THE MOVING TRUCK, empty and waiting, is parked around the corner from the house, because between the protestors and the police cars, there is no longer any room for it in front of 197 Normandy Street. Inside the stately brick duplex, which sits in a foreclosure-ravaged section of Dorchester, Drusilla Francis has packed only a few bags, hoping against reason that, somehow, at day’s end she will still be living in the home she’s owned for 22 years. Today, U.S. Bank is evicting her after foreclosing on her loan.
The only thing standing between Francis, a 66-year-old foster mother, and her place among the swelling ranks of displaced homeowners is the public relations nightmare that’s currently unfolding for U.S. Bank in front of her home: Some 80 placard-waving, slogan-chanting protestors from City Life/Vida Urbana, a local nonprofit, are jamming the sidewalk and spilling into the street, demanding that, rather than kick Francis out, the bank sell the house back to her at a reasonable price. Several volunteers, willing to risk arrest, are ready and waiting to form a human barricade across Francis’s front walk. Over and over, the protesters chant, “The banks get bailed out, the people get moved out.”
Across the street, Burton Malkofsky, a constable hired by U.S. Bank’s attorneys to oversee the eviction process, is waiting with a rolled-up white paper in his hand. It’s Malkofsky who called the police to this eviction. He’s been anticipating trouble for some time now, especially since seeing the yellow “We Shall Not Be Moved” signs — written in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole — that were hanging in windows during prior trips to the house to serve Francis notices. Actually, Malkofsky knows City Life’s tactics quite well. A few years ago, a disabled protestor chained his wheelchair to the front gate of a house where Malkofsky was trying to serve an eviction. The police had to come with bolt cutters to snip the chain. “I don’t have anything against City Life,” Malkofsky says. “They have a job to do protecting homeowners and tenants. I am hired by the attorneys to do evictions. That’s my job.”
Malkofsky may not have a problem with City Life, but the group has been making his job pretty difficult lately, having pioneered something it calls the “sword and the shield” — a unique approach to battling foreclosure that combines intense lawyering, bold activism, and strategic financing from a local nonprofit. The goal is simple: to keep people in their homes and provide stability to foreclosure-ridden neighborhoods in the city.
That’s more difficult than it sounds. During the past five years, 4,132 homeowners in Boston have gone into foreclosure, with the vast majority living in poor and working-class areas such as Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and East Boston. So far, though, the sword and the shield have helped nearly 90 property owners in the city and nearby communities buy back their homes after foreclosure. The group has also been exporting its tactics — which have been dubbed the “Boston Model” — to other community organizations in cities across Massachusetts, and outside the state in places like Oakland, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Boston, in fact, has been deemed by some as ground zero in the anti-eviction movement, with one attorney calling it the “last place a lawyer wants to try to evict someone.”
Last year, the Open Society Foundation, a nonprofit group started by George Soros, awarded City Life a $400,000 grant to spread its work beyond Boston. “I have met with practically every single housing-counseling agency in the country,” says Solomon Greene, one of the group’s senior program officers, “and I have never seen anything like it.”