By Jeromel Dela Rosa Lara

Tenants Demand Housing Rights in Massachusetts

As COVID-19 housing protections are phased out, Boston activists took to the street to advocate for an extension to the eviction moratorium and more support for struggling renters.
By Ciana J. King

The sound of french horn and lively conversation in English and Spanish fill the air, punctuated by a call and response chant: “Housing is?” “A human right.” “¿Tener un hecho?” “Es un derecho.” Outside the gates of the Massachusetts State House on Oct. 21, a crowd of around 40 tenants and housing advocates protest ongoing housing inequities caused by the pandemic.

Three social justice organizations that foreground housing justice — City Life/Vida Urbana, Homes for All Massachusetts, and Right to the City Boston — collaborated to make the rally a reality. Their aims are twofold: Not only do they want to reinstate the eviction moratorium that expired this summer, but they are also advocating for the state legislature to pass Bill H.1434/S.891, which requires landlords and mortgage owners to seek rental assistance and forbearances before proceeding with a Covid-19-related eviction or foreclosure. This Covid-19 housing equity bill is also urging Massachusetts to create more accessible processes for people to utilize the state’s renter relief programs. The reinstated pause on all nonpayments and no-fault evictions would extend until December of next year.

Andres del Castillo, co-director of Right to the City Boston, shouts to the crowd of protesters. The proposed bill has hopes to “stop unnecessary evictions, unnecessary homelessness, unnecessary cycles of poverty, for not just one person but for entire families, entire communities, for generations,” he says.

Masked up and with caution tape in their hands, many of the attendees surround the Bulfinch entrance of the State House, wearing bright green neon shirts that read, “We shall not be moved. No nos movemos.” A few feet away, three men holding up signs with the numbers 2-4-1-6-6, which represents the number of eviction filings since the moratorium expired.

Despite the state’s efforts to mitigate housing instability after the moratorium ended, the protestors at the Massachusetts State House argue that they have been unsuccessful. Last October, Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 announced a $171 million initiative meant to replace the statewide moratorium, which was supposed to provide rental assistance, uplift rehousing efforts, offer legal assistance, and help tenants and landlords mediate fiscal conflicts. The state also received nearly $100 million dollars in federal stimulus towards housing stability as part of the Consolidated Appropriation Act and the American Rescue Plan.

Many activists at the rally, however, said that the diversion program failed to support tenants before they reached the point of entering the court system. According to del Castillo, there are $843 million available for renters aid that has yet to flow to tenants and homeowners in need as many of them lack knowledge of the programs’ existence.

The tenants and activists gathered in front of the Massachusetts State House, where employees are not currently working due to Covid-19, emphasized the hypocrisy of legislators’ hesitation to pass a pandemic-related relief bill.

“This housing crisis is a racial justice issue,” says Gabriela M. Cartagena, communications organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana. “In Boston alone, we’re seeing that 70 percent of eviction filings are people of color. Most of these eviction filings are happening in neighborhoods with high Covid rates.” She adds that the upcoming winter season will only bring further health concerns of exacerbated infection rates and rising flu cases.

Vanessa E. Vela, an essential worker and single mother of a 16-year old son, shares the story of her struggle to provide housing for her child in the face of rising rent prices and gentrification. Vela chokes up as she expresses her fear for her son who is currently struggling to maintain good standing in some of his classes as they now worry about the possibility of eviction.

“I’m such a proud mom,” she says. “I’m fighting here for him, not too much for me. I chose to have him, and I need to fight for his rights.” She continues, “We want to make good kids but we can’t if we’re working two to three jobs just to pay rent, just to meet rich people’s greed. Greed never stops. Their pockets will never get full.”

Vela is not alone in her frustration; del Castillo, too, tells the crowd enough is enough. “We have elected officials on the local, on the state, and on the national level that talk about the problem with racial inequality, with structural racism,” he says. “This is the problem. This is the solution. If you don’t fix it, you don’t care.”

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