East Boston, nuestra casa [Research and Photos]

These are the postcards of East Boston, Nuestra Casa, a social journalism project that is informing Latinos in East Boston about the housing crisis and the rights they have as tenants. The texts under the images below are a version of the texts that are in the back of each postcard.

View of downtown Boston from Lo Presti Park, in Eastie. November 2016.

Latinos are not an accident
We, Latinos, represent 20 percent of Boston’s population: As of 2013, there were 124,000 of us here, each one with a different story and personal tie to a city that we now call home. A recent report from Boston Indicators and the Boston Planning and Development Agency says:

Latino population growth accounts for 92 percent of Boston’s population growth since 1980. Latinos make up 24 percent of births and 31 percent of children, contributing to Boston’s population of the future. Latinos also contribute to Boston’s economy as 14 percent of the workers in Sufolk County and 10 percent of the business owners in Boston.

However, our presence in Boston is becoming uncertain. The demand for urban housing is up, Latinos’ wages are still much lower than those of other demographic groups, and it’s becoming harder and harder for a low or moderate income household to afford the rising rents. If a city is not an accident, what is Boston doing to prevent our displacement? What are we doing?

Maverick Square, the heart of the Latino community in East Boston. October 2016.

East Boston, our home
Starting in the early 1990s, a big wave of Latino immigrants moved to East Boston and recreated our cultures here. More than 44,000 people were living in Eastie in 2013 and 57 percent of them were Latinos. Maverick Square is the center of our community. If you walk around it, you will find Colombian bakeries, cafes and butcheries, Brazilian stores or Salvadoran restaurants, most of them owned by locals. Have you tried a fresh Colombian pandequeso or a Salvadoran pupusa? After you try them you may not want them to leave the neighborhood.

Colombians in Maverick Square, East Boston. December 2016.

Se habla español.
Did you know that 75% of the 5,000 Colombians that live in Boston reside in Eastie? And that most of them come from the same small village, Donmatías? We relocated here and made East Boston a Little Colombia. The community we’ve created and the fact that East Boston is the only neighborhood in the city where more than half of its residents (54,6%) are Spanish speakers have made it easier for Colombians and other Latinos to settle here. However, we’re seeing many of our friends and relatives leave Eastie because they’re being evicted or can’t afford its housing prices anymore.

Eastie’s housing market is hot: Signs like this one are all over the neighborhood. October 2016.

We’re being pushed out
I rent one of the 16,500 housing units in the neighborhood and my landlord has told me that every month he receives letters of big companies offering him money to buy the building where I live. I wouldn’t blame him if he wants to sell: According to Zillow, between January 2014 and November 2016 the average housing price in Eastie has risen 36% and it’s expected to rise 7% more in 2017. If my landlord sells –as many small landlords are doing,– what would the new owners do with my home? Would they allow me to stay? How much would they want me to pay to get a return on their investment? Those are some of the questions we all have.

Martha and Ruth, from El Salvador and Colombia, have lived in the neighborhood for a decade. March 2016.

Resisting displacement
Some tenants are organizing themselves and fighting displacement. Martha and Ruth rent different apartments in the same building and both of them received eviction letters in mid-2015 when new owners acquired the property. They had 30 days to leave but City Life –a non profit that is facilitating the organization of tenants in East Boston– informed them about their rights and they decided to stay in their apartments. The landlord filed a case against them in court, but Ruth and Marta got free legal assistance thanks to Greater Boston Legal Services and Harvard Law School. After a while, the landlords desisted to continue the legal process in court and let them stay where they have lived for almost a decade.

We’ve written our stories in the neighborhood and in our homes. November 2016.

Roots in rented soil
84 percent of Latinos in Boston rent their apartments, much more than the the city average for the foreign born (72%) and for the native born (63,6%). That makes our community more vulnerable to changes in the housing market. Even though for investors and corporate landlords these apartments are an opportunity to make more money, for the families these apartments are their soil.

A Colombian family celebrating Thanksgiving in their apartment. November 2016.

We just can’t afford it
In 2013 a full time Latino worker made in average $30,900, when the average of the city was $49,990. Besides that, the rent prices haven’t stopped increasing for the past seven years. On 2016, the average effective rent of Boston hit an all time high of $2,093 a month according to a Northeastern University report. With the wage that an average Latino earns, it will be soon impossible for most of us to live in Boston, the city that we’ve helped to grow with our work and taxes. If we’re the city, why there are no policies to prevent us from being pushed out by the market?

The bed of a single mother. November 2016.

Latinos know it’s happening, but does the city know?
The City of Boston doesn’t have accurate data about evictions, even though it’s an issue affecting a considerable part of its population. Thanks to a recent report by Project Hope and other nonprofits, we know that in 2014 there were 174 cases of evictions in East Boston brought up to Housing Court. 26% of them resulted in evictions. However, not all the cases go to housing court. Maybe only a few of them do. Many tenants just leave after getting the eviction letter, ignoring their rights or afraid to go to court because of their legal status in the country. If the city doesn’t collect good data about urban displacement, it won’t be able to take informed decisions and prevent the problem getting worse.

Wilson, 34, and his family received an eviction letter early on November. December 2016.

Where are Latinos going? (Part 1)
Wilson received the eviction letter in November 2016. The building where he has lived for 14 years was bought and the new owners introduced themselves with the eviction notice. Even though they decided to stay and fight the eviction, Wilson began looking for places to move. He was shocked by the prices in the neighborhood: “We were looking for a two-bedroom apartment, but we only found places with one bedroom for $2200.” Three months later, they moved to Everett.

Where are Latinos going? (Part 2)
52% of East Boston residents work in Boston. Moving to a neighbor city means a longer commute, more money in transportation, a new school for their children, and less time with the family and the community. “This tradeoff between spending on housing and transportation may reflect in part the choice that some low-income renters make to live in units that are expensive but well located, rather than in units that are affordable but distant from work and other resources,” a Harvard University report explains.

Ana, from El Salvador, and her 9 year old twins in their apartment.

“I couldn’t sleep for two weeks when I got that letter”
Ana has lived in East Boston for twelve years. This is the place where she landed after leaving El Salvador. Her 9-year-old twins were born here in Eastie, they study here in Eastie, they wait for Ana everyday in their aunt’s home after school here in Eastie. When Ana got the eviction letter from the new owners, a landslide of thoughts pushed her sleep away for two weeks. She felt ashamed to tell her children and other relatives what was happening. She was aware of how unaffordable other apartments in the area –and even in surrounding cities– were: All her life was suddenly unstable. It was a friend who told her about City Life and the Harvard lawyers that were helping tenants facing eviction. She went to the community meetings, received legal assistance, and after a short legal process the new landlord decided to allow her and two other Latino households to stay in their units.

A sign of City Life in the home of a family that is facing eviction. November 2016.

Know your rights 
City Life, a nonprofit focused on housing issues, has helped the community to organize itself and to learn and exercise its rights. They meet every Wednesday with tenants that are facing eviction and match them with two other nonprofits that offer free legal representation. City Life has also pushed for a change in the housing laws of Boston as they support the “Jim Brooks Stabilization Act,” an initiative that would ask landlords to give a reason in court when they’re evicting a tenant: Right now they can evict you without any reason at all.

Even though around 30 and 50 Latinos go to City Life weekly meetings in the basement of a church right next to Maverick Square, most of the families in the neighborhood leave their apartments when landlords increase the rent or send them an eviction letter.

Leandro, 9, celebrating an historic goal of a Colombian soccer team. He was born in Boston from Colombian parents. October 2016.

A revolving door of students
For Andrés del Castillo, a community organizer that facilitates weekly meetings of tenants facing eviction in East Boston, the deepest effects of displacement are felt by the younger generations. “This kids are jumping from school system to school system, so you have students whose education has been interrupted and therefore whose futures are being affected. They can be in a school in East Boston, three month laters in Everett and by the end of the year they may be in Revere. It’s a revolving door of students in this whole region. Displacement causes significant damage, emotional, psychological, developmental, that it’s immeasurable in the long term,” he says.

Latinos in a new soccer field in Lo Presti Park, on the southern part of East Boston. November 2016.

Why is East Boston so attractive?
East Boston is perfectly located for those who work in the city: You just have to take the renovated blue line and in no more than ten minutes you’ll be in Downtown Boston. Also, during the last decade there has been a lot of public investment in the neighborhood: There’s a modern Neighborhood Health Center, big parks in the waterfront, a beautiful new Boston Public Library, etc. “These are amenities that Latino residents themselves agitated for, organized for and pushed for. And unfortunately, those are the kinds of amenities and innovations that make their area susceptible to real estate speculation,” explains Joey Michalakes, a Harvard lawyer who works with Greater Boston Legal Services, a non profit that provides free legal representation to tenants that are facing eviction or displacement in East Boston.

Who will be there when this fence is gone? November 2016.

What’s the city doing?
We are the city, and we must do something. However, it’s the job of public officials to hear the community and try to design solutions to its conflicts. In mid 2016, the Mayor of Boston created the Office of Housing Stability, an office that has the goal of keeping low and moderate income Bostonians in their homes. Right now the office is run by Lydia Edwards, a lawyer and East Boston resident who has a deep understanding of the causes and effects of displacement. Her office has come up with three strategies to achieve their mission: 1)Invest in buildings and help the community actually own them. 2)Using tax exemptions to incentivize small landlords to not rise the rents. 3)Informing tenants about their rights.

The office is young and the economical pressure on the neighborhood is fast. Have you thought strategies that Latinos can follow to keep East Boston as our home? Would you like to share your thoughts?

Keep this in mind…
A city can be built and prosper only if it represents the goals of individuals, of a society and its institutions. A city is not an accident but the result of coherent visions and aims. It is an invention of the human spirit. Without this guiding idea there would be no urban civilization. Manufacturing and commercial logic does not by sheer necessity produce cities of enduring value. […] Qualities such as civic vitality, urbanity, beauty, pride of home, citizenship, character, and the beauty of public spaces, squares, parks, and architecture are not just wild flowers in the field of economic relationships. Industrial dynamism left to its own logic occupies land in almost military fashion, causing much collateral damage.” León Krier, The Architecture of Community.