Improving renter rights and building a stronger civil society in Boston, Massachusetts

Housing and Homelessness

27 May 2022

Photo provided by City Life/Vida Urbana

When the 207-unit Morton Village Apartments in Mattapan, Boston went up for sale, tenants were worried about their rents increasing. They had already heard about the huge rent hikes that occurred after the sale of similar buildings in the area. In response, and with the support of City Life/Vida Urbana, a Boston-based bilingual Spanish/English grassroots community organisation, some of the tenants began attending weekly meetings in the hope of growing their collective power.

This group of tenants spoke to all 207 households in the building, with some calling family members to translate when there wasn’t a shared language. They got more than half of the residents to sign a petition, which they presented to the new owners.  They then held two highly publicised vigils in the courtyard of their complex, which helped generate enough public pressure for the owners to agree to meet them. Eventually, they were able to negotiate with the new owners of their building to agree to only small rent increases for existing tenants for the next five years at least, with additional financial support to the owners from the City of Boston to secure permanent affordability for families that haven’t moved in yet. By building the capacity and power of the people experiencing the problem, City Life/Vida Urbana enabled the current residents of Morton Village to take control of their situation, gaining the reassurance of at least five more years in their current homes. They also learned new leadership skills, which will equip them to advocate for themselves and their neighbours going forward.

Having funded two City Life/Vida Urbana project grants since 2015, in 2021 the Housing and Homelessness Programme funded a multi-year core grant to support City Life/Vida Urbana, which aimed to support tenant organisers to create and preserve affordable housing for working-class residents of colour in Boston. City Life/Vida Urbana is committed to fighting for racial, social, and economic justice and gender equality, by building working class power. It promotes individual empowerment, develops community leaders, and builds collective power, to effect systemic change and transform society.

Another of our partners, Greater Boston Legal Services, worked alongside City Life/Vida Urbana. Greater Boston Legal Services provides legal aid to individuals and families, as well as providing legal advocacy at a systemic level. This meant that City Life/Vida Urbana was able to offer additional knowledge and expertise to the tenants of Morton Village Apartments, and Boston Legal Services tested out a new model, working with people who may not have accessed their service otherwise. This approach of embedding a legal response within a community-based one is known as “community lawyering,” widely considered to be a best-practice locally and nationally.  

In addition, the City of Boston was willing to provide financial support.

This grant falls under Oak’s Housing and Homelessness Programme, which believes in a society where more people live in decent homes and fewer people experience homelessness and housing insecurity. We believe in building greater power within communities and organisations that work most closely with people, strengthening their collective capacity to achieve change. Our grant-making seeks out organisations that are developing ambitious strategies, shaped by people with lived experience and rooted in robust evidence. Find out more about our programme by clicking here.

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