Started by political activists in 1973, City Life/Vida Urbana is involved in a wide range issues across Jamaica Plain and the greater Boston area. However, it focuses strongly on housing rights for the residents and tenants who live here. It brings JP residents together with tenants, landlords, urban planners and public officials to solve systematic problems and fight injustice.
They are growing quickly these days, bringing on more full- and part-time organizers, interns and volunteers, as well as expanding across the state.
I spoke to Melonie Griffiths, the lead organizer in Jamaica Plain.
How was City Life / Vida Urbana founded?
City Life was founded over 37 years ago. They originally started doing work around tenant rights and housing issues, things like doing collective bargaining with both small and large landlords and trying to get rent control.
They worked with mostly JP residents.
As we started to branch off into the trends we were seeing in housing, we started dealing a lot more with collective bargaining in the 1990s. In the mid-2000s there was a shift where homeowners were coming in looking for help in foreclosure. In fact, I was one of the people who first came in to the organization for aid with foreclosure.
We started to do blockades to fight eviction; mine was the first blockade in 2008. We did two of them and it kept me and my children in our home for a while. It got a lot of press, in the magazines and newspapers - it went national. The phones were ringing off the hook.
It was then that we shifted the focus to bank organizing. All tenants of a building after foreclosure are tenants of the bank, so that is why we call it bank organizing.
We started with 10 families at our Tuesday meetings, and we were so excited when we got to 25 families. Now have over 100 families at our meetings.
How do you take action for the families?
We act in a lot of ways. We protest auctions to let investors know that this isn’t going to be an easy thing. Our strategy is to have the banks acquire it and for us to get it back from the bank.
We also have tons of people are still in their homes through the court system. Most recently we were able to get legislation passes that protected former tenants for no-fault eviction after foreclosure, meaning if the building forecloses, the tenant cannot be kicked out unless they have done something like miss paying their rent.
We do anything to raise awareness of the issues and to prevent unfair eviction. We lobby and hold bank rallies and blockades.
We have three levels of people who participate in blockades. The riskiest one is those who risk arrest during a blockade – we only have about four people risk arrest, and never the homeowners themselves.
It’s important to note that we don’t fight foreclosure, we fight displacement after foreclosure and we fight gentrification.
What is your most important role in the community?
I think the most important thing we give back to the community is their voice and an education in these issues.
We don’t really give a service or a good, but we fight the systematic problems that affect people here, like the fact that the banks couldn’t control the housing bubble and led us to this crisis.
We get people to join together and use people power to fight back. We’re never looking to own, just to help them fight back. We’re always actively seeking new families to join in.
What is next for City Life?
We’ve gotten funding to expand our work, so we’re reaching out to legal entities that support the work. For example, we have attorneys that come to our Tuesday meetings and provide pro bono service to the families.
As far as expansion, we already have a component of City Life in East Boston, and we are expanding to Revere, Malden, Lynn, Chelsea and more.
We are giving the tools and looking to fund work in Lynn, Worcester and up to Rhode Island.
Why is JP a good home for City Life / Vida Urbana?
I don’t know if there is a good home for City Life, but JP is the original home. The residents of JP are really good about organizing and rallying. Just last night there was a .
Although there is awareness in other areas of the city, there is an effort and a respect for rallying here.
In the 70s, the founders saw the work in the heart of JP and they wanted to be a part of it.
But we’re willing to go where the work takes us. We’ve done rallies all over. We have bank tenants that come from Gloucester, Worcester, all over.
What’s the best thing City Life had done for JP?
That is hard; it’s easier to say what the residents of Boston have done for City Life. Everything we do, we do mostly with volunteers.
The fact that we had only two full time workers and were able to do the work we did speaks to that.
But I’d say we have contributed to the great organizing work JP has done. Our organization gave folks something to relate to. It gave Jamaica Plain residents the ability to connect to other parts of Boston.
If you are interested in learning more about the work City Life does, visit their Website or stop by their weekly meeting, every Tuesday from 6:30-8:30 at 284 Amory St.