Of course, the principal reason that housing is unaffordable is that its treated as a commodity not a right. In Boston, where residents organized with City Life/ Vida Urbana have been fighting for renters rights for over 40 years, one can see the longer arc of disinvestment and investment in a the life of a single organization. The groups was founded in the 1970s when US cities were literally being burned to the ground by landlords who could collect rom their insurance policies and move their capital out of the cities.
During the financial collapse CLVU fought to keep hundreds of Bostonians in their homes as Fannie Mae backed banks swooped in to turn the properties over to the Wall Street backed investors. [see Blackstone article] Today, CLVU continues to fight unscrupulous landlords. While they aren’t setting fire to whole neighborhoods as was done in the Bronx in the 70s they are innovating new tactics such as building clear outs” to drive working class and low-income renters out of their homes to extract exorbitant profits through gentrification.
Boston renters kicked off the week of action with a march on notorious landlord and real estate tycoon John McGrail’s home to protest predatory rent increases, evictions and mass displacement. McGrail controls numerous real estate firms—from speculative capital funds to property remodeling and management groups. They delivered a petition demanding he recognize and negotiate with the tenants associations in his properties.
“This is our community. We’ve been living there 37 years. We have nowhere else to go,” says Eddy Nicaisse, a senior citizen who lives with his disabled wife in one of McGrail’s Mayo Group buildings. “I will fight with my whole life’s breath. Not just for me and my family, but for my community.”
Currently, a web of overlapping corporations – in which McGrail has substantial or controlling interests – is targeting a largely immigrant neighborhood in East Boston with threats of deportation, refusal to maintain conditions and hundreds of dollars in rent increases.
McGrail’s notoriety as a landlord with a cavalier disregard for the health of his tenants, workers and neighbors hit a high point when he was convicted in 2011 by the Massachusetts Environmental Crimes Strike Force of illegal removal and disposal of asbestos. After ordering his off-the-books construction workers to rip the asbestos out with no recorded protections against dispersal, he then had them toss the asbestos into dumpsters behind his numerous properties around town. His investment companies were also found at the heart of the real estate foreclosure crisis, stacking up $187 million in loans from the Anglo Irish Bank which itself went bankrupt. When his buy-and-flip empire of properties in Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire and Texas crashed, Wells Fargo Bank, the city of Dallas and several other jurisdiction sued him for failure to maintain the properties.
Since the real estate upturn McGrail’s financial position, like the other developers receiving huge subsidies from local and federal government, has vastly improved. Nicaisse points out that “A lot of the improvements that increased the value of Mayo buildings were done with tax money,” and that tenants themselves are the reason the neighborhood has become desirable. “A lot of Mayo tenants, including me, did a clean-up of a vacant lot next door. I’m not going to work hard to improve it and then give it away to somebody else.”