Get to know Liz Bewsee
What is your name, pronouns, and your role at Arise?
My name is Liz Bewsee. My pronouns are her and she. And I'm the housing advocate. And all around, do this, that, and everything.
And how did you become involved with Arise? How did that start?
Well, back in 1985, when Arise first started around my Sister's Kitchen Table. She was one of the founding members. And they would meet in the house, and I would hang out. And that's how I ended up getting involved.
Was there a specific motivation for you to work in this specific role of housing?
Um, well, yes, and no. After my father died in 1974, we moved every single year for the next seven years. I hated it so much because I was usually the one that had to do all the backbreaking work; my sister Margaret and my brother Peter didn't. I hated it so bad that I swore I wouldn't do any moving if I didn't have to as I got older. That still holds true today. I think the shortest period of time I've ever lived in one place was two years, but I started working with homeless people, and that sort of morphed into working with housing and finding places for people. So, that's where I started.
What would you say are the biggest challenges or issues right now that your role is trying to address?
Well, the availability of housing. Springfield is probably about 13 to 2,000 units short of housing, and that's just a close guess. They used to say there was a 10% vacancy rate in the city, but that 10% included apartments that you wouldn't want to put a dead body in. So, the actual housing vacancy rate of livable apartments, never mind affordable, was closer to 5% or less. We had so many abandoned buildings, and nobody was doing anything with them. Massachusetts doesn't have any real squatting rights. In order to acquire property through squatting rights, you have to live in it for 20 years without ever coming to the notice of the city, and then you might have a chance. The amount of housing wasn't enough. People couldn't afford the housing. A family on welfare with one parent and one child gets about 618 a month, not including food stamps. That won't even rent your room anywhere. After the tornado in 2011, we had been getting a list of available housing from what's Way Finders now, but it used to be called HAP, and we noticed that we picked one up on the 30th of May, and there was a 12-bedroom apartment which is a rarity. But it was for rent for $2,000 for a 12-room apartment. This was in 2011. Three days later, on the second of June, after the tornado, the same apartment had gone up by 70%. We saw that with a lot of apartments. When they finally settled down, it was about a 17 or 18% increase across the board between the end of May and the beginning of June after the tornado.
Up until, I guess 2007, my family and I shared a Victorian house with my sister. It had started in 77 when we got the house the first time. And over the years, it changed people, different roommates, different family members. But in 2008, we had to leave the house. The landlord had abandoned it 20 years earlier. But every time we tried to fix something, he would call the Building Code and stop it. When the chimney finally caved in, we didn't have a choice anymore. It took us six months to find an apartment to move into, and the only reason we got the apartment was because my sister had already moved into that building. She took the second floor, and the owners decided to move to California. We were lucky enough to get the first floor, and we were there for four years until they needed to sell the house. They were great landlords, and I loved them to death, but they didn't need the money. So, we'd send them a check for the rent, and it wouldn't get cached for months. When you're poor, that is a recipe for disaster. When we went to find a new apartment, it looked like we were bad at paying our rent and we didn't have anything before that to verify our rental income for the 15 years before that. Again, we got lucky. We were able to rent from the real estate agency that sold our former house. But even that required a letter from the old landlord saying, “No, no, no, it was just me messing up and not depositing the checks.” I came to realize that nobody could afford an apartment on their own, usually not anymore, especially young people.
Until three months ago, our youngest son lived with me, my husband, and his two daughters. His fiancée moved in five years ago, and her mother moved in two years ago. So, we went from three people at home to seven people at home. It's only a two-bedroom apartment. But that's what you have to do. We were lucky enough in all the years that I've worked at Arise. My husband was a truck driver. So, we always had his income which meant I could work for next to nothing, which happened a lot. But it also made me realize that unless my kids did something different, they weren't going to be able to find and afford their own house or even an apartment. So, a few months ago, my son and his fiancé got their house, and they all moved, so now it's just me and my husband, which is really nice after 44 years, but I miss them.
When I was recently looking at the cost of apartments, my husband and I were extremely lucky with ours. We pay 1100 a month for two bedrooms and six rooms on the first floor in Forest Park. That's a rarity. When I try to find apartments for people, I'm looking at a two-bedroom going for 1600 now, and nobody can afford that. You'd have to be making like 4800 a month before a landlord would even look at you because landlords want three times the rent for income. Income is not a protected category. So, landlords can ask whatever they want for the apartment. There is no cap on rents. For a long time, Section 8 would always have a higher cap on their rents, which meant other landlords felt justified in raising their rent to meet that cap even if people weren't able to afford it.
Since 2011, when we lost almost 400 units of affordable housing in the tornado, and then we had the explosion on Worthington Street that took out some buildings, there were three housing studies done. Miraculously, all of the housing studies said we need more market-rate housing downtown. I found out later on after talking to somebody who does these plans that they only answer the questions that they're asked. So, they're asked, “How much market-rate housing can we put down here?” So, that's the answer they got; they didn't look at what the city needed. The city has been driving poor people out of downtown for 20 years, and it really got a big push when the casino came in. They pushed the soup kitchen out when it used to be at Court Square. The food pantry, when it was at Court Square, took the benches out of Court Square. And they were gone for years and years and years. And when they did bring them back, they brought them back with the dividers for the seats. So, nobody could even take a cat nap on them.
Housing should be a human right. Not a privilege. We've always had more people than just family living in our house. Because that's the way we were raised. You don't turn your back on somebody if you can help them. And so, it just seems a natural progression. For a while, I did the food pantry, and that brought me more in touch with people who were suffering from food insecurity and things like that. And it all goes hand in hand. It's nothing but a big cycle. If you can't afford housing, you can't afford food, you can't afford medication. You can't afford childcare, you can't afford a car, your insurance gets canceled, and then you get stopped, and your car goes to the impound lot. And so, we were able to get some money together to do bill payments for people. But we didn't want to follow the already established format of Way Finders or fuel assistance. Because if the bill is not in your name, you can't get any help with Way Finders or fuel assistance. So, what we did was, we decided all right, you prove to me that you live there. I don't care whose name is on the bill. All they needed was a piece of mail that came to them at that address, and we were willing to accept that. We encourage people that if they could get fuel assistance, to get fuel assistance and use our bill payment for something else because it wasn't just utilities. We bought diapers. We paid for somebody's water bill. We've paid car notes, we've paid car insurance bills.
The very first bill I ever paid for somebody was only a couple of years ago. She was an artist. And starting out, you don't know a lot about taxes, so she fell behind in payroll taxes. She made an agreement for them to automatically take it out every month. But then COVID hit, and she wasn't working, and she didn't have any more money. And then they were threatening to take her car. She had two bills, and they came to a total of $325. She was going to lose her car for $325 to the IRS. We paid the bill, and she sat in my office and cried because it was the only thing that she needed help with right then and there. And she didn't know what she was going to do.
So, we decided, we did not want to do the same stuff. So, we'll pay a bill if we have it and you don't have to have your name on the bill to do it. So, we'll encourage people to use fuel assistance and use Way Finders as much as they can. And we got it for the stuff that they don't. Because, you know, if you've got a car and you're working, you're going to keep driving that car even after the insurance is canceled because you don't have a choice. You get stuck with no insurance. There goes the car and just getting it out is going to cost you $600 easily. And again, that's just a guess. I'm just thinking about when my son had his car towed for snow removal, and it cost us $500 to get his car out. So, we try and do things differently because we've been there, we know what it’s like, and nobody was there for us when we needed it.
It's funny; my sister wrote a lot of poetry, and I just posted a poem on our Facebook page. It's about everything that the system does to beat us down. And just wait, because when it gets too much, don't turn your back. Because that's when we're going to fight back. She wrote it in a newsletter that we did in 2013. I don't know if she wrote it before that, but I know that was the first time that we published it. And it's just as true today as it was 10 or 15 years ago. People get so used to, “Well, we're going to take this away from you, but it's okay, you have all these other things that are going to work.” Okay, and you get so immune to that sort of thing that the next time you look around, you've got nothing because they've taken it all. And that's how they get over on us.
How have you and Arise been involved in advocating for systemic change, policy, or regulations?
We worked on the ward representation campaign. That was 17 years of work and two federal lawsuits. In the first lawsuit, the city said, “Look, we'll fix it; just drop the lawsuit.” We did. They didn't. So, we filed again. But from the time it went to all-at-large voting, the number of people voting dropped steadily. If you didn't have 25 or $30,000, you couldn't run for a seat because that's what it would cost to run across the city. So, we fought for them, we got ward representation with five at large and eight by ward. In the first election, we had five people of color on the city council for the first time ever. And that was an important piece of it. We had some great help, but it was a long fight.
One of the things I think that probably really pissed the state off about stuff that we were doing was there were families riding the bus all night long because they had no place to go. And we started a temporary shelter and made a lot of noise about it. There was a tent city in front of the bishop's church. We were there from the beginning of May to the middle of July before we moved over to the open pantry parking lot. We were there from the middle of July till the beginning of the end of November. We weren't backing down, and we were making sure that homeless families stayed in their faces. We worked a lot with the Mass Law Reform Institute, and with their help, we were able to force the state to put families in motels because they'd stopped doing that for a long time. And so, they would pick people in motels, but then they'd make it difficult to get there, difficult to stay there. And with Mass Law Reform’s help, we figured out ways around them. And we still have families and motels. It's not the solution we want. But it's the solution we have to work with. And now they're trying to take that away, too, by putting a cap on the shelter placements. And then they talk about “Oh, well, they're migrant workers.” No, they're not. If they're migrant workers, they're maybe 15 or 20%. The rest of them are Massachusetts residents. They have no home and no place to go. So, we're keeping that in their face.
At one point, we had families sleep on our office floor because that qualified them for shelter, staying in a place not suitable for human habitation. The very next day, after we sent the family back down to welfare, Building Code showed up. So, “I hear you have families living on your floor.” We're like, “No. What are you talking about? You see any beds?” And we made a stink about it. They never came back, and we kept letting family stay on our floor as long as we needed to, which meant it really wasn't an official visit. Somebody's doing somebody a favor is what it was. But we didn't scare, and that's a tactic that government agencies and landlords use all the time. They figure they can scare you out because you don't know what your rights are. And so, one of the big things is you don't have any rights unless you know what they are. So, we're always trying to teach people what their rights are. People don't understand what fair housing is and what it means. Income is not something that you can count on to help you. I mean, sexual orientation, nationality, race, religion, and things like that are all protected. Being a poor person isn't, and so if you're poor, you don't have much help at all, and the help that is out there, you have to beg for. We don't let anybody beg in our office. So, if they come to us, if there's something we can do, we'll do it. Sometimes, all we can be is a shoulder to cry on. That's sometimes all that you need too; someplace where we know what's going on and we know how shitty it is.
Can you tell us some rights everyone should know about housing?
A landlord can't ever just lock you out. An eviction is a court order, and they're the only ones that can say you can get locked out. And just because a landlord has eviction stamped on it doesn't make it a legal document. It has to be court-stamped. Landlords do that all the time, and people think that they can get away with it. The landlord can just come pack you out and move you out. And there's nothing you can do about it. But that's not the case and a lot of people don't realize that. And so, they leave the apartment. And then when they find out that they didn't have to, there's nothing they can do about it at that point, not without a lot of money to sue the landlord. So that's a big one.
Don't leave your apartment unless you have a letter from the court saying you have to and don't leave before you get the 72-hour notice from the sheriff. Just because the landlord gets an eviction, the next step is they have to give it to the sheriff and the sheriff has to deliver a 72- or 48-hour notice. And then they can lock you out at the end of the notice. So, we always tell people if you have to push it off that line, do it. Just make sure that you have everything you can't live without in your bag; your tax papers, your ID, your birth certificates, anything that you're going to need to qualify for anything because once the sheriff shows up there, you're not allowed back on the property. Even if all your stuff is still there, they will pack it up and put it in storage. And then, before you can get a hold of anything, you have to pay for the moving and the storage. So, it's not like you can just go and get it the next day. They're just not going to let you.
I think the other one that is really important is called Building Code. If you have a problem, call Building Code because unless you have some documentation to back you up and the landlord wants to ignore it, he's going to ignore it. So, you need to have documentation. Don't worry about the landlord getting in trouble. He's already in trouble if he's scamming you. If he's making you live someplace that's not safe or any of that, don't worry about the landlord. Worry about yourself and your children first.
Those are, I guess, the most important things about housing. But there are so many different ins and outs. Parts of contracts might be illegal, but it doesn't make the whole contract illegal. The common one is if you're late paying your rent, you got to pay $25 for a late fee. That's only after 30 days. Not immediately. But if tenants don't know that, so if that's $25 late fee for every week that you're late starting from five days after your rent is due, that would be an illegal clause and they could strike that, but it doesn't make the whole contract illegal. So, I tell people that if you see something in there that you know is not legal, sign the damn thing anyways. If it goes to court, you're not going to be held to it. It's really that simple. Watch a lot of Judge Judy. There’s a really good learning that happens there because she explains everything. I mean, yeah, they're funny cases as well. I'm not going to sue over a 75-cent beer. But when it comes to things like contracts, know what's only in the four corners, that sort of stuff. So that for a lot of folks, especially people who don't have a college education, they know stuff. They just don't know that they're right about the stuff they know. And that's always a problem.
How can people reach you?
On Thursdays, we're doing hot lunches for the community. We've got our fabulous cook back. Miss Carolyn is back, and she can make an old shoe taste good. That's the kind of a cook she is. Believe me. We've had people stopping by, asking, “When are you doing the lunches again? When is the cook lady coming?” or soup ladies. We'll get families into the shelter if they qualify. We have a little bit of money here and there. So, if somebody needs to get an ID, we can figure out a way of doing it. Like I said, we're not doing $300 payments for utilities right now because we don't have that money set aside. But yeah, we've gotten on Facebook and said, “Alright, look, we need money. We have a family we need to put into a motel.” And we would raise money that way. So, if we can do it, we'll do it. If we can't do it, we'll try and find someplace that can do it even if it means sitting on the phone all day.
We do a lot of work around mold. Mold has become a major issue. Mostly since the courthouse. But actually, we were working on mold for years before that. Trying to get the sanitary code changed. They finally did it. It's not a great job, but the word mold is in the sanitary code twice now. It was only once, and that was an indicator of dampness. That was it. Now they talk about having to remediate it. They just don't make it clear about what that remediation is. So that's something that the mold committee is working on. Yeah, we'll do just about anything. We get people's mail for them and have it delivered to our office. People come in we'll help them fill out their Social Security forms to apply for disability or MassHealth. There are very few things that we won't give it a shot on.