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Tenants demonstrate against displacement

Mattapan action among several held in Greater Boston area

Anna Lamb
Tenants demonstrate against displacement
Tenants at SoMa at the T, the former Fairlawn Estates development, protest rent increases from the new owner of the complex. PHOTO: ANNA LAMB

As bitter cold swept through Boston on Valentine’s Day, tenants and housing rights activists came together to show their love for one another outside the SoMa at the T apartment complex in Mattapan, bearing signs and wearing multiple layers.

During the final event of a weekend of action dubbed “Xoxo Housing Justice” and spearheaded by advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), tenants and their supporters came together to raise awareness of ongoing fights against gentrification throughout the Bay State.

The weekend began with a protest in Malden, during which tenants who say they’re being forced out of their homes by a charter school that bought their building rallied against impending evictions. Residents of the building, bought by Mystic Valley Regional Charter School (MVRCS), said they are hopeful something can be worked out to allow apartments and businesses to stay put.

“When [the previous owner] sold the property, they knocked on our door with the school representatives. They shook my hand and said we had about a year and a half before they started thinking about doing something,” said Eduardo Palcios, a resident of the Lebanon Street apartments for the last eight years.

“Less than two months later, they slid an eviction letter underneath our doors, right before Thanksgiving,” he said.

The tenants in Malden first began speaking out against the purchase of their building back in December. After initial protests, MVRCS released a statement in which they said they would be amenable to community conversations before taking action to begin the eviction process. At the time of publishing, school representatives had not responded to the Banner on the status of those negotiations.

Palcios, bundled in a scarf, hat and heavy gloves Monday, said he and other Malden tenants came out to SoMa at the T in Mattapan to show their solidarity for others struggling with housing against financial obstacles.

“There is hope — we have a fighting chance, we have a voice and we’re going to keep pushing forward,” he said.

Formerly known as the Fairlawn apartments, the complex was purchased by property management group DSF in 2018. The new owner renamed the property SoMa at the T, or “South Mattapan Apartments at the T,” and according to tenants, has been raising rents while neglecting units.

With its reference to the conveniently located Fairmount Line commuter rail station nearby, the SoMa tenants say DSF is using the train as an attractive selling point for residents willing to pay a premium rent. This is after they say the community fought for equitable transportation and gained additional stops on the Fairmount line, including the Blue Hill Avenue stop.

“This community became lucrative for you because of the sweat equity of the people around here,” said Gabrielle Rene, a CLVU organizer.

Rene went on to say DSF has increased rents hundreds of dollars for some — a price hike far outside the budget for a lot of longtime residents. In response, tenant leaders and advocates have been locked in a years-long standstill fight with property owners to cap rent increases and establish channels of communication.

“We’ve been trying to negotiate a fair and reasonable contract with the owners and with management for the tenants here. And they have not been willing to work with us,” Rene said.

Annie Gordon, who has lived in her apartment on the property for more than four decades and lives on a fixed income, said that she has had to take a part-time job just to keep up with the increases.

“I turned 71 last month, but I had to work part-time in order to get the money, that amount that they want,” she said.

Gordon added that if she is evicted, she’ll have to go to a shelter.

“I have been searching and right now I’m on waitlist [for an apartment],” she said. “One of the waitlists is like seven years long.”

Also in attendance on the chilly Monday afternoon was newly elected City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who came to support constituents and promise her aid in fighting for equitable housing.

“I’ve attended protests in front of DSF with them and I grew up coming to Fairlawn Apartments — this is where a lot of Haitian working class families lived. And so to see what’s happening, increases of $350, who can pay that?” she said.

She added that short of rent control, the City Council can help foster positive relationships between landlords and tenants.

“There have been successful models in the past with the city and tenant organizations and new landlords coming to an agreement on five-year contracts and how much rent can increase. And that’s what needs to happen here.”

To end the day, tenants and supporters dropped off a building-wide petition demanding negotiations. Management, finishing up a day in the onsite office, declined to receive the petitions face-to-face, so representatives slid the material under the office door one at a time.

DSF has not responded to requests for comment.

In addition to the actions in Malden and Mattapan, CLVU is also aiding in tenant rights fights in Chelsea and promoting the passage of statewide rent control legislation.