Twice a week, Harvard Law School students and Boston residents sit down together in a room to discuss the city’s housing crisis. At one meeting, shouts fill the air within minutes.
“Are you ready to fight for your home?” a local resident yells. The entire room — students and residents alike — cries in response, “We will fight with you!”
This scene depicts a typical meeting hosted by City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots organization working to address housing-related issues in the Boston area. At these meetings, CLVU members convene with residents and Project No One Leaves, a canvassing group led by Harvard Law School students.
Earlier this month, this group secured a historic victory: Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07 announced that the East Boston Community Development Core had acquired 36 multi-family buildings to be set aside for affordable housing in the East Boston neighborhood.
The buildings form part of the newly-created East Boston Neighborhood Trust, Massachusetts’ first Mixed Income Neighborhood Trust in which local neighborhood organizations and building tenants manage the property. Beyond increasing the decision-making power of local residents to shape where they live, MINTs housing units are also kept affordable in perpetuity, providing some relief to an immigrant neighborhood facing rising rents in the midst of a national housing crisis.
For over a decade, HLS students have supported the mission of CLVU in maintaining affordable housing across Boston. Initially, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, an HLS student organization, provided legal assistance on individual eviction cases of CLVU members. In the wake of the 2008 recession, simultaneous foreclosure and eviction crises across the city enabled speculative investors to buy up property in places like East Boston, increasing rates of resident displacement.
According to Andres Del Castillo, director of development at CLVU, the neighborhood’s residents did not expect this rapid wave of gentrification. “This was so nascent to East Boston that our community didn't know their rights,” he says. “It wasn’t common knowledge that you had rights to defend [yourself], that you didn't have to leave in a week’s notice if the landlord asked you to.”
To give residents this fighting chance, CLVU and HLAB students formed Project No One Leaves. Instead of traditional legal aid like casework, PNOL uses grassroots organizing strategies that range from distributing “Know Your Rights” pamphlets to building tenant associations and publicizing rallies. The goals of this organizing: mobilize residents, deter displacement, and keep property in residents’ hands.
Like any community organizing model, PNOL leverages strengths in numbers. “At the end of the day, we have a lot of people at our disposal,” says HLS student and current PNOL board member Isa M. Badia Bellinger. “It’s not any special skill of being a law student.”
While the work itself may not be unique to lawyers, these organizing efforts can help law students who “feel trapped in the confines” of traditional legal work to “break out” and work in different ways with local residents, she says. “You meet people going door to door, but I really enjoy that we actually canvass with members of the community and members of CLVU.”
Steve Meacham, who has worked as a CLVU organizing coordinator for 22 years and built the relationship with Harvard students since its beginning, has seen the power of PNOL’s on-the-ground efforts to shift Harvard students’ perceptions of local communities, which have not always been positive.
“Whenever students leave at the end of the year, they leave with tears in their eyes, because there is such an outpouring of affection for [residents], and vice versa,” Meacham says. “We have to caution [residents], they’re not all like that, you know?”
As Meacham alludes to, the relationship between university students and local residents is not always so cut and dried. Many of the buildings that now form part of the East Boston Neighborhood trust were once purchased by speculative investors, renovated, and marketed for student housing.
“It was a very, very clear investment strategy that was based off a student market,” says Del Castillo. “The idea that someone was coming in to turn the neighborhood into student housing was something that few people in East Boston responded well to. That’s not who we know Eastie to be.”
Nonetheless, Del Castillo asserts that the problems of gentrification and displacement in East Boston do not originate from student renters themselves. “We have no beef with them. There are much larger market forces to hold accountable than where a college student is Google searching, or Zillow searching, or Craiglist hunting for their next apartment.”
On the contrary, building relationships with student groups like PNOL and leveraging their unique assets is the bread and butter of community organizing, he says. “It comes back down to that very organic community skill of power mapping and saying, ‘Who do we know? How do we move who we know in alignment with the community and what the community needs?’”
For Del Castillo, the second question is equally as important as the first. A successful partnership with university students means community partners take the lead in setting the agenda.
“As somebody who’s been in this work for 10 years now, there is no other law clinic working in as deep coordination, or values and principles alignment, than HLAB,” Del Castillo says. “That’s a model for other students to push their local clinics and others to pursue so that there is deep alignment and solidarity in how university resources — and the experiences that are useful for students in exercising and practicing law — can actually benefit the community.”
While the East Boston Neighborhood Trust represents a major win for CLVU and residents of East Boston, Del Castillo says that much work is left to be done. “It is not just East Boston who’s facing a displacement crisis — it’s our entire city,” he says.
Mike Leyba, co-executive director of CLVU, hopes to expand the model of the East Boston Neighborhood Trust to other communities across Boston, putting control over neighborhood development back into the hands of some of the most marginalized Bostonians. “What’s possible if we had the autonomy and the ability to chart our own future, chart the future of the neighborhood and create our own path?” Leyba asks.
PNOL members, says Badia Bellinger, want to support that local mission as much as they can, by “providing the resources” they have access to but “not thinking that we know more than anybody else.”
After all, she says, “people are masters of their own stories.”
— Magazine writer Ciana J. King can be reached at email@example.com.