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Globe Opinion and Legal Lens: Gentrification

What is a home, and who can count on keeping theirs? For Pedro Morales, home is at once infinite and intimate. Home extends far beyond his four walls and white-picket fence on a quiet avenue in East Boston — indeed, home was no less profound when he was a kid on the streets of Juárez, Mexico, and those walls didn’t exist. Yet home is always as close as the Harvard sweater he tugs on during winter, home is heard in the melody he hums while dropping his kids off at school, and home is in the smiles he shares with old friends while volunteering at the Tuesday soup kitchen.

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Morales’s low-income neighborhood is home to a significant immigrant population — its people come mainly from Latin America, but also from Africa and Southeast Asia. Many have left behind relatives and jobs to create a better life for themselves in Eastie, and they created a new home right along with it. But young professionals in search of more affordable accommodations are driving up rents and ushering in the construction of high-rise apartments where families once thrived. Longtime residents may no longer be able to afford to live in their homes.

Morales works to organize local residents around the fight for true affordable housing. But this fight has not been easy, and legal attempts at combatting gentrification have proved unfruitful. The community attempts to participate in the development process through meetings that developers and the city are required to undertake under the terms of the Boston zoning code. However, meetings are typically advertised and conducted in English, effectively excluding many East Boston residents from challenging changes to their community.

Gentrification is not a new issue but a continuing one, because the law, as it stands, fails to grasp the depth of the meaning of home. Through codes and regulations, the law speaks of home in vacancy rates, proposed occupancy, gross floor area, building heights, project cost estimates, and development outcomes. But it’s not numbers or graphs driving Pedro Morales to walk out his door every day in relentless pursuit of justice — it’s home, and the people who make it his.

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Nerissa Naidoo and Kevin Patumwat graduated from Harvard Law School in 2019.