Shortly before dawn on Wednesday, two young black women and two young white men chained themselves to the front doors of City Hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The well‐planned Black Lives Matter Cambridge protest transfixed the region as police officers surrounded them for the better part of the day.
The protest had nothing to do with the Cambridge police or police brutality, the signature issue that birthed the movement, but everything to do with abuses of the economic kind—the inability of low‐ and middle-income Cantabrigians to find affordable housing. The drama ended with the protesters’ arrests in the late afternoon, but not before the mayor and other officials began a public dialogue about city housing policies.
The Black Lives Matter movement originated in outrage over the killings of black men by police, turning into a nascent civil-rights movement. Its staying power now hinges on whether organizers can recruit new allies and tackle the broader spectrum of injustices that block many African Americans from prospering. At the top of this list is housing, an area that cries out for the kind of sustained grassroots pressure that the Black Lives Matter movement has been able to wield on other fronts. Locating, paying for, and hanging onto to an affordable home is a major worry for city‐dwellers of all races, but especially for low‐ and middle‐income African Americans.
In the tradition of Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Black Lives Matter Cambridge protesters taped their four‐point “City Hall Cambridge Is Condemned” manifesto to the City Hall entrance. The group demanded that the Cambridge City Council require real-estate developers include 25 percent affordable units in market-rate residential complexes of nine units or more; allow the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build more housing to accommodate its more than 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students who currently live off campus; mandate that parking lots and vacant land owned by the city be used for affordable housing and other public uses, and establish a municipal “rent to own” housing program to break the cycle of poverty and put people on a path toward homeownership.
Across the Charles River from Boston and home to Harvard University and MIT, Cambridge has long been one of the pricier communities in New England’s largest metropolitan area. But after a statewide 1994 referendum ended rent control in Cambridge (along with Boston and Brookline), gentrification took off with a vengeance. In Central Square, the neighborhood that surrounds City Hall, upscale restaurants and national chains like Starbucks and the Gap replaced mom-and pop shops, discount clothing stores, and modest eateries.
Real-estate developers now build pricey one- and two-bedroom homes, and existing three- and four-bedroom apartments get gobbled up by students. Individuals and families in search of reasonably priced apartments have moved out to nearby cities like Malden and Lynn. “[Gentrification is] the erasure of black people, the erasure of people of color, the erasure of immigrants, of all poor people,” one Black Lives Matter Cambridge member told the online news site Cambridge Day.
Cambridge’s median family income is $99,380. The median price for a single‐family home is $744,500, while the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment near Harvard runs about $2,300. The median rent near MIT is even higher, at $2,600. Black Lives Matter Cambridge’s Stephanie Guirand, a Haitian‐born University of London graduate student who grew up in the city’s projects, says that most of her peers cannot afford to live in Cambridge, including the sons and daughters of professors who teach at Harvard and MIT. Guirand, who worked as an onsite coordinator for the protests, notes that a person who earns $50,000 or $60,000 and lives in Cambridge is essentially a low‐income resident once housing costs get factored in.
On Wednesday, Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons and Vice Mayor Marc McGovern spoke with the protesters and took questions from a small crowd. McGovern said that the city council might agree to pass a 20 percent affordability mandate, but that developers might balk if the city kicks it up 25 percent. But he was committed to getting “as high a percentage as we can possibly get.”
Since Black Lives Matter Cambridge did not get the pledges that they sought from city officials to expedite the affordable housing reforms, they had to be satisfied with getting their attention. “The reason why affordable housing is so crucial for us in Cambridge is because so many people of color [who] live in the projects ... are afraid to come out and speak up for their own rights, because they are afraid of losing their apartment,” Guirand told The American Prospect. She added, “This is how we support the people; we speak up.”
Housing inequities are a natural focus as the movement branches into economic justice. This activism also ensures that the movement remains relevant. Speaking up on affordability could transform Black Lives Matter Cambridge into a political force on housing policy, especially if the movement continues to build alliances, as it did in the City Hall protests, with local religious leaders and housing advocates. Organizers are in talks with individuals and businesses in Cambridge and Boston who share their interest in strategies like nonprofit housing developments. The Cambridge group’s bid to translate that creativity and energy into real influence is a test case for whether the larger movement can push the affordability crisis in other housing-scarce regions to the top of a national housing agenda.