Essex County, MA
United States

Brandeis University Institute for Economic and Racial Equity

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Black and Latinx communities have faced disproportionate harm, including increased levels of housing instability. To cope with high rental prices, families who are experiencing poverty—especially those with members who are undocumented immigrants—have been forced to house multiple families in one apartment, resulting in increased COVID-19 transmission and illness. The Essex County Community Organization (ECCO), a multi-faith network of 59 congregations on Massachusetts’ North Shore, learned that Black and Brown residents want more focus on addressing housing instability. Their prior research revealed that many undocumented immigrants rent their homes from landlords who are immigrants. For this project, ECCO collected data to understand how challenges for tenants and landlords who are immigrants are interconnected, and in what ways these groups could collaborate to advocate for aid to stabilize rents.  

ECCO used a participatory action research approach, and Black and Brown leaders who are directly affected by housing instability designed the research plan and worked as co-researchers throughout the project. To support these community leaders, ECCO collaborated with Brandeis University’s Institute for Economic and Racial Equity to provide training in participatory action research methods. The community leaders used what they learned to design interview protocols and conduct interviews with landlords who are immigrants.

Common reasons they gave for becoming landlords included the peace of mind and ability to set their own rules that came with the job, as well as their desire to help their community and build their own wealth. They reported they usually had good experiences with their tenants, and the most common problem is tenants who failed to keep up with their payments, forcing their landlords to pay for expenses out of their own pockets. Landlords also reported a lack of support from the city, such as rent control policies that do not include provisions that help landlords with maintenance and improvements.

The community leaders are continuing to conduct interviews with landlords and tenants, and are collaborating with ECCO and Brandeis University researchers to identify actionable findings. ECCO plans to disseminate findings in a report for advocacy partners and the City of Lynn, Essex County’s largest city. The goal of this report is to support directing additional local and federal aid to tenants and small landlords; to help keep rents down; to prevent displacement.

A key outcome of this project is the capacity community leaders have developed to conduct research and engage in advocacy. Some of the community leaders who participated in this project are applying what they have learned in new ways by joining other local research and advocacy initiatives. In addition, ECCO aims to leverage this project’s spotlight on housing instability to further mobilize tenants of color and landlords who are immigrants. This could propel efforts to address related issues like the racial wealth gap and meeting the need for more affordable housing through the development of community land trusts.