Supporters of a 76-year-old man facing eviction from the Roxbury apartment building he has lived in for three decades held a protest vigil Thursday evening for “the last man standing” in the residence where other tenants have already moved out.
The demonstration was held at 507 Massachusetts Ave., where the man’s landlord has moved to sell the building.
James Harrison said he has experienced rats, flooding, faulty electrical outlets, and other safety issues in his small first-floor apartment.
“I got bars on my window, my bedroom window, so I can’t get out of it,” Harrison said at the vigil. “There’s a bar in the kitchen I can open up and then climb out on the ledge — but I wouldn’t walk on that fire escape.”
Harrison, who works part time for the Massachusetts Historical Society, said he has also helped tend his building and its other residents — before they departed — by collecting cash rent for the landlord and helping to get a security camera installed, but last September the owner told him he had to leave by January.
“When you get old, they forget about you, especially if you don’t know anybody to help you out,” he said. “Where are you going to go after you pay $800 a month? Where are you going to find an apartment?”
The building owner could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
The vigil included many representatives from the affordable housing advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, which is helping Harrison oppose his eviction.
Advocates said the loss of these units highlights the city’s affordable housing crisis. They point to a City Life/Vida Urbana report on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic found that 70 percent of eviction filings were made for properties in census tracts where most renters are, like Harrison, people of color.
The group said Harrison has put his name on affordable housing waiting lists in both Boston and Cambridge, but he is years from reaching the top of either list.
Outside Harrison’s home on Thursday, supporters clustered on the sidewalk and chanted, “We’re fighting for justice to stop the evictions, stop the evictions,” and “When we fight, we win!” Passing cars honked in support.
Harrison’s daughter, Mariama Council-Harrison, said during an emotional speech that she had felt a weight lift when City Life/Vida Urbana told her family that her father could stay in his home.
“Just to see how my father’s spirit is and to see him so broken, it’s just good to see people that are fighting for him,” she said.
Paula Coar, a City Life organizer who planned the vigil, said the organization had learned of Harrison’s situation through his daughter and then found that seven other residents of the building had been served eviction notices and had quickly moved out.
“I called up Mr. Harrison, and said, ‘Is that your property where people are getting evicted?’ He said yes, and I said, ‘OK, we got to fight. That’s all I know how to do,’” Coar said.
The organization encouraged Harrison to stay in his apartment and helped connect him with a lawyer to oppose the eviction.
“It was insensitive to him, and insensitive to anyone, [especially] during the pandemic,” Coar said. “We want people to know that we’re here; we’ll let you know what your rights are; we’ll come to court with you; we’ll do what we can — and you have to fight with us too.”
Jamaica Plain resident David Weinstein, 77, said he has been opposing evictions at City Life events since the 1970s, and he was glad to show his support for Harrison.
“I feel like the world is divided between the people who think that some people are more special than others and people who think we’re all in this together,” he said, “and City Life represents the thinking that we’re all in this together.”