The Sword and the Shield

Boston's City Life/Vida Urbana is finding success by turning conventional wisdom on its head and entering the picture after a foreclosure has taken place.

Shifting Focus

So how did a local, traditional tenants’ rights organization end up in the national spotlight and in the thick of the foreclosure crisis? While CLVU organizers could see the problem and the pain of people caught in the middle of the foreclosure crisis, they did not immediately see a role for their organization. Organizing homeowners to prevent a foreclosure means getting entangled in casework, which was not their strong suit, while there were other organizations helping homeowners in trouble. Typical organizing campaigns balance smaller tactical victories with larger strategic objectives, and it was unclear to CLVU what they would be in this case. CLVU decided to stay out of it.

But Steve Meacham, a community organizer who has worked for CLVU for 11 years, noticed growing numbers of tenants and owners being evicted from their foreclosed homes in no-fault evictions in 2007 and 2008, and he saw an opportunity. Massachusetts is one of 30 states that does not require judicial review for foreclosure, meaning banks can foreclose on a property without going to court. In its long and successful history, CLVU had learned how to fight evictions. Here was a clear opportunity to “collectivize,” to use Meacham’s word, the individual struggles of homeowners. CLVU decided that it had a promising course of action: organize owners and tenants after foreclosure and before the inevitable no-fault eviction.

This was a tactical innovation. Many organizations work with homeowners to prevent foreclosures, but post-foreclosure organizing played to CLVU’s strengths. They could organize rallies, stage actions, and use public relations as a weapon against financial institutions, and they could do this using symbols and art, repurposing the sword and shield for bank tenants.

The post-foreclosure campaign gives CLVU a way to merge short-term gains, long-term demands, and political education. It has three goals: Prohibit no-fault evictions of tenants and foreclosed owners, with an interim goal being to block as many individual evictions as possible. Force banks to negotiate with foreclosed owners who want to buy back their properties. And secure mortgage principal reduction to current market value, rather than the bubble-inflated price created by the speculative boom, for owners both foreclosed and in danger of foreclosure. Financial institutions see threats to their way of doing business behind each of these three demands.


  1. Melvyn Colon’s vivid description in “The Sword and the Shield” (12/14/11) of ordinary people trying to keep their small portion of the American dream is a powerful testament to perseverance.

    Colon’s article documents the adoption of a post foreclosure strategy that challenges the legal and financial forces who service financial institutions. The genius behind this approach is a three step strategy which engage the victims and ultimately the banks on moral and business terms. Why would local banks open themselves to further public scorn when they can simply sell the foreclosed property to a responsible financial intermediary who will then sell the property back to the former owner with an affordable mortgage?

    The several families mentioned by Colon developed a workout template by which eviction is prevented while incorporating common sense business practices.

    Sadly though, and despite State legislation that will further the work of City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), the effort still leaves thousands of families without the necessary support to prevent eviction. Both Federal and State regulatory agencies need to force financial intermediaries and servicing agents to implement a genuine plan that keeps homeowners in place.

    Colon concludes by celebrating the organizing and financial prowess of CLVU and Boston Community Capital as a model for impacted communities throughout the US.

    Indeed, this innovation should be replicated giving hope and a roadmap for protecting families and their communities


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