Meet Tenant Organizer María Christina Blanco

Testifying at a City Council hearing: L-R: Jacqueline Gomez, Marta Franco, Crisanto Rosas, Zenaida Flores, Rita Paul and María Christina Blanco.

Courtesy of City Life/Vida Urbana

Testifying at a City Council hearing: L-R: Jacqueline Gomez, Marta Franco, Crisanto Rosas, Zenaida Flores, Rita Paul and María Christina Blanco.

Tuesday marks the kickoff of a city-sponsored review of what Washington Street should be like from Forest Hills to Jackson Square.

A lot of interests will be in play as residents and officials build that master plan. Expect many of those voices to come from JP-based City Life/Vida Urbana, a tenants’ rights organization.

Jamaica Plain News recently walked Washington Street with María Christina Blanco, a lead organizer with City Life.

The city has dubbed the planning effort “Plan JP/Rox: Preserve. Enhance. Grow.” The “Preserve ” part of the slogan is the concern of City Life with its Washington Street anti-displacement campaign just getting underway.

“We are concerned with the people who have to live with the results” of all this planning and development, said Blanco, who lives in JP.  “3200 Washington Street really concerns us. We see it all along [the street]. Development and mitigation are tied together. As industrial zoning changes there is now room to create new housing and there is this push for growth in the older parts of the city.”

In Blanco’s view, it is the low income, often black or Latino renter who gets pushed out.

Blanco, 38, has personal experience with the  tensions of being a renter. She joined City Life in 2011 and is the lead organizer for a new and unique initiative titled Health Through Housing Justice. It’s nothing less than confronting displacement, as Blanco made clear in an hour’s walk along Washington Street on Wednesday.  She said City Life wants to find answers to the displacement that it feels can potentially sweep down the Washington Street corridor as it becomes a hot spot for development.

The program is funded  by a $145,000, two-year grant awarded by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council in April.  The Council administered the funds from the Boston Residential Group as mitigation for Olmsted Place, its huge development at 161A South Huntington Ave. That development is now being leased out, with a recent call for applicants for some units set aside for lower-income earners.

“We don’t seek people out,” said Blanco as she stood in front of 3350 Washington St., a brick apartment building at Green Street.  This is opposite 3371 Washington St., a controversial development site that is either on  hold or for sale.

“We will door knock [in a building like this] and let people know we’re here and what we can offer,” Blanco said.  “I go where the work leads me.”

“Everyone, developers, speculators, land bankers are all looking to see what the outcome is for 3200 Washington Street.” she said. “We see realtors stockpiling properties in anticipation.”

The anti-displacement program is a unique venture for City Life largely because it is organizing within a specific  geographic area.  Historically, City Life has taken on citywide issues confronting low income families and renters from Dorchester to Mattapan and Jamaica Plain such as its recent foreclosure work.  Now for two years City Life will organize, monitor, react, advocate and assist those who live and work along one city street.

The impetus for this campaign came out of the Rose Center Fellowship Urban Land Institute study of Washington Street corridor, released to Mayor Marty Walsh in April. After spending four days studying the area, the group, led in part by Sheila Dillon, director of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, focused on land use decision making as well as ways to make the corridor more esthetically pleasing.

“They were talking about development, ” said Blanco. “Developers are looking at the luxury market; at the student market. But  [The Urban Land Institute] gave no thought to the mitigation for that development. They had no answers for that.”

City Life is looking for those answers. Blanco described three:

1. Non profit co-op ownership such as the successful JP Neighborhood Development Corp.’s Rockvale Circle homes.

2. Long term leases – a cornerstone of City Life’s advocacy – whereby renters get an adjustable cost of living- based lease for the next four years.

3. Just cause eviction law.  If owners want to sell, this protects the residents living in the building.

Protection of existing Section 8 housing vouchers is also a priority with City Life and it a gained victory with City Realty on that issue in May.  Multi-family housing owners have the option to accept or not renew section 8 vouchers. They can also request an increase in the  rents  – normally maintained at 30 percent of a family’s income – in private housing that includes market rate and subsidies. The goal of City Life is that owners  renew vouchers agreement but keep the voucher value at 30 percent of a family’s income.

The Washington Street corridor is peppered with these section 8 units and it’s difficult to know where they are unless a family is faced with non renewal of the contract or an unauthorized rent increase. City Life aims to identify and resolve these cases.

City Life sees large property owners  – both private owners and community development corporations – as one and the same.

Blanco said they all need to address the proposed mitigation methods for existing renters.

There are a lot of moving parts in the city’s real estate scene. One piece of good news for lower-income residents is that Washington Street has seven “permanently affordable” buildings owned by Urban Edge. One of them, 3224-3334 Washington, is adjacent to 3200 Washington St., a proposed development that right now is at the center of the debate over the corridor’s future.  The other two blocks are closer to  Green Street, at 3294-3304 and 3116-3322 Washington St.  A third is in the middle of the business district at 3089 Washington St at Beethoven Street. All of these units are protected with project-based subsidies. That means if renter moves out the apartment is still preserved with an income-based lease.

Blanco said that City Life will attend the Washington Street corridor planning open house on Tuesday.

“I’ll go in with some tenant leaders,” she said. “They should be nominated for the [Impact Advisory Group being formed.]”

The City Life anti-displacement organizing campaign is getting underway at the same time as the Boston Redevelopment Authority-sponsored Washington Street corridor planning study.

The BRA is concerned with the pace of development; with height, density and parking. For the people who will come after.

City Life is concerned with the people who are already here.