Just to the right of the narrow stairway Frances Amador climbs to her fourth-floor apartment, a freshly painted door leads to the only renovated unit in the building.
Amador doesn’t need a key to see what’s inside. She got a close-up view of the buffed wooden floors and stainless-steel appliances on a real estate app. But what really surprised her was the $3,700 monthly rent.
“When I saw it, I thought it was another apartment,” she said.
Amador — who pays $1,000 a month for the three-bedroom apartment she shares with family — has fought back attempts from two different landlords over the last four years to get her family to leave the building. She’s staved off eviction in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood by following the playbook of the advocacy organization City Life|Vida Urbana, a nonprofit that brings renters together to challenge the power of landlords.
But Amador’s housing situation remains tenuous as she negotiates a new lease. And while City Life is often successful at helping renters remain in their apartments for the short-term, it faces a steep challenge achieving its larger goal of implementing policies that offer renters greater protection.
The successes and limitations of advocacy groups
Founded in 1973 when many Boston rental properties were falling into disrepair, the group has seen a recent explosion in interest ascorporate investment, a regional housing shortage and record high rentsforce longtime residents out of their communities across Boston and beyond.
The Jamaica Plain–based nonprofit used to field 700 to 900 calls a year from people in and around Boston worried about losing their housing. That number ballooned to a combined 10,000 calls the first two years of the pandemic, according to Mike Leyba, City Life’s co-executive director.
“We will never have the scale of organization that can stabilize thousands of families every single year. We can only do that through policy,” said Leyba. “Organizing is the way our communities have to push back against the crisis of displacement.”
The cornerstone of City Life’s organizing happens when dozens of people gather for the group’s two weekly meetings — one in Spanish, the other in English — where renters in crisis are encouraged to share their stories as they hear from people across the city waging their own housing battles. They’re also connected to free legal help.
“It’s just like you see in the movies,” community organizer Antonio Ennis explained at a recent meeting. “Our attorneys go into court and they defend our members all the time.”
Protests, he said, are often timed to create public pressure as attorneys negotiate with landlords, with the ultimate goal of a settlement.
“It can be a collective bargaining agreement. It can be more time in your unit. It can be for loan modification,” he explained. “It can be for anything you need in the end to try to keep you in your home.”
The tactics aren’t a long-term solution for most people facing a housing crisis, but Leyba says they do get results, often buying people several extra months in their homes when they face eviction.
City Life’s tenant groups have won longer-term victories, striking deals with landlords to limit rent increases for a period of years. The organization also works with community development corporations and other nonprofits to buy real estate and keep rents below market rate, including a collaboration that led to the recent acquisition of 114 housing units in East Boston.
In addition to those wins, City Life proponents believe the group and other advocacy organizations have built momentum for larger housing reform policies. They point to the state’s eviction moratorium during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s promise to revisit rent control.
But legislative efforts — from expunging eviction records to allowing communities to levy an extra tax on high-end real estate deals in support of affordable housing — have so far failed on Beacon Hill. And people involved in housing policy say that failure is an indication of the limits of City Life and other housing justice advocacy groups to enact broad political change.
There is precedent for tenant groups to achieve far-reaching political success, says Jamila Michener, a Cornell University political scientist who studies the organizations.
Evictions in New York City, she said, decreased after a 2017 law passed mandating renters receive legal representation in eviction court: “If you talk to anybody who was involved in that work — from the City Council members, to the heads of the legal services organizations to actual members of tenant organizations — they all say without tenant organizations, you don't get right to counsel in New York City, it doesn't happen.”
But Michener says it’s rare for such groups to so clearly influence policy change. She has not studied City Life, but says in general it’s difficult to measure the intangible aspects of a movement that keep people housed or impact policy.
“One could say, ‘If you've been around for that long, why are tenants still on the losing end? Isn't that an indication that you haven't been successful?’ And the answer is no,” she said. “You could be helping a lot of people along the way, but just not have made the headway that you need to make to really change the fundamental power dynamics between tenants and landlords.”
‘Our housing system has broken down’
There’s been an uptick in housing construction over the last several years in Massachusetts, but it’s by no means enough to meet the need. State leaders have set a goal of building tens of thousands of new units to disrupt the current dynamic that’s a lot like a game of musical chairs with too few homes for all the people seeking housing.
“People forget that 50 years ago there were not homeless people on the streets of American cities,” said Eloise Lawrence, acting faculty director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. “That has been because our housing system has broken down.”
"People forget that 50 years ago there were not homeless people on the streets of American cities."Eloise Lawrence, acting faculty director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau
Lawrence began providing legal services to City Life in 2005. She said the current volume of calls is comparable to the years leading up to the 2008 housing crash.
Many factors are contributing to the current problem, she explained, including wages not keeping up with housing costs, not enough homes being built to meet the need, and inflation straining people’s finances.
“We have on our hands another crisis that is similar to the foreclosure crisis,” she said.
What’s different this time, she says, is the level of corporate investment in housing.
“We're seeing extreme price pressure from absentee landlords, from speculators, from large entities who are only thinking about profit,” said Lawrence. “They're not thinking about it as their community.”
Market forces alone, she says, won’t solve the housing crisis.
“Why are we going to build poor people's housing without a movement? We're not,” said Lawrence. “If we just rely on market forces that currently [exist] we will have a whole bunch of luxury housing that's empty and we will not build the housing that we need.”
Spurred to action and advocacy
Like many people connected to City Life, Frances Amador discovered the organization in a moment of desperation.
A few months after her second child was born in 2018, the son of her longtime landlord called to tell her he was selling the building and wanted all the tenants out.
Amador has lived in the apartment since she was 13 and now shares it with her mother, aunt, husband and two daughters. Rents have skyrocketed in East Boston and leaving the apartment would likely mean leaving her longtime neighborhood. But she figured she didn’t have a choice and her first instinct was to pack up and go.
She changed her mind after a relative suggested she attend a weekly neighborhood meeting held by City Life. There she connected with other people also facing eviction. And the sense of shame she felt at losing her housing, she said, was replaced by conviction that she could fight back.
“You didn't feel alone going and fighting with your own eviction,” she said.
With City Life’s support, she and her neighbors created a tenant group which, she says, gave them an edge when they negotiated with the landlord. For instance, she says, the group refused his offer of money to move. When the building was sold in 2020, three of the four original families remained.
Developing community leaders is part of the mission, says Leyba, who says over the last year about 100 people who came to City Life seeking help have gone through leadership training.
Amador gave up her job as a medical assistant in 2020 to become a City Life tenant organizer working with people trying to hang on to housing in East Boston, Revere and Chelsea. A native of Honduras, she’s deluged with calls from fellow Spanish speakers living in those communities.
“Every day we receive calls, every day that they're getting evicted, that they receive a notice to quit,” said Amador. “Basically, that's like a virus right now.”
Amador’s fight continues
It's not clear how much longer her involvement in City Life will protect Amador from being forced to leave her apartment. When her lease expired at the end of August, she received a notice that it would not be renewed.
“We don't need people to leave the building,” said Fernando Dalfior, a South Boston–based developer who has managed Amador’s building since the 2020 sale. “All we need is a renewal of the lease with the market rate. It doesn't have to be $3,700 a month like the first floor [apartment], because it's not renovated.”
More than $1,000 and less than $3,700 leaves a lot of room for negotiation on a monthly rent and no guarantee they’ll arrive at a number that both Amador can afford and Dalfior would accept.
Dalfior manages apartments through his Wolf Property Management company and is involved in development projects across the Boston area and in Worcester. He says he was not part of the original limited liability corporation that bought Amador’s building, but now has an ownership stake — and a mortgage to pay.
He says someone who buys property at market rate shouldn’t be expected to subsidize renters.
“If someone can explain to me how paying $1,000 on a three-plus bedroom in East Boston is fair on the private building [market],” he said. “It blows my mind that some people think that's fair.”
Dalfior sees the root of the state’s housing crisis as one of supply and demand. He’d be happy to be part of a coordinated effort to build more affordable housing, he says, and agrees with something Amador and others from City Life often say in conversation and during protests: “Housing is a human right.”
“We need shelter — 100% agree that it’s a right,” said Dalfior. “So, who is going to be responsible for that?”
It’s a question that has left Amador in a familiar state of limbo. Her oldest daughter is in college, but she’s been telling her 4-year-old daughter that the family will probably have to move. If that happens, Amador says, she won’t go quietly.
“If I don’t win my fight, at least I fight. If I don’t try to fight then I’m going to regret, ‘Why didn’t I fight?,’” she said. “Let’s see what comes.”