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 | ˇSí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing

Laying Down a Speed Bump on the Gentrification Superhighway: Anatomy of a Campaign

By Kalila Barnett and Harry Smith


The Campaign of Conscience for Housing Justice is a multi-faceted campaign to fight gentrification and displacement in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts.  Over the past six years, this campaign, a collaboration with City Life/Vida Urbana, has been the major organizing focus of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), helping to shift the power balance within our neighborhood by broadening the base of community residents and groups who are working to solve the affordable housing crisis.

We believe looking at the Campaign's strategies and accomplishments will offer important lessons for CDCs addressing displacement and gentrification in their neighborhoods.

Origins of the Campaign: Building a Collective Sense of Power

Jamaica Plain (JP) is a neighborhood of about 40,000 people located in Boston.  It has a large Latino community and is well-known for its racial and ethnic diversity, open space, artists, and progressive politics.  Over the past several years, it has also become one of the most desirable places to live in the Boston area. 

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation was formed in 1977 by residents who had successfully helped block the expansion of I-95 through the neighborhood.  The spirit of community organizing and coalition building has always been strong within the JPNDC, as evidenced by its more than 500 dues-paying members.  Another sign of this commitment to coalition building is the JPNDC’s strong ties to City Life, a thirty-year old tenants’ rights and social justice organization based in Jamaica Plain. 

The Campaign of Conscience was launched in 1998 in response to escalating rents and home prices that threatened to displace hundreds of families from the community.  Jamaica Plain’s real estate market had undergone a boom-and-bust cycle in the mid-1980s into the early 1990s, which had resulted in the displacement of many low-income families and the conversion of more than 10 percent of JP’s housing stock into condominiums.  In the mid-1990s, with the elimination of rent control throughout Boston, and the “discovery” of Jamaica Plain by young professionals, real estate prices began to climb once again.  This created a crisis for many families and individuals who had been working with the JPNDC in previous years to improve and clean up the neighborhood.

The Campaign was a natural outgrowth of the organizing work the JPNDC and City Life had engaged in together for many years.  The two organizations have had a long history of collaboration around development issues in the neighborhood, specifically the preservation and creation of affordable housing.  Many of the JPNDC’s successful housing development projects have had their roots in neighborhood organizing campaigns led by City Life.  For example, the Nate Smith House, forty-five units of low-income elderly housing, was built on the site of one of the most notoriously dilapidated apartment complexes in the city.  City Life’s organizing work with tenants and neighbors had forced the past owner into housing court, and eventually allowed the JPNDC to acquire the property.

Before launching the campaign, JPNDC and City Life undertook a nine-month planning process to ask residents and key community groups in the Hyde-Jackson Square neighborhood what they considered to be the most important housing issues facing the neighborhood.  Through door knocking and a series of focus groups, the two organizations talked with more than 250 community residents about their housing issues.  The results were not surprising: rising rents and escalating home prices were threatening to drive long-time residents out of the area. 

“We probably could have guessed what people would say were the biggest housing problems,” says Joe Vallely, a JPNDC board member who was involved in the planning process.  “But the process of asking people their opinions led them to get involved in the planning of the campaign as a way of finding solutions to the issues they were raising.”

The results of the planning process led leaders of the JPNDC and City Life to several conclusions.

First, we realized that the changing market environment was undermining the basic mission of the JPNDC and that we needed to do something to fight that underlying dynamic.  We would need to create a neighborhood discussion around the necessity of affordable housing and figure out how to win concrete victories that allowed families to stay in their homes.  Finally, we had to acknowledge that, if we wanted to ensure that affordable housing was accepted as a top priority in the community, the focus of this campaign had to be no less than trying to change the balance of power in neighborhood.

“Given how fast the real estate market was changing in JP, we realized that housing production alone would not solve the problem,” says Richard Thal, Executive Director of JPNDC.  “This meant broadening the focus of our organizing beyond housing development and into a campaign that addressed the housing crisis on many different levels.” 

Shaping the Issue and the Debate

In the beginning the Campaign was less focused on specific demands than on raising awareness about the impact of the housing crisis and dampening the enthusiasm of speculators coming into the neighborhood.  We tried to shape the issue and make sure that there were neighborhood discussions focused on the crisis.  We released research reports tracking rising rents and home prices, organized creative protests against abusive landlords and generated numerous media stories documenting the human cost of the booming housing market. 

“Our original goal was simply to do something public every month to get people’s attention and highlight what was happening to our neighborhood,” says Joe Vallely.  “But we soon realized that we had to reach out and create a more comprehensive strategy if we wanted to have a chance at success.”

While keeping a focus on raising public awareness, the Campaign began to develop organizing campaigns on three other fronts: organizing tenants to fight evictions; advocating for affordable housing on public land; and pushing for increased government housing funding and protections.  The Campaign developedspecific goals to organize strong tenant unions in large absentee-owned buildings; mobilize residents to push for specific numbers of housing units on public land; and advance legislation around funding and tenant protections to help our local organizing and housing development goals.   

Holding the Base and Targeting the Middle

One of the most important lessons we have learned from the Campaign of Conscience is the importance of engaging a broad cross-section of the community.  It became clear early on in the campaign that our traditional base of activists and the leadership pool of City Life and JPNDC would not be sufficient to advance an affordable housing agenda in the community.  To achieve this goal, we needed to reach out to tenants, homeowners and merchants.  By expanding the definition of who constituted our base, the JPNDC has been able to build relationships and cement alliances that have been key in moving forward an affordable housing agenda in the community.  

Merchant and resident organizations in Hyde/Jackson Square have had a long history of collaboration, organizing neighborhood cleanups and community festivals, and creating new programs to serve the community.  Because of this history, as well as the planning process that preceded the launching of the Campaign, JPNDC and City Life had already built relationships with merchant and resident groups who became key allies in the fight for affordable housing. 

For example, through the process, we found that local merchants were very concerned about the lack of affordable housing.  Merchant leaders emerged as strong allies, coming out in support of many of the Campaign’s housing initiatives and speaking at rallies and forums on the subject. 

“Our business district is made up of small businesses that depend on support from local residents,” says Fernando Mercedes, president of the Hyde/Jackson Square Business Association.  “Many of these people live paycheck to paycheck and right now they can’t afford to live here.  That’s why we need to keep fighting together for affordable housing in the neighborhood.” 

Likewise, organizations such as the Hyde Square Task Force, which serves hundreds of youth and families in the area, have supported the Campaign’s goals, due to the fact that many of their families were facing displacement from the neighborhood they helped to build. 

In addition to reaching out to merchants and resident groups, we sought relationships with the large artist community in JP and provided support to artists in particular buildings who were facing displacement.  We also recruited more than fifty small landlords to sign a Landlord Pledge promising to charge below-market rents and created an Affordable Housing Fund that has raised $60,000 for the Campaign through donations from people selling their homes.

“The Campaign has tried to get as many people as possible engaged in the cause of affordable housing,” says Joe Vallely.  “We have tried to get buy-in from residents and groups by offering something for everyone who wants to help.”

A New Generation of Leaders

One dynamic in Jamaica Plain is that, despite the racial and economic diversity of the community, low-income residents and people of color have not fully participated in many of the local institutions and planning processes that have shaped development in the neighborhood.  One of the goals of the campaign was to increase the ability of low-income residents and people of color to take leadership roles, both in the campaign and in the neighborhood’s institutions, including and starting with the JPNDC.  For example, since the beginning of the campaign, the JPNDC has elected five new board members who had actively participated in the campaign and now boasts an Organizing Committee of 15-20 active leaders, many of whom got involved through Campaign activities.

From the beginning, the Campaign placed a strong emphasis on educating community residents on different aspects of housing and development.  City Life incorporated education and analysis of the housing market into its monthly meetings of tenant leaders.  JPNDC has led a series of “Development 101” workshops for youth leaders, merchants, and residents to build knowledge and understanding of development issues.

“For me, it’s been worth it to be involved because I’ve learned how to defend my rights and help other people defend theirs,” says Ramona Gonzalez, a City Life board member and member of JPNDC’s Organizing Committee.  “We have to support each other and give each other hope.” 

These educational initiatives and the residents’ experiences in organizing campaigns have led to the emergence of a new group of leaders who understand the significance of exercising community control over development in the area.  The Campaign’s structure has always been decentralized, with various committees planning the bulk of the campaigns and bringing them to monthly planning meetings to report back and coordinate efforts.  This structure has allowed a significant number of new leaders to emerge. 

Another example of this changing leadership dynamic is the recent elections of the JP Neighborhood Council, a body of elected volunteers that serves as the neighborhood advisory body on issues of zoning and land use.  In 2003, Hyde Square Task Force, City Life, and JPNDC worked to increase awareness and voter turnout in the JP Neighborhood Council election, the result of which was that twelve new candidates were able to win election to the Council, many of whom described affordable housing as a top priority.  It also resulted in a dramatic increase in Latino and African-American residents being elected and sent a strong signal to developers and city agencies about the neighborhood’s desire for affordable housing.

Concrete Victories, New Challenges

A clear sign of the Campaign of Conscience’s success is that it has spun off several campaigns that have taken on lives of their own and developed into full-fledged organizing efforts.  City Life's tenant organizing work has become firmly established in several neighborhoods, leading to the creation of a citywide Tenant Organizing Committee (TOC) in early 2001.  In 2003, City Life and the TOC launched an Anti-Displacement Zone in sections of JP, Roxbury, and Dorchester.  This anti-displacement theme has spawned successful organizing drives in dozens of buildings. 

"Through this strategy, City Life has helped more than 500 families negotiate multi-year collective bargaining agreements with landlords," says Steve Meacham, a tenant organizer with City Life.  "These victories have brought forward new strong leaders, who are spreading the struggle to still more buildings and actively pushing for new tenant protections."

The Campaign has also mobilized hundreds of residents who have made affordable housing a top priority for public land and helped the JPNDC take nearly 100 units of private housing out of the market and create another 100 new units in the past five years. 

Recognizing the need to work beyond Jamaica Plain, the JPNDC and City Life have played leadership roles within the Boston Tenant Coalition, Massachusetts Association of CDCs, and Greater Boston Interfaith Organization in various city and state-wide campaigns.

“We understood that the housing crisis did not start in JP and would not be solved there, so we’ve put organizing resources toward supporting city and state-wide initiatives calling for more money and more regulations on the housing market,” says Richard Thal.

The legislative work of the Campaign led to the creation of the Coalition to Educate, Mobilize, and Vote, a joint effort of JPNDC, City Life, and Hyde Square Task Force to increase voter participation and hold legislators accountable on affordable housing and education issues.  This project, which includes candidate forums, mass mailings, and targeted phone banking to inactive voters, has been responsible for doubling voter turnout in the nine precincts that make up the Hyde-Jackson-Egleston Square area in the last two elections. 

Lessons Learned

The biggest success of the Campaign of Conscience has been in creating broad-based support among key community groups and institutions for affordable housing.  At the same time, organizing against displacement in a rapidly gentrifying community has brought many challenges and losses.  Despite our successes at preserving and creating affordable housing, rents and home prices continue to climb, more than doubling in the past five years and forcing many families out of the neighborhood.  Private developers, who once shunned the area, are building luxury condominiums at an alarming rate and realtors are promoting Hyde Square as the “in” place to be in Jamaica Plain.  As new residents who don’t necessarily share a commitment to affordable housing move in, we are continually challenged to find new ways to maintain a solid base of support for the housing agenda.

Our experience with the Campaign of Conscience has led us to the conclusion that the key to long-term success is to move beyond the idea of building power for the CDC to envision a broader form of community power among the constituencies who share our concerns about the housing crisis.  While it is clear that the power that has been built through our organizing has benefited the JPNDC through increased support for affordable housing development, a key principle has been that power is not reserved for the benefit of the JPNDC but rather dispersed throughout the neighborhood. 

We have learned that, in order to effectively broaden the base of support for affordable housing, CDCs must change their definition of power  – not just power to get zoning approval or funding for a particular project – but power for community residents to have a strong voice in the development of their community.  The essence of our organizing work has been to try to build the capacity and strength of our partners and to build a collective sense of power in the community.  While the fight against displacement and gentrification continues on many fronts in Jamaica Plain, the accomplishments of the Campaign of Conscience – high-profile victories, strengthened alliances, and a new generation of leaders – have had a major impact on both the neighborhood and the JPNDC.

“Many people in this neighborhood fought to make Jamaica Plain such a nice place to live and now we can’t afford to live here,” says Ramona Gonzalez.  “Now the rents have gone up and they want us to leave. But we’ve learned that if we stick together, it’s not so easy to push us out.”

Harry Smith is the Community Organizing Director at the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, a community-based organization that works to revitalize communities throughcommunity organizing, economic development, and affordable housing.  He has worked in the organizing field for fifteen years. 

Kalila Barnett is a Community Organizer with the JPNDC.  Kalila grew up in Roxbury and has experience organizing in youth, environmental justice, and community development fields.

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