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City Life / Vida Urbana

Fighting Displacement by Building Solidarity Housing and Finance


For over forty years, City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) has been organizing towards a world that puts people before profit. CLVU’s entry point, both historically and politically, is housing. Executive Director and longtime organizer Lisa Owens explains, “our basic mission has not changed. Our basic mission has always been to work on systemic change. Our mission is to work towards social, racial, and economic equality, specifically through engaging in the housing movement…housing justice is where you can get at the most immediate needs of working class families of color.” 

Struggle, Solidarity, and Systemic Change

Through a tenants association, community members “put their bodies on the line,” says Owens. “A sheriff would come and the moving people would be there, and then you’d have hundreds of people there standing in the doorway saying that you have to go through us [if you want to] evict this family.”

Direct action tactics of 1970’s have been joined with an array of efforts including community education on tenants rights, political lobbying and pressure, coalition work, deep relationship building, and even a form of collective bargaining. Through it’s broad membership base, CVLU leverages power to force large landlords to the table. “We, like unions, use a collective form of bargaining when we are negotiating with large landlords. [For example], we say, all of our tenants—our tenants’ association—wants to have a lease. We want to have built into this lease a cap on rental increases over a set amount of years.” 

These efforts and struggles to provide tangible relief for CVLU members can have a cascading effect, and lead to deeper analysis and politicization. “When you save or realize you can save one home and then you can save your neighbor’s home, it’s not a big leap to say, ‘you know what, we can actually change much more than this.’ That’s when you start to see systemic change happen—when you start to question the very ground you stand on and the ownership structure you’re living under and if you can imagine a radically new ownership structure.” 


With this commitment towards systemic change, CVLU develops leaders and builds power through education, relationship building, and direct action on housing related issues like gentrification and displacement, redlining and disinvestment, affordable housing, and tenants rights. 

CVLU’s beginnings can be traced to the efforts of Jamaica Plain community members responding to both systemic racism and political corruption. “It was a different time,” says Owens, explaining that community members faced, “rising rent on the one hand, with displacement. And then on the other hand, older housing stock that was suffering from the effects of redlining was burned for insurance money while people were being displaced from that as well.” 

Collective Ownership, Commoning, and Solidarity Economy

For CLVU, the Solidarity Economy Initiative (SEI) expands the field of radical possibility by helping to clarify and advance CVLU’s resist and build approach. “We’re fighters,” Owens explains. “We’re really good at fighting landlords; we’re really good at wrestling concessions from these big greedy corporations. And…we’re good at growing new solidarity economy institutions…even in the first five years of our founding in the 70’s we started a food co-op and we started a community newspaper. So the SEI is important because it helps to keep in the forefront that we are both fighting and building something new, both at the same time.”

CLVU has helped incubate and launch broader solidarity projects, like the multifaceted Ujima Project which is building a community-controlled investment fund and economy..  “I really want to see each of these models [SEI and Ujima] flourish,” says Owens. “The fact that it has ignited the imagination of so many people I think is really exciting.” 

CLVU has also helped to launch a community land trust (CLT) emerging out of the Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure, which acquired and rehabilitated 15 units in 6 properties to prevent tenants from being displaced from foreclosed housing. Owens explains that the CLT is in its initial stages, “We just set up our board, we had our first training of residents on land trust properties so that they can learn about self-governance and decision making and what is a CLT. We are on a good path right now.” 

CLT’s are most commonly recognized and used as strategies to stabilize housing prices by bringing housing units out of the speculative market and into community control. This collective ownership and governance of land, however, can activate a process of ongoing commoning. When collectively-held land becomes more than just individual property, it becomes a site for envisioning and building a flourishing community and solidarity economy. 

Says Owens, “I really see in the next ten years the land trust being an anti-displacement city-wide land trust that has both the grassroots leadership and financing to be able to acquire homeownership, rental opportunity, [and]…has community based agriculture and community businesses…under an anti-displacement banner that has homeowners, and renters, and small business owners together in a housing justice movement. And that would be super exciting.” 

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