Tenants take on a millionaire

February 26, 2010

Casey Rocheteau reports on a struggle for housing justice in Boston.

ON A busy sidewalk in downtown Boston, amid the bustle of posh diners and moviegoers, a group of demonstrators made one message very clear: Don't mess with City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), and don't try to push people out of their neighborhoods.

CLVU is a grassroots organization based in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston that, according to its mission statement, is "committed to fighting for racial, social and economic justice and gender equality by building working-class power through direct action, coalition building, education and advocacy."

Lately, the group and people working alongside it, including members of the International Socialist Organization, have mobilized for direct actions to focus attention on the struggle for housing justice in Boston.

On February 19, activists had organized for an eviction blockade to save the home of the Nguyen family--but the protest turned into a celebration when JPMorgan Chase agreed to sell the home to a nonprofit lender so the Nguyens could repurchase it at its real value. Some 65 people attended the vigil--and made it clear to the bank that it would face opposition if it tried to evict in the future.

Demonstrators send a message to a Boston real estate owner
Demonstrators send a message to a Boston real estate owner (Casey Rocheteau | SW)

That evening, CLVU and the newly formed 22 Princeton Street Tenants Association took the fight to Tremont Street in downtown Boston to picket outside Teatro, a fancy restaurant owned by Paul Roiff, a wealthy restaurant owner and real estate speculator.

Roiff bought the building at 22 Princeton Street in East Boston at a low post-foreclosure cost, and in December sent eviction notices to all of the tenants. Roiff wants to turn the building into expensive condominiums and has refused to maintain the property to put pressure on the current tenants. Many say they have gone without heat for months at a time, and Roiff and his management team have done nothing. One tenant has lived without a stove in his apartment for four months.

Roiff asked a court to begin eviction proceedings against the tenants. He told CLVU that he was open to negotiating if tenants would come to the table "in good faith"--but he refused to stop the proceedings.

With the threat of eviction looming over them, tenants agreed that they can't proceed with such tactics, and instead went on the offensive. "We can negotiate with weapons drawn or put away," CLVU organizer Steve Meacham told a local blogger. "Roiff's weapon is the eviction. Ours is protest. As long as he continues the evictions, we will continue the protests."

ON FEBRUARY 18, picketers descended on the swanky XV Beacon Hotel. Roiff happened to walk past the picket and smirked at protesters as he got in his car.

The following evening, outside of Teatro, the protest was underway when three infiltrators were discovered in the crowd, handing out half-sheets that duplicated a handout from CLVU on one side, but read, "Want to live in your foreclosed building for free? Call City Life" on the other. Picketers came to a stop as the intentions of the three, assumed to be employees of Roiff's, were announced over the bullhorn, and the crowd of 35 chanted, "Shame! Shame! Shame!" as they fled into the night.

The vigil continued with renewed vigor, with demonstrators singing "We Shall Not Be Moved," while waving to the diners inside.

Another picket the next night, held outside Mistral, another of Roiff's restaurants in Boston's Back Bay, drew about 30 people. The local press interviewed organizers outside. The protest ended with a plea for Roiff to "have a heart," and a thank you to the workers of Mistral. "Valets, dishwashers, waitstaff, busers, it's not your fault that we're here," said one organizer. "It's Roiff's fault. You all had nothing to do with this."

Meacham said that each action against Roiff was planned with the expectation of having five to 10 participants, but grew into much bigger numbers. As the economy continues to worsen for working-class people, it seems that more people are joining the fight against greedy developers and the big banks that back them.

It's clear from his underhanded tactics that Roiff isn't operating in "good faith." He only cares about his profits, not the people paying the price in this recession. For anyone who's tired of waiting for an end to these woeful conditions, City Life and the 22 Princeton Street Tenants Association are a shining example of how to put pressure from below on those feasting off this crisis.

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