In the K–8 public school where I taught in East Boston, this experience was all too familiar: One day a student would be in class, learning and laughing with classmates, and the next day their seat would be empty. Evicted, priced out, apartment sold to a developer. Each story felt like a punch in the gut, and left a gaping hole in our classroom and school community.
When COVID hit, students started disappearing even more rapidly, and many families who remained asked more and more for information about their rights as tenants and how to get rent relief. The situation turned desperate for the family of one of my 7th-grade students when his brother got COVID, his parents couldn’t go to work, and the rest of his family (including a baby) had to isolate in one room. Teachers and staff delivered daily meals to his house, had frequent phone conversations with his mom, and tried everything we could to keep him in a positive mental state. The family made it through this incredibly trying period, and the school staff breathed a sigh of relief. A few days later, however, we received word that they were moving out of the city. Although there was an eviction moratorium in place, they anticipated that when the moratorium ended, they wouldn’t be able to pay their back rent. In the midst of a pandemic, this student had to leave his friends, beloved counselor, and teachers; his family lost the support network they had built in the neighborhood; and our school lost a community member who will never be replaced. This was just one of many such stories.
My school’s Family Support Committee did everything we could to connect families to local community resources that provided free meals (and teachers coordinated and delivered hundreds of these meals ourselves), tenant rights trainings, rent relief hotlines, and utility relief, but for the families who had to move, those networks — which had become more crucial than ever — were suddenly ripped out from under them.
Educators nationwide have seen the violence of displacement wreak havoc on our school communities. I hope this story of how the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) is organizing for housing justice offers the start of an organizing road map — one that builds upon years of effort of the Chicago Teachers Union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and others who paved the way for common good bargaining. Ultimately, to achieve housing justice for our students, families, community, and union members across the country we need to broaden the movement of teacher unions taking up this fight.
Like most organizing endeavors, the Boston Teachers Union Housing Justice Committee (HJC) began with a few teachers from East Boston, a BTU staff member, a school counselor, a paraprofessional, and a family liaison having conversations with each other and sharing stories. Educators from different parts of the city shared the same observations: Rent is going up, students are leaving, and those who stay are often doubled up, living in unsafe conditions, relocating frequently, and experiencing chronic housing-related stress and trauma and learning disruptions.
Knowing that we could not tackle this problem alone, we turned to folks who have been engaged in this housing struggle since long before COVID.
City Life/Vida Urbana Partnership
We started by connecting with City Life/ Vida Urbana (CLVU), a grassroots organization working for housing justice, eviction defense, and community control of neighborhoods over the past 44 years. They run an eviction defense hotline, host weekly meetings in English and Spanish to facilitate conversations with tenants about their rights, and run powerful campaigns for affordable housing and rent control legislation.
Ronel Remy, a representative of CLVU, agreed to speak at a virtual union membership meeting in late summer 2020. Ronel immigrated to the United States from Haiti, has been a community organizer for eight years, and believes that housing, along with health care and education, is a basic human right. Ronel is not only an experienced community organizer, but also a gifted storyteller and an enthusiastic listener, and if you’ve ever been to a rally or march in Boston, there’s a good chance you’ve heard him leading a chant. Passionate about the importance of collaboration, Ronel often reminded us that “Working in unison is one of the most precious assets humanity possesses.”
After Ronel’s presentation, we put a link to a form in the chat where union members could express interest in learning more and getting involved in housing movements.
Armed with those data, we called each of the respondents and had one-on-one conversations about the issues in their school communities, the connection between housing justice and education justice, and their vision for a housing justice effort in the BTU, including how we could support grassroots movements like CLVU. Teachers’ emotions and insights poured out.
“So many families are struggling now more than ever,” said Naomi, a family coordinator at a school in East Boston. “Many are still not back at work or have just recently started working again. Lifting the moratorium will force many families into homelessness.”
Russel, a middle school teacher at a dual-language school in Dorchester, said, “I became a teacher in order to fight for a better community; housing injustice is among the biggest problems in our community.”
Several teachers talked about feeling unequipped to help their students. “I feel ignorant about how to communicate to families about rent relief programs,” said Samantha, who teaches at a BPS school for young adults who need to attend school in the evenings. Tracy, a 2nd-grade teacher in Mattapan, added, “We have an amazing family coordinator at our school and she was connecting people with housing resources but she didn’t know about CLVU.”
Still others talked about the fear their students faced when it came to their housing situations. “Some of my students’ parents have a landlord who is also their boss,” said Daniela, a 5th-grade teacher in a predominantly Salvadoran and Colombian neighborhood. “When landlords are abusive, some families are scared to stand up for them because the landlords have threatened to call ICE.”
“It can feel paralyzing as a teacher to recognize how systemic inequities in housing play such a big role,” said Rebekah, a middle school humanities teacher in East Boston. “I think it’s important for the BTU to be mobilizing teachers in support of housing-related campaigns and for us to be collaborating with housing justice folks.”
After these one-on-one conversations, we hosted a Zoom meeting in September 2020 with BTU members from 10 different schools, a union staff organizer, and Ronel from CLVU. We shared stories about students and families disappearing from our schools, parents calling to ask for resources, and feeling lost in the bureaucracy of rent relief. We also heard stories from BTU members, particularly paraprofessionals, who themselves were rent-burdened or had been displaced from their homes due to rising rent, sometimes multiple times.
Then we brainstormed how we could use our collective union power to fight for housing justice. The ideas flowed quickly: bring CLVU guest speakers to classrooms and BTU membership meetings, advocate for legislation, endorse and support candidates who support housing justice, join a community coalition to demand true affordable housing at Suffolk Downs (a housing site slated to be the largest development in the history of Boston), research the impact of displacement on students, organize resource information sessions at schools, demand BPS track data on students who are priced out of the city, develop history of housing and housing justice curricula for students, attend eviction defense rallies, and more.
Membership and Union Empowerment
Our HJC took on a number of projects throughout the 2020–21 and 2021–2022 school years. We connected families to CLVU by advertising their weekly meetings in English and Spanish to our students’ parents via texts and phone calls. HJC committee members attended rallies hosted by CLVU and other grassroots housing organizations. We hosted Zoom phone banks where teachers gathered to call our state and local elected officials to demand that they support legislation that would ease housing stress. We hosted a “book club” portion of our meetings to discuss articles or podcasts relevant to our work. We rallied members at my school in East Boston to go support a CLVU eviction defense stand-out in the neighborhood during our lunch break. We hosted a series of workshops for educators who wanted to learn how to talk about housing insecurity with families, and how to help a family navigate the rent relief application process. We marched with another grassroots housing organization — Dorchester Not for Sale — in a parade on Dorchester Day, and helped hand out their literature to spectators. We started Community Partners tables at our schools and invited Ronel or other representatives from CLVU to our school open houses and fall festivals so they could talk to families about housing resources; these tables were very popular with families.
Children of all ages understand the issues. They see, feel, hear, and even taste and smell the neighborhoods changing around them. When I asked my middle school students about the biggest issues facing our neighborhood, many said “too much construction,” “rent is too high,” or (somewhat timidly) “rich white people moving in.” As one teacher put it, “When we talk about gentrification in my 10th-grade class, you can feel the heat in the room.”
The HJC works to involve student organizers and empower student voices. One of my 7th-grade students — whose family also later had to move out of the city — wrote a testimony for a CLVU car caravan, astutely noting: “I think that it is important that rent is affordable. A lot of the houses and apartments being built here aren’t even close to affordable. Sometimes people have to move to places with fewer opportunities and unsafe areas for them and their children.”
Benadette Matthis, one of our committee members who works at a school for young adults, had already designed and taught her own housing justice curriculum. Through the HJC, she met Ronel and invited CLVU into her class and brought some of her students to speak to our committee about what they saw as the biggest housing concerns facing young people in the city. And the HJC — inspired by Black Lives Matter at School — held a contest for Boston Public Schools (BPS) students to design our committee T-shirts.
I frequently saw several former students at CLVU rallies; unable to stand by and watch their neighborhood disappear, they had become official organizers with CLVU. These students were standing up to landlords raising the rents, politicians turning a blind eye, and developers tearing down their buildings to build expensive housing.
In February 2021, I returned to East Boston for the first time since COVID forced me to hastily abandon my classroom. As I walked the four blocks from the Maverick Station subway stop to my school, a path I had walked hundreds of times before, I almost didn’t recognize the neighborhood. The convenience store and laundromat that students frequented before and after school had been replaced by gray and white luxury condos. The red and green corner apartment was boarded up, about to be torn down. It started to make sense that I had students joining class Zoom meetings from relatives’ homes and homes in different neighborhoods, cities, and sometimes even states. By the time I got to the school I had dried my eyes and was feeling more fired up than ever about our fight for housing justice.
Housing Justice in Contract Negotiations
In the spring of 2021, our committee wrote a housing justice resolution that the membership passed with 91 percent approval, making it clear that our entire union stands behind this fight.
Then it came time for BTU to develop our contract proposal for negotiations with BPS. The BTU gathered community input to formulate and prioritize these demands, including conducting comprehensive surveys and community meetings. Our Housing Justice Committee promoted these surveys and worked to turn out students, families, and other union members to these meetings. We wanted to make sure housing justice was a priority going into contract negotiations.
We landed on four housing justice proposals. The first sought to expand an existing program. The other three proposals sought to push systemic change and address root causes of housing instability, understanding that by the time a family becomes homeless, the system has already failed them time and again.
At the bargaining table, we proposed that:
- BPS expand a program that provides services for families experiencing homelessness, housing the families of up to 4,000 homeless students with the goal of eliminating homelessness for families of BPS students within five years.
- BPS create a working group to identify unused city-owned spaces to be converted into public housing for families of BPS students.
- The city require developers who build within a half-mile radius of a BPS school to meet with the school site council to negotiate affordable housing and gather ongoing community input.
- The School Committee advocate that no evictions or foreclosures take place during the school year for BPS families, and advocate for supports for small-scale landlords who need it to ensure that they can maintain their mortgages.
Shakeeda Bartee, one of our committed HJC members and a silent representative during bargaining, presented the BTU’s housing demands to the district at the bargaining table. She bravely shared her moving story of being displaced and being homeless as a young mother.
The district promptly rejected all four demands: “We’re not going to put housing in the contract. It’s completely tone-deaf.” They said that housing issues have no place in teacher union contracts, even as they put out their own report about facilities upgrades that claimed that one of their priorities was to “reduce the number of school transitions for students” and noted that “multiple student transitions . . . can have a negative impact on student success and outcomes that can persist as far out as the 10th grade. Each time a student moves from one school to another, there is a risk of relationships and learning being disrupted.” Our committee found this in our own research as well, and also found that voluntary transfers are less academically disruptive than involuntary transfers — further evidence that fighting displacement is a teacher union issue.
We were not fazed by these rejections. We held firm in our belief that housing conditions are learning conditions, and that through organizing our members and community we could win. As BTU President Jessica Tang said:
This was consistent with our belief in “bargaining for the common good,” and why we were also advocating for other demands that impacted our students’ lives beyond what is often seen as traditional bargaining topics. We know that access to affordable, stable housing, health care, food security, and so many other factors influence access to education, and that is one reason we were also advocating for more community hub schools (known as community schools nationally). This was all a part of our strategy to address factors that impact our students’ ability to focus on learning in the first place and to ensure that our students and families had a voice as they shared what was most important to them.
Over the coming months, our HJC committee members organized for these demands through many avenues. First, we talked to colleagues in our own school buildings not only about the housing crisis and why it exists, but also why housing is an issue relevant to schools, and how housing is a natural extension of other demands we’ve put forward, such as increased special education services and a nurse and counselor in every school. Teachers see enrollment declining steeply, and understand that without students, there are no teachers. And union members themselves feel the impact of rising rents and housing values.
Bargaining for housing gave us an avenue to work with parents and families — and that helped get parents on board to fight alongside the union for the rest of our contract proposals. Our HJC committee continued to turn out community members to BTU-hosted contract update community forums. In breakout rooms, we heard enthusiastic support from families. One parent shared, “Necesitamos ofrecer estabilidad a los estudiantes sin vivienda.” [We need to offer stability to houseless students.] Another said, “I hope that this [will] provide a backbone to BPS actually starting to address increasing numbers of homeless students, and developing a plan, not just saying they’re aware.”
We also organized union members and students’ parents to testify at school committee meetings, where they shared anecdotes as well as the data and contract precedents we had compiled showing the urgency of this issue. Madison, a second-year teacher at a school in the Roxbury neighborhood — the neighborhood with the steepest enrollment decline over the last seven years — shared: “I teach 2nd grade and last year I had a student tell me that she might not be at school the next week because she’ll be living in her car,” she said. “She was 8. How can she be expected to learn to read when she didn’t even have a place she could call home? BPS is so concerned about students having to change schools due to class size limits, but what about students who have to leave due to being priced out of their homes? Why doesn’t BPS care about those students?”
“We are in a state of emergency in housing and our working families are confronted with a tremendous displacement,” said Abdi, a community organizer and parent. “Boston Public Schools must play a critical role in housing justice advocacy and join our efforts to combat displacement. We believe that housing justice is racial justice. Both our lived experiences and the recent research on housing shows that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities have faced the brunt of the housing and displacement crisis.”
CLVU invited our committee members to speak at their weekly meetings and rallies to make it widely known that the BTU was fighting for housing justice and that BPS continued to reject our proposals. By spring 2022, schools across Boston held walk-ins before school, with students and educators sharing signs and stickers about the fight for important common good demands, including more special education supports, libraries in every school, updated facilities, and housing justice.
We also organized within our own union. During one contract organizing committee meeting, a member of the BTU bargaining committee shared that as she was passing out housing stickers at her school some members expressed skepticism that this issue belongs in our contract. In response, Emma Anderson, now one of the HJC’s co-chairs, created a slide deck with some housing negotiations background information, updates, FAQs, discussion questions, and suggested text language to send to families about CLVU supports (and, of course, information about how to join our committee). Our BTU staff liaison sent this slide deck to BTU building reps to share at their next union faculty senate meetings.
Our organizing paid off. In July 2022, BPS agreed to one of our demands. We won increased funding to house homeless students and their families.
Of course, there is much that we did not win, and the fight continues. With our next contract negotiations several years away, we hope to continue to build relationships with community housing organizations, advocate for our paraprofessional union siblings who are often not paid enough to continue living within the Boston city limits, develop housing justice curricula for students, and expand our committee to involve parents and students.
A Victory for One Is a Victory for All
The housing crisis is not unique to Boston, and we are not the first to include housing demands in our contract. We are inspired by the work of the Chicago Teachers Union and their historic strikes, which made housing a central part of their demands. Other teacher unions have followed the CTU lead and taken up this fight as well, from Somerville and Malden in Massachusetts, to Los Angeles and St. Paul, Minnesota, and Seattle. With each win, it becomes easier for the next union to take up the fight and assert that housing conditions belong in teachers’ contracts.
As educators we have close relationships with students and families, a large and efficient network enabling communication with colleagues and families, and strong, well-organized unions. This makes us and our unions uniquely positioned to advocate for the systemic changes required to give our students and their families the safety and stability they deserve.
Last March, while attending a CLVU rally in East Boston in defense of a neighbor facing eviction, I encountered one of my former students, currently in 9th grade. She had become a housing justice community organizer, and was determined to stop the cruelty of constant displacement in her neighborhood. She told me it meant a lot to her to see teachers in the streets fighting alongside students and the community.
In order to fight for a more just world, we need our fellow workers, we need our neighbors and communities, and we need radical imagination. There are things that we are taught to take for granted — commodified housing, developers’ rights to profit-making, stomping on whomever they will in the process, and gentrification marching steadily onward. It is our job as educators to shake off these ideas that put capitalism above all else, and to imagine a new way of doing things. The job then becomes organizing collective power to work toward that world alongside our students and communities.