Journal of Community Power Building      COMM-ORG Papers 2004

Contents | Walking the Fine Line | The Power of Patience | Fear and Coaxing in Waltham | A Seat at the Table | ¡Sí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing

Fear and Coaxing in Waltham

By Sarah Robbins

He said he wouldn’t continue the discussion unless I acted like a “lady.” Without hesitation I stated simply that the practice of “acting like a lady” is the reason why hundreds of elderly women were willing to be silent in the face of being gentrified out of their homes!

 A “lady” doesn’t speak up.  A “lady” doesn’t talk back to those in power.  A “lady” just rolls over and lets the bad guys of the world run amok all over their lives.  That’s exactly what my neighbors, both men and women, were doing in the face of losing what was home for up to forty plus years.

It all comes down to misconceptions and fear – misconceptions about what power is; who has it and who doesn’t; how to use it; and what it all means.   There is fear of the unknown.  Fear of the future and for one’s future.  Just plain fear.

Back in 2001, I read in the local paper that Gardencrest, the apartment complex I had lived in for some seven years, was up for sale.  This was quite a shock after receiving a letter of assurance from the owners that despite the death of the family patriarch and Gardencrest founder, they had no plans to sell in the future.  For nearly fifty years, Gardencrest was not so much a steppingstone to the American dream of home ownership as it was Home for countless seniors and a place in which to raise children.  Not only was it Home, plain and simple, it was also affordable for regular folks.  For people who had lived here for many years, the real estate world outside the boundaries of our cozy community was much too expensive, let alone being an environment that felt nearly as safe.  Many of my neighbors had disabilities or were elderly and had found a safe haven here.  Those who found Gardencrest never left.  Most of the seniors had not kept up with prices of apartments in the world beyond, because they liked living at Gardencrest.  Why would they move?  Where would they go?

Most significantly, my neighbors were used to having a landlord who showed compassion for the needs of the tenants by keeping rents low.  Suddenly, the complex was up for sale, leaving tenants feeling stunned and betrayed by the family they had trusted for all those years.  Clearly the aging offspring of the founder were of a different breed from their father.  Still, they were DeVincents, and therefore tenants felt they owed some sort of loyalty to the landlords even if they were heeding the advice of real estate agents interested in maximum profit at any human cost.  At the price being asked, the new owner would have to immediately double the rents as had happened a few years before at a similar apartment complex across town.  Even so, the tenants felt obliged to let the second generation of DeVincents do as they pleased out of respect for their dead father.  They felt it would be unacceptable to appear to be “anti- DeVincent” by speaking up for their needs and were willing to be the collateral damage in the battle for affordable housing.  “It’s a private sale, there’s nothing we can do,” was the whimper of those convinced of their powerlessness in the face of disaster.

City officials were saying the same thing.  “It’s a private sale; they can sell it for whatever the market will offer.”  They were willing to let hundreds of long time Waltham residents get gentrified out of the homes where they had raised their children or had retired to, rather than try to interfere with the supposedly sacred right of a prominent family to sell a property for maximum profit.  The fact that there was no affordable place for these people to go had nothing to do with it.  The fact that the waiting list for senior housing was four years long was just too bad.  The fact that to move out of Gardencrest would undoubtedly be the end of many a frail elder could not be helped.  “Sorry, it’s a private sale.”  Group shrug.  After all, many of the city officials had moved up several notches in “class” from profits gained in selling a house.  It’s the American Way.  In the next two years I would encounter many a homeowner and city official who saw no distinction between a family’s selling the old homestead and the sale of a 696-unit commercial property that composed 7 percent of the entire city’s rental housing stock.

A few days after I read in the paper about the sale, I called the Waltham Alliance to Create Housing (WATCH) and went to their office to discuss the issue.  I had no particular notion at that time of embarking on a two-year, full-time campaign to save my neighbors but I also didn’t subscribe to the idea that nothing could be done, so I wanted to get some information about what might be possible.  Although realistic, never once did the folks at WATCH say the situation was hopeless.  Yes, it was a private sale but that doesn’t mean that resistance was futile.  These folks actually had experience with this sort of thing and could help my neighbors and myself at least try to have a say in the matter.

At the tenants’ meeting that the folks at WATCH suggested, the turnout was impressive.  Mostly elderly, the tenants were very afraid and felt as if they had been thrown into an unthinkable situation.  With fear as the order of the day, people were dying to hear what quick fix the meeting would bring to light.  They wanted either a quick fix or to forget it, one extreme or the other, most fearing that  “nothing could be done.”  I found the ignorance, naiveté and denial of reality (both good and bad) to be shocking.  My neighbors were either of the opinion that surely the DeVincents would take care of us like a father takes care of his children or that the world as we knew it had come to an end and we might as well lie down and take it.  Either way, in their mindset of fear, there was no action on our part that was called for or of use.  Either wait to be saved or wait to be devastated.  Completely passive.  Rare were the tenants who dared to take responsibility for their own future and tried to have a voice in the sale proceedings.   There was talk of spies at this meeting who would squeal on anyone who got uppity.  Surely to stand up for oneself would be to risk landlord retaliation.

Would the city officials save us?  Well, two city councilors were at the meeting and were doing a lot of shoulder shrugging.  If they had the power to do anything, they didn’t want to exercise it.  After all, to sell for maximum profit was legal.  The rising cost of a place to live was not a subject the city wanted anything to do with.  Too many of the city’s officials would not be happy to “interfere” with the sacred cow of real estate profitmaking.  Many tenants who had come to this first meeting looking for a quick fix or a “nice” solution would never come to future meetings.  They were not willing to let go of their misconceptions about their own power or the power of the real estate industry.  They were not able to let go of their fear.

It was only after the complex was sold to the sixth-largest Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) in the country that people were freed from the burden of loyalty to the DeVincent clan.  Still, what to do?  A core group of tenants was forming who were willing to fight the injustice that was happening in our lives.  For these few, misconceptions were fading and their confidence was improving through group solidarity.  Eventually, through the persistence of this core group, we found a local lawyer who was not only knowledgeable about affordable housing issues but was willing to help us for free.  After months of education on the practicability and “rightness” of fighting corporate greed, when our new lawyer said that he “liked the possibilities of what’s going on here,” most of the tenants in the room were ready to listen and trust that there was something we could do.  Enter Civil Disobedience for beginners.

The Massachusetts Consumer Protection Statute speaks about the concept of “unconscionability” in a situation and that the law will not tolerate something that is “outrageous, unjust or immoral.”  The second part of the statute speaks to the “lack of meaningful alternatives” available to consumers (tenants) for something as necessary as a place to live.  Thirdly, the “gross inequality of bargaining power” between tenants and this corporate giant of a landlord afforded us some leverage under the law.  If we could convince a judge that the proposed rent increases were outrageous and devastating, we might be able to get the judge to persuade the new landlord to play nice.

To make a very long story short, the fledgling Gardencrest Tenants Association was able to collect over 120 signatures from tenants pledging to collectively withhold their rent increases in order to persuade the landlord to negotiate a compromise with the tenants regarding these increases.  If this negotiation did not happen, then the tenants would bring the issue to the attention of the local judge.  Persuading tenants to sign was not easy but we designed the pledge campaign to minimize people’s fear of being the first to sign it.  Unless we got at least 100 signatures, we would not go through with it.  No one’s signature would be revealed to the landlord unless at least ninety-nine neighbors were also willing to risk going through eviction proceedings.  No one would be asked to go through with the withholding unless at least ninety-nine neighbors were also withholding.  Our lawyer assured us that we wouldn’t have to actually withhold the rent increases; the collective pledge to do so would bring the landlord to the negotiation table to work out a compromise regarding rent increases.  It worked.  By acting collectively, we avoided much of the fear of being singled out as individual troublemakers by the landlord.

Our commitment to this solidarity was shaky at best, but still strong enough to enable us to negotiate two significant and unprecedented victories for the cause of affordable housing in Waltham.  One of these victories consisted of a joint city/landlord program involving a two-year, seventy-dollar per month rental subsidy for 104 low-income families who were brave enough to disclose all of their financial information in the application.  The Tenants Association then went on to sign a contract with the landlord to further help these 104 households by limiting their rent increases to 5 percent per year for four years.

In the end, what was successful was to work as a group and put a collective pledge in writing to take our cause as far as we needed to.  Groups have a power that individuals do not.  We had to let go of the misconception that exercising power means acting like a “bad guy” out to annihilate the “enemy.”   A goal of compromise that respected the landlord’s right to make a profit while we pushed for people’s right to have a roof over their heads was hugely successful.  Stridently making aggressive demands in order to negotiate down to an acceptable level fell flat every time.

Fear was and still is the most difficult element to overcome.  It is the one thing that enables the bad guys of this world to do what they will while good people stand by and cower.  It’s the one thing that rears its ugly head even in people whose misconceptions have been corrected.

It’s been two-and-a-half years since this whole tenant empowerment exercise has started.  I’ve just gotten off the phone with one of the core group members.  She and at least two other core group members are afraid of landlord retaliation if they, along with several people, sign a letter that mentions the fact that the landlord is violating several laws/codes.  The landlord might get a hold of this letter, they say.  The landlord won’t like it, they say.  Do we have to come right out and say that they’re breaking the law?  Sigh.  During moments of weakness and burnout, fear still has such a stranglehold on people’s minds that it outweighs rational thought.  They know that retaliation is illegal.  They know that the Tenants Association will protect them from it.  They have heard me say many times that what keeps me feeling safe is that I know my rights and I have the confidence to resist anyone who violates my rights.  As long as I continue to be active in the Tenants Association (and for six months beyond that), I am protected by law from any landlord’s retaliation and I know that the burden of proof is on the landlord, should I cry foul.  I know that being afraid to speak up (read, “ladylike”) while the opposition is breaking the law is no way to promote change.

Fear can be very powerful.  But change can happen, if slowly.

A Horticulturalist by trade, Sarah had no prior experience in power building when the desperate need for a tenant leader at Gardencrest presented itself. She could not refuse. She did, however, have some experience in when not to be a Lady, which was valuable in the efforts at Gardencrest and led to her becoming a board member at WATCH where she tries to be a team player.

Contents | Walking the Fine Line | The Power of Patience | Fear and Coaxing in Waltham | A Seat at the Table | ¡Sí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing