Did you know that a JP organization is a national leader in the anti-displacement movement? City Life/Vida Urbana is celebrating its 45th anniversary on May 19 with a party and multi-media art exhibit that will shine a light on victories by working-class people to stay in their homes and advance racial, social and economic justice.

Today we’re chatting with Executive Director Lisa Owens and long-time board member and JP resident Laura Foner about City Life’s roots in radical organizing, its role (often with JPNDC) in creating affordable housing in JP, how it became a national model during the foreclosure crisis, and why today’s political environment gives them hope for systemic change.

JPNDC: Tell me something about how City Life got started and why. What were the issues in 1973?

Laura: City Life was founded by a group of activists who decided to move to a racially mixed, working class community specifically to do grassroots organizing. They were people who had been involved in the civil rights, women’s and anti-war movements and wanted to continue their radical, culture-changing work rooted in a community. They decided to do community organizing as opposed to going into factories, in part because they were socialist feminists and believed in the importance of women’s leadership. And they picked Jamaica Plain because it was racially mixed, especially compared to other Boston neighborhoods.

Among the early projects were a Welfare Mothers Committee, an Education Committee (‘73 was the beginning of the whole busing crisis), a food coop, a radical bookstore on Centre Street, and a weekly anti-war bulletin that made the connections between the war in Vietnam and the war at home. We also put out the CommUnity News for many years, a monthly bilingual community newspaper that covered local housing struggles, international news, labor news, cultural news. I got involved in about ’75 and worked on the newspaper. I also worked early on in a coalition City Life was part of to end apartheid in South Africa. We picketed what was then First National Bank, trying to get people to close their accounts because of the bank’s support for the apartheid regime.

It was all volunteer! Not only was it all volunteer, but people did it all hours. There were meetings every night, study groups—it was pretty intense.

JPNDC: So housing wasn’t the original focus?

Laura: No, but very early on it was clear from meeting people in the neighborhood that there were all kinds of housing problems: slumlords, tenants living in terrible conditions, people being evicted—the same kinds of things people are still facing!

JPNDC: Fast forward 45 years and City Life/Vida Urbana is still based in Jamaica Plain—but today it’s not only citywide but nationally known. How did that happen?

Lisa: I got involved with City Life in the mid-2000s and joined the board in 2010, which was at the height of the foreclosure crisis. And because of City Life’s organizing methods, which we had honed for decades, we were really well positioned to intervene in a way that nobody else was doing. We were connecting with former homeowners post-foreclosure and using our tenant organizing strategies, first to help people stay in their homes and pay rent to the banks, and second to help people win back their homes through organizing as well as legal partnerships. We set some really important legal precedents that got people’s attention.

That helped City Life get support to organize a regional network that connected about a dozen small groups in some of the hardest-hit areas in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. We trained people about our model, helped them figure out how to adapt that model to their local circumstances. We provided lots of technical assistance and were able to establish New England as an anchor region that could show the rest of the country how to fight the foreclosure crisis.

City Life was already a founding organization of the national Right to the City Alliance, which started out as a coalition of grassroots organizations working on lots of different issues but became hyper-focused on housing during the foreclosure crisis and remains so to this day. Through that partnership we shared our model with organizing groups across the country. A lot of people learned and benefited as a result.

Now we remain really connected to Right to the City as well as being an anchor organization for the Homes for All campaign, which has switched over from foreclosure to anti-displacement tenant organizing and community control over land and housing. There are representatives from about 30 organizations around the country in the leadership body figuring out how to expand the anti-displacement movement. It’s an explosion of groups around the country that are organizing for anti-displacement legislation including rent control and Just Cause Eviction.

Laura: Even in the early years City Life, then called the JP Tenants Action Group, would get involved in tenant struggles in other neighborhoods. Later, with wealthy people moving in to Jamaica Plain and rents forcing people out, more and more of the people we were doing tenant organizing with were from Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester and Hyde Park. The membership changed from being mostly White and Latino/a to more African-American and Caribbean-American. And yet it’s also interesting that recently we’ve gotten more active again right here in Jamaica Plain, with all the development and displacement that’s taking place in Egleston Square and along the Washington Street corridor.

JPNDC: What are some of the victories that have been most important? What are you especially proud of?

Lisa: There are so many! But one of the most dramatic victories in recent memory was with buildings on Orlando Street in Mattapan and Waldeck Street in Dorchester. In the process of door-knocking, which we do every two weeks, we spoke with someone in a building that was owned by a landlord we were already familiar with. This guy was a cartoonishly bad landlord, and we learned that not only was he back to his old antics, but he was in bankruptcy. Yet he was continuing to collect rent and folks were living in horrible conditions. Many people were living in fear. A lot of them were very vulnerable people, one step away from homelessness and not necessarily inclined to fight or to advocate for themselves.

As we talked to more of the tenants, we identified some really strong leaders. They took major steps to develop relationships with other tenants that they hadn’t known before, or in some cases to mend some damaged relationships. It was incredible building organizing. We connected them with people at the City who were very interested in keeping these buildings affordable and in keeping 59 families from becoming homeless. Because this landlord was sure to lose all of his buildings, we knew they were in danger of being sold to the highest bidder. There was a lot at stake—for those families, for the city, for the surrounding community.

Our legal partners did an amazing job. There were not only health code violations but a lot of personal injury claims because of bad conditions—all told, about $3 million in claims that the tenants had against the landlord! As far as we know, this was the first time that a tenant association was named as a creditor and given legal standing in a bankruptcy proceeding.

And that’s what made a difference in helping ensure that the buildings remained permanently affordable. The $3 million in claims actually lowered the value of the units, making them not so desirable to investors who just wanted to make a profit. But if the buyer kept the buildings permanently affordable, the tenants agreed to drop the claims—lowering the price to something a nonprofit developer could afford! Now they’re owned and have been renovated by the nonprofit Codman Square NDC, and those households have safe and affordable homes. We are so proud.

Laura: It’s a great example of our model of organizing, which is based on the strength of the tenants themselves. There are similar examples from the past in JP, like what was known as the Carroll Building on Lamartine and Paul Gore Streets. That struggle went on for a very long time with tenants who were living in awful conditions, with a horrible landlord, and because of City Life and the tenants, as well as neighbors, that building became what is now the Nate Smith House—permanently affordable housing for the elderly developed by JPNDC.

Sign on a building in the 1990s that was redeveloped as the Nate Smith House.

I sometimes think about how it’s because of these efforts and victories that there’s as much affordable housing in Jamaica Plain as there is today! The Nate Smith House, the Bowditch School, JP High, Pondview Apartments, Rockvale Circle, Forest Glen, the affordable homeownership housing along Lamartine Street. Most of those were actually developed by JPNDC so it shows how our partnership over the years has really made a difference in the neighborhood.

Lisa: It’s a piece of organizing history that’s probably lost on all but the long-term residents of Jamaica Plain.

JPNDC: So some of the struggles of today are similar to those of the past. What is different?

Lisa: Our foes are richer and more anonymous than they’ve ever been. As a city, we’re seeing an unprecedented level of global financial capital in our communities. It’s not only financing the luxury developments downtown and along the waterfront, but influencing a secondary wave in the neighborhoods where investors are anticipating higher rents because of the downtown development. So who we’re fighting against are these LLCs that are fronts for larger corporations—which themselves are just repositories for unseen investors somewhere. How do you go up against global finance capital? It’s tough. But our organizing is more important now than it ever has been.

Laura: We’re also organizing in a time where in some ways the contradictions have never been starker. We’re no longer living in a time of expanding US capitalism. It’s actually a dying empire, and horrible things happen in declining empires. And yet there’s also opportunity, because since things are so stark, there’s a chance to really say, “This is not working.” So a lot of our focus is about thinking about the alternatives. How can we create the kind of society and community and city that we want to live in, where people don’t have to constantly struggle to survive?

Lisa: Because almost everyone is squeezed now, it’s true that more and more people are looking for alternatives. And ways out. That doesn’t necessarily make the work easier, because one way out is despair, or escapism, or just focusing on me and my family. But because there is this opening now where people want something different, it’s good that we have a vibrant, exciting, lively tenant movement that is winning victories against all odds. It stands in direct contrast to despair.

JPNDC: Do you think anything’s changed in the political environment that might help bring back rent control?

Lisa: We learned a lot with the recent Jim Brooks campaign. The Jim Brooks Act is awesome and if passed by the legislature, will help ensure tenants know their rights and allow the City of Boston to track evictions. But people in the community want to know, “Why aren’t we just fighting for rent control?” We say, “We’re just trying to be reasonable so it can pass!” And yet no matter how reasonable it is, the opposition reacts to it completely out of proportion, claiming “it’s rent control!” They apply a big sledgehammer to a tiny nail.

So we learned we have to build the power, build the political will to fight for really strong powerful legislation, whatever that is. It could be rent control or it could be something else. But we need to build the power to withstand the opposition and create interesting alternatives like COHIF, our community land trust.

Laura: One of the reasons that I’ve stuck around City Life/Vida Urbana this long, through so many ups and downs, is that the principles and the vision have stayed the same. We’re still committed to direct action, active organizing that’s a combination of helping people fight immediate struggles and building a movement for systemic change. We’re still confronting structures of racism and sexism and patriarchy and homophobia. We’re trying to build a different world.

JPNDC: Tell me about your 45th celebration.

Lisa: The 45th is going to be SO MUCH FUN! Everybody should run to get their tickets! There’s going to be dancing. It’s not your typical sit-down dinner. We’re going to have a multimedia, multipanel art exhibit that is going to give folks lots of movement history, rooted in Boston. I think it will make people feel proud to be from Boston.