By: Zoe Sullivan
One day in early Summer 2012, a man yelled up to Alma Chislom from the front porch of her triple-decker apartment building, the style so common in the Boston area.
“The man on the porch asked if he bought the house, if we would want to stay,” says Chislom. She had moved just a few months earlier to the Park Street apartment after dealing with a landlord who didn’t pay the water or heating bills. “So here I am again thinking we’re going to be homeless,” she says.
Chislom wasn’t alone in this situation. As the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent recession dragged on, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, buildings languished in various phases of foreclosure, leaving homeowners as well as tenants in limbo — easy picking for investors looking to flip entire blocks or neighborhoods into luxury housing. Tenant organizers in Boston began to see the foreclosure crisis as a new front.
Lisa Owens was one of the people at City Life/Vida Urbana who eventually helped Chislom stay in her home.
“We had a pretty major campaign that started with the big banks but ultimately ended with a demand directly to FHFA [the Federal Housing Finance Association], and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which ultimately were the largest mortgage holders, to say ‘stop displacing people and do principal reduction for all of these homes that were under water,’” Owens says.
The situation brought together an unusual group of allies. The Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure, or COHIF as it’s known, includes members such as City Life/Vida Urbana, Boston Community Capital, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition, the Archdiocese of Boston’s affordable housing development arm, the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, and others.
“It is probably the only place that I know of where radical housing advocates and more mainstream policy advocacy folks in the housing world, non-profit developers, for-profit developers, financiers, and city agencies all come together to deal with this [foreclosure] crisis and what has turned into now a displacement crisis for renters and owners,” says Owens.