The disparate impact on evictions in Boston

By Helen Matthews
Special to the Reporter

For most of the past year, City Life/Vida Urbana has been working with MIT researcher David Robinson to understand patterns of eviction in Boston. We looked at data pulled from over 15,000 eviction records for the three most recent years for which data are available, 2014 through 2016.

The sobering reality (which is no surprise to those living on the frontlines of the displacement crisis) is that eviction court filing rates and execution rates in private market housing are highest in areas that are predominantly communities of color, particularly majority black areas, and areas that are majority low-income.

We examined the data by census tract, and these high rates are true of many tracts in Dorchester (as well as Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park). On the flip side, these rates are lowest in parts of Boston where the population is more than 50 percent white.

At City Life/Vida Urbana, we often talk about how the disparate impact of Boston’s eviction crisis is the shadow of redlining. Coming out of the Great Depression, big real estate — and the policymakers who collaborated with them — created explicitly discriminatory maps to determine where to lend and invest in Boston. The collaborators stigmatized low-income and majority people of color areas, marking them as red, and, as such, places where mortgages would be denied.

“Redlining was how structural racism and inequality was designed into cities. It has never been undone,” states the opening panel of the Undesign the Redline exhibit, which you can see on display at the Sam Adams Brewery in Jamaica Plain through the end of this year.
Redlining codified a system of who has access to real estate wealth and who is excluded from it in our city. Confronting the ongoing inertia of this system is one of our greatest tasks today.

One key way to break out of redlining’s long shadow and the disparate impact of our current eviction crisis is to finally implement rent control in properties owned by large landlords.

Right now in Mattapan — one of the areas where recent private market eviction rates are highest —City Life/Vida Urbana is helping two grandmothers whose corporate landlord hiked their rents by $700. Down the road from them at a complex recently rebranded “SoMA (South Mattapan) at the T”, we’re supporting another group of long-time residents whose large landlord, DSF Group, has also hiked rents by hundreds of dollars overnight.

Some corporate landlord interest groups have the gall to claim that rent control is “racist,” arguing that owners of rent controlled units in Boston will discriminate against folks of color. They have no evidence of this (they point only to a decades-old obscure study of Cambridge and generalized stories in national media). But when landlords discriminate in either a rent-controlled or non-controlled market, that’s a problem in itself that must end. Housing is a basic human need, so everyone deserves an affordable home.

City Life/Vida Urbana is building a popular, grassroots movement to win protections from unjust rent hikes and also to stop the disparate impact of evictions. It will take more than just rent control - we’ll need other protections, such as the right to counsel, just cause eviction, and tenants’ right to purchase, among others - but rent control is a vital piece of the puzzle. Our members fighting eviction advocate for it every day.

Our research into evictions in Boston is ongoing, and we plan to publish more of our findings in early 2020. In the meantime, we invite you to join the movement for rent control in Boston by signing our Rent Control Pledge at

Helen Matthews is an organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana.