine to identify buildings in foreclosure, we’#8221;re able to canvass door-to-door to talk to those living in foreclosed buildings. City Life/Vida Urbana has worked with almost 2000 families who are defending their homes.
We work through the “Sword” and the “Shield.” The Sword is public protest and public pressure. At a pace of almost one demonstration a week, combined with eviction blockades as a last resort to defend families whose situations have come down to the wire, City Life and its allies have successfully re-negotiated the terms of the mortgage crisis in Boston. Teamed with newly formed partner organizations in Worcester, Lynn, Providence, and Springfield, we are doing it on a regional basis.
You wouldn’#8221;t go into war with only a sword — an offense — you also require a strong defense. The second part of the method — the Shield — is legal defense: knowing your rights and putting up an effective legal stand, fighting off the court’#8221;s attempt to evict you after foreclosure. Working with legal services lawyers committed to the organizing work, or representing yourself in court, you go into battle armed with both Shield and Sword. Using both, City Life has built a significant resistance to the worst excesses of the banks in the midst of the Great Recession economy.
People come to the meetings and find that they get their voice back, and with that the courage to resist. When you see others struggling with the same issues, the feeling is reflected in yourself, and an outpouring of emotion is often the result. Not feeling alone, and moved by the emotions of others’#8221; situations, people find the courage to resist.
City Life gives advice to people who are before foreclosure, and often refers them to counseling agencies (non-profits) who offer free mortgage modification negotiation services. But it’#8221;s the post-foreclosure arena where City Life seriously goes to work.
Another way of describing our method is “The Three-Legged Stool” — the Sword, the Shield, and the Offer. We work with a non-profit bank called Boston Community Capital, which is dedicated to getting homes back in the hands of foreclosed owners. They pay the bank cash for the house at as low a price as they can get, then sell back to the original owners.
We say what needs to be said, then get out of people’#8221;s way so they can take the lead. City Life tries to bring people together to fight for their homes. “Leave your shame at the door” and join the resistance, we often say. We kill odious debt through resistance to the bubble-inflated mortgage prices.
Let’#8221;s say you bought any old house in Dorchester for $300,000, at the height of the boom. Now it’#8221;s worth $150,000 or less, and the “underwater” mortgage is killing you. City Life tells that person: Don’#8221;t leave the house — stay there and use the Shield to defend your right to stay there, but don’#8221;t worry so much about the foreclosure.
The foreclosure just means you lose title to the house — and even that can be challenged in court. People are overturning them in court by proving that the bank never had clear title. Sometimes people stay in their homes a year, two years, even four years after foreclosure.
You don’#8221;t have to move out. Send a letter to the bank telling them you are supported by hundreds of others at City Life, and make the demand that they sell back to you at the house’#8221;s real value. At this point, when you are past foreclosure and not moving out, you begin to have leverage with the bank that you didn’#8221;t have before.
Some will cry out that borrowers got what they deserve — they signed a contract, they should uphold the terms. These are cries that ring hollow when we recognize that the banking industry caused the bubble — they fueled it and stoked it, and they have not been held accountable.
Working in tandem with legal services lawyers dedicated to the organizing model, people are able to mount a challenge to foreclosures, and especially a defense against eviction after foreclosure, giving time for the Sword, and possibly the Offer, to work.
Direct action is a key part of our method. We say that the eviction blockade is a last resort, and it is, but we have done more than 35 eviction blockades in the last four years. If all other efforts fail, we call for a demonstration at the house, starting just before the time that the constable is supposed to get there to move the family out. Sometimes we have 75 people in front of the house when the eviction trucks pull up, and the banks can be backed down. Building this kind of hope, combined with a burgeoning Occupy movement that is also taking up the cause of fighting foreclosures, will help to move us in the direction of running the banks in the public interest. The people of City Life envision a day when housing is recognized as a human right, and as they intervene in the foreclosure crisis, they maintain their presence in the general housing rights struggle.
We use all negotiation methods available to try to stop the eviction, from City Life members negotiating with the police, to movement;lawyers contesting the constable’#8221;s eviction order, to City Councilors calling the bank to intervene.
If all else fails, we have a crew of people pre-selected who are ready to block the police/constable from executing the eviction. These people will get arrested if the eviction is carried out, signaling our resolve in the face of an unjust eviction and bringing publicity to the cause — damaging the bank’#8221;s reputation in the public eye.
City Life and their allied organizations prove daily that when people check their shame at the door — the poisonous anti-ethical cloud the capitalist system forces upon them — and when they come together with others, much is possible.
May/June 2012, ATC 158