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On the front lines of the housing crisis, tenant organizer Bonnie Bastien tries to help Brookline’s struggling renters

Brookline Community Development Corporation tenant organizer Bonnie Bastien. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Bastien
May 2, 2024  Updated May 6, 2024 at 12:04 p.m.

As an art student from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and creator of artist residency programs, Bonnie Bastien found herself drawn to community-oriented artists with a commitment to social justice. Bastien began volunteering for local organizations like the Massachusetts Bail Fund, gaining a lens for how the issues “stitch together” in the greater scheme of inequality. Then, in 2004, she moved to Brookline.

“I think if anybody looks in their backyard, there’s a lot of justice work that needs to be done,” Bastien said. “The second you start uncovering, in any town or any city, it’s rife with history and with power structures that you can’t see from the outside.”

She’s now working full-time on that justice work, as the first tenant organizer for the Brookline Community Development Corporation, a role she started in October.

“It’s important to have a face on the ground,” BCDC president Deborah Brown said. “It’s important to have a person who can be impacted to people’s needs. Bonnie does that. Doesn’t make them feel like a failure, like they’ve done something wrong. Makes them feel like they deserve a chance to stand tall in this community.”

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Renters, who face high costs and instability, also feel underrepresented in Brookline’s Town Meeting, Bastien says, because at least 80% of its members are homeowners, while 52% of Brookline households are occupied by renters.

“I picture my position as being one of service to people in Brookline that are renters,” she said. “That doesn’t exist, and I’m only one person.”

Through the BCDC emergency rental assistance program, Bastien has been working with income-qualified households who have received a notice to quit for nonpayment, which is the first step in the eviction process. The program provides up to $5000 in assistance to these households.

Bastien’s work involves liaising between landlords or property managers and tenants to work out a plan that sustains the household’s tenancy. She does this by reaching out to the landlord or property manager to find out what is required to keep the tenancy in place. If necessary, she helps the tenant apply for other resources to cover the remainder of the rent. This can involve working out a payment plan to slowly pay off the rent.

“Most of the time the landlord just wants their rent money and is open to working out a plan,” Bastien said. “I’m sure I will run into an uncooperative landlord at some point, but that hasn’t been my experience yet.”

The town of Brookline is working on standing up an Office of Housing Stability, approved by Town Meeting last year, but while that’s still in the works, tenants have an abundance of needs but often lack readily accessible solutions.

Bastien provides safety net services to tenants in Brookline Housing Authority and Section 8 housing, ideally supporting self-advocacy. She encourages tenants to share their experiences with her, which can become powerful sources for meeting tenants’ needs and facilitating policy change.

Bastien often works to mediate conversations between renters and their landlords to develop plans so that renters can stay in their homes, sometimes including financial support to tenants or guiding them to resources outside of BCDC to resolve their issue.

“I think a lot about how to connect safety net institutions in town that already exist with my work,” Bastien said. “There’s lots and lots of great resources here, but there’s inevitably people that fall through. I got to know a lot of people at all of those places so I’m thinking about how we can bring those resources together in a better, more organized fashion.”

As president of BCDC, Brown acknowledged a perennial struggle to serve the community due to scarce resources to influence an enormous, cyclical problem. However, BCDC and the plethora of other organizations addressing housing crises are steadfast in their commitment.

“Poverty is not a choice. It’s the systems that repeatedly fail people, that leaves people with limited options,” Brown said. “People don’t live in silos. They don’t function in silos. Their needs can’t be siloed. Somebody that needs housing also needs food. The way the government defines housing in some respects, might not get you funds to pay your gas bill or your electric bill. And that may be what you need to move into a house.”

In June 2020, Bastien was elected to Town Meeting. Seeking to influence local policymaking with the same values she brings to the BCDC, she brings the stories of tenants to the Brookline government officials and leaders to help them understand the systemic issues facing the community. She also collaborates with them on writing policies in response to the housing crisis.

In addition, Bastien has created a “warrant article constituent guide” to inform the Brookline community about the legislation in simple terms. She explains how this legislation affects them, their kids and their neighborhood.

This work is personal to Bastien as she recently experienced an $800 rent increase.

“I was shocked,” Bastien said. “That is a catastrophic increase in monthly expenses. It felt like a sign that our landlord doesn’t care whether we stay or go even after living in our home for nine years. I don’t know anyone who would be prepared to absorb an $800 monthly increase in expenses.”

Bastien is fundamentally optimistic that changes can be made in the town to improve the lives of renters. Often, she said, that starts with just listening.

“Sometimes people just need to have someone hold their story, even if you don’t have a solution for it,” Bastien said. “I think building community around these struggles is really, really important because nobody is alone in this. There’s so many of us out here struggling, and there shouldn’t be shame in it.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Reinventing Journalism course at Brandeis University, taught by Professor Neil Swidey, with mentoring for student journalists by Brookline.News steering committee co-chair Ellen Clegg and editor Sam Mintz. Read more about the collaboration here.