New MIT data shows people of color in Boston evicted at a growing rate, higher than that of white people

City Life Event Coordinator Helen "Homefries" Matthews asks Mattapan residents (left to right) Betty Lewis, Annie Gordon, Michelle Ewing and Ruby Saucer about their respective experiences with eviction at a press dinner in Jamaica Plain on Nov. 7, Boston, Mass. Photo by Aaron Halford/ BU News Service

By Aaron Halford
BU News Service

BOSTON — People of color are being evicted at a growing rate, disproportionately to white residents, according to new MIT data. Community and media members gathered for the nonprofit organization City Life’s event in Jamaica Plain Thursday evening to discuss the findings.

For a city that ranks third nationally on the list of the most expensive rental markets and seventh in economic inequality, however, the trend is not surprising. 

“Last year in eviction cases in Massachusetts Housing Courts, 70% of landlords were represented by an attorney but only 7% of tenants,” according to a July court hearing. 

Since its establishment in 1973, City Life has worked with low-income families and people of color to help them integrate successfully and adapt to a changing world. The organization’s current efforts in the realm of rent control reflect the same sentiments. 

David Robinson, an MIT researcher who has been studying evictions by neighborhood in Boston for three years, highlighted the city’s lack of data on the subject, in turn hindering the city’s ability to make informed decisions. 

“There’s really not a lot of data on some eviction filings,” Robinson said during his presentation. “This is something that has always been a problem, and it’s really difficult to understand the solution if you don’t actually understand the problem.”

Residents from neighborhoods like Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan — predominantly non-white communities — are experiencing evictions at higher rates than the rest of the city, Robinson said. 

He compared three years of data between Roxbury and Beacon Hill, a wealthier neighborhood along the Charles River, to analyze how evictions have been affecting people based on socioeconomic status. Robinson’s findings show that Roxbury residents are exponentially more likely to be evicted than someone from a member of a higher-income community. 

In addition, Robinson highlighted the difference between eviction filings, a landlord requesting their tenant leave the property and eviction executions, which involve actually evicting the tenant. 

“Between eviction filings between Roxbury and Beacon Hill, it’s a tenfold difference,” Robinson said. “And then actually, when you look at executions, it’s a 15-fold difference.”

Robinson also highlighted the wealth disparities between whites and people of color.

“A quarter of a million dollars is the median net worth of a white family in Boston,” Robinson said, citing a recent Boston Globe article. “And then an African-American family has a median net worth of $8. So that’s a striking kind of disadvantage.”

City Life Executive Director Lisa Owens said the battle for rent control in the city of Boston has been a long and grueling experience for those involved. 

“Our movement has been fighting, quite frankly, since we lost rent control in the ‘90s,” Owens said. “So I want to think that this is our moment. Over four years, we built the political will not just in Boston, but across the state for something meaningful for real, bold, meaningful protections for working-class tenants.”

While replacing low-income families with wealthier tenants could be a positive sign of economic growth, Owens emphasized that maintaining a community comprised of residents who grew up in and have deep roots in an area can be a stabilizing force. 

“We built the political will not just in Boston, but across the state for real, bold, meaningful protections for working-class tenants,” Owens said. “And we brought a lot of working-class homeowners to see that stabilizing tenants stabilizes communities.”

Doug Quattrochi, the executive director of MassLandlords.net, said voters and community members must have a practical solution that works for both sides when voting on rent control. 

“The displacement crisis is real, but partisan solutions will only make matters worse,” Quattrochi said. “Short-term, landlord and renter advocates need to collaborate on meaningful safety net expansion via rental subsidies. And long-term, we need to overhaul zoning to make rental housing legal and available in more communities.”

Annie Gordon, a longtime Mattapan resident who is currently facing eviction, said she’s concerned about displacement and how it has affected her life. In the past year, Gordon’s monthly rent at her apartment has been raised $265 without notice. 

“I’m an older citizen at this point. I’m retired and living on a fixed income,” Gordon said. “It’s unbelievable to me that I would have to leave the community I’ve been in for 43 years because somebody else has a different idea for it.”

Of the many people across the city facing displacement, many echoed Gordon’s sentiment: Why should someone who has spent so much time giving back and contributing to a community have to leave when an outsider says they have to? 

For Gordon, City Life has given her a platform to speak out against injustice and also provided her with the knowledge to fight back against displacement.  

“Everything I need is right in my community,” Gordon said. “I have disabilities and I need to be close to my doctors. I have family 10-15 minutes away that I can’t leave. My church is close by. Through City Life, I’m learning what my rights are and I’m learning to stand up for those rights and be heard.”

Despite Boston’s booming economy and steadily increasing gross domestic product (GDP), economic inequality continues to be an issue. With one of the most expensive rental markets in the country only behind San Francisco and New York City — and a city primarily comprised of renters — the next few years will be instrumental in determining the future of lower-income and minority citizens in Boston. 

Of the New York City renters who were represented by a taxpayer-funded attorney, more than 80% were able to retain their homes. 

In a town that aligns politically and socially with both San Francisco and New York, it would appear logical to some that Boston would be the next city to enact strict rent control measures. To others, however, evidence of the city’s deep-rooted history of racism can be seen as a hindrance to this issue. 

“We are riding the wave of a national movement to enact a bold tenant protection across the country,” Owens said. “We know that our neighbors to the south in New York and over to the west have enacted versions of rent stabilization policies that are dramatically changing the lives of working-class people immediately upon taking effect, and we believe that Massachusetts is the next state on the East Coast to ride this wave.”

Robinson commended Owens’ work as part of City Life and the work the organization has done to educate minorities and lower-income community members about their rights and give them the confidence to fight back against large corporations. 

“Organizations like City Life and people who are most impacted by these solutions have a really important place at the table in developing the solutions to address this problem,” Robinson said. 

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