Opinion | How the new BTU contract can help Boston fight homelessness

Last month, after more than a year of bargaining, the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) and Boston Public Schools (BPS) reached a tentative agreement on a new contract. One of the items that the BTU was holding out for - and eventually won - was more resources for families experiencing homelessness.

We as PUEBLO - a coalition of organizations and community members fighting for housing justice, environmental justice, and social and economic security for the residents of East Boston - were proud to support the BTU during these negotiations. We are enthusiastic that BPS is committing to expand services for families experiencing homelessness. Specifically, the new tentative agreement, if ratified, commits BPS to scaling up a pilot program to house the families of up to 4,000 homeless students with the goal of eliminating homelessness for families of students in five years.  

During the long year of negotiations, the BTU proved that their contract with BPS should address not only fundamentals like educator pay, workload, and workplace safety, but also a wider range of issues like high-quality facilities, homelessness prevention, and environmental concerns. 

To that end, PUEBLO encourages BPS to also take a stand against the issue of displacement. Teachers unions around the country are increasingly including housing justice provisions in their contracts. The Chicago Teachers Union won a “School Community Representative” position to assist students in temporary living situations. The United Teachers of Los Angeles won a plan to develop affordable housing for teachers and staff. Most recently, the Somerville Educators Union won a contract in which their school committee committed to pursuing policies to prevent families with school age children from facing eviction. 

PUEBLO has seen how little support is available for families facing eviction or other forms of displacement. Tenant protections, such as they exist, pit individual families against large landlords. Families that would be evicted by new developments have to oppose their own displacement at a pace set by the developers, who can postpone hearings until they get a favorable audience. Families seeking rent support struggle with a complicated web of paperwork, bureaucracy, and waitlists. Facing displacement is isolating and frightening.

For this reason, PUEBLO member organizations like City Life/Vida Urbana and Neighbors United for East Boston (NUBE) support residents in housing disputes with know-your-rights training, legal resources, advocacy, rallies, and more. The BTU is another ally in the isolating fight against displacement. 

One BTU proposal was that the School Committee agree to advocate that no evictions or foreclosures take place during the school year for BPS families and that support be available for small-scale landlords who would otherwise struggle to maintain their mortgages during the eviction holds. Evictions during the school year are incredibly disruptive to learning.

Even when children can continue to attend the same school, they miss days as their families bounce between temporary living arrangements. The stress and anxiety of eviction crowd out a student’s ability to focus on school. Children fall behind, and the learning deficit compounds over time. Some students have to leave BPS entirely as the family is displaced from the city.

Another proposal integrated local schools into the real estate development process, which is particularly relevant given Mayor Wu’s work to rethink development in a way that prioritizes community voice and community needs. The proposal calls on the city to require developers who are building within a half-mile radius of a BPS school to meet with a school site council to negotiate affordable housing and other community interests. This proposal would bolster collective bargaining for community benefits. Today, the development mitigations debated in abutters meetings, neighborhood association meetings, and other forums are largely about architectural aesthetics, historic preservation, and parking. The City’s Inclusionary Development Policy (IDP) requires large developments to contribute to affordable housing, but many developments are not large enough to trigger the IDP.

There is no institutionalized forum in which the community can press a developer for more affordable housing. Because the BTU is in all neighborhoods, they are well positioned to learn which affordable housing mitigations can be won effectively.

The final BTU proposal related to housing justice that did not make it into the final contract had to do with identifying unused city-owned spaces that could be converted into public housing for families of BPS students. The City of Boston keeps an inventory of unused spaces and could work with the BTU to build momentum behind using those spaces for affordable housing.

With the selflessness characteristic of teachers, the BTU is advocating not only for themselves but also on behalf of their students and communities. We congratulate the BTU on their win to include in the contract resources for families experiencing homelessness. We stand with the BTU in urging BPS to adopt the other housing justice proposals on the table, particularly those related to combating displacement. Educators have a front row seat to displacement, and the BTU knows that our education system can be on the front line in the fight against it.
Matthew Walsh is a member of the group PUEBLO— Pueblo Unido de East Boston para Liberar y Organizar or the People United of East Boston to Liberate and Organize.

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