In New Bedford, housing costs are skyrocketing as many struggle to make ends meet

NEW BEDFORD — Sitting on the front porch of her twin apartment, Sherry Barros took a break from one of her three jobs to talk about rising rents in this city 60 miles south of Boston, known for its fishing industry.

Barros was born and raised in New Bedford. Her father worked as a longshoreman on the docks just blocks from downtown, and earned enough for the family to live in one of the nicer parts of town. To Paros, this village had always seemed like a close-knit, affordable village. She remembers when her rent was only $18 a week, in the 1970s.

By the 1980s, rent was about $25 a week, and over time it rose to $100, she said. Then it started jumping faster, from $250 to $500. In 2020, the Paros building was sold to an out-of-state company that was buying dozens of apartments in the city. The new owner almost doubled her rent.

High housing costs have reached a tipping point for Barros and other longtime residents. Amid a wave of gentrification, some wonder whether working-class people will continue to have a place in New Bedford.

“We made New Bedford what it is,” she said, pointing to the Portuguese, Latin and Cape Verdean neighborhoods. “It’s a mixed community. It’s a beautiful community. But why destroy it?”

At age 62, instead of thinking about retiring from her job as a social worker, Barros said she took on two more jobs: caring for her disabled sister and delivering food. She said she had to skip meals to afford the high rent.

“I think if I eat a good meal once a day, I’m fine, I’ll do it,” she said. “I just have to have my coffee in the morning.”

But Barros’ concerns go beyond herself.

Many low-income residents say rising rents are forcing them out of the city, or even on the brink of homelessness. This represents a sharp contrast to the official narrative of New Bedford: a city on the rise, on the cusp of regaining the esteem it once knew.

Picture of progress

On the waterfront, the docks are bustling with welders, painters and other tradesmen preparing fishing vessels for their upcoming voyages. In the distance, you can see the cranes at the New Bedford Marine Trade Terminal, built to serve the offshore wind industry that is just beginning to take off.

“New Bedford is moving in the right direction, and moving forward strong,” Mayor John Mitchell said in his State of the City address earlier this year. He highlighted the city’s progress by first recalling what it looked like a decade ago: “double-digit unemployment, precarious city finances, schools run under state control, and a general feeling that the city was not safe.”

New Bedford is now enjoying a transformation on all fronts, Mitchell said. The long-awaited South Coast Rail extension, linking New Bedford to Boston, is supposed to open in the summer of 2024. Leaders for three decades had hoped rail service would help stimulate the local economy. It also fueled real estate speculation, long before passengers could board a train here.

Terra Incognita Partners is the Rhode Island company that purchased Sherry Barros’ venue in 2020. New Bedford has potential that few locations in southern New England can match, said Isaiah Osofisan, a principal with the company.

A whaling-era house in New Bedford, now converted into apartments on Cottage Street, is among Terra Incognita's investments in the city.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A whaling-era house in New Bedford, now converted into apartments on Cottage Street, is among Terra Incognita’s investments in the city. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“We looked at investing throughout the South Shore, throughout Rhode Island, and areas of Connecticut,” he said. “And New Bedford was a very interesting place.” That’s because it has “big tailwinds” in his view, supported by local colleges, a working waterfront, a host of arts venues, and a growing culinary scene that attracts millennials.

Above all, Osofisan said, New Bedford has the energy of a coastal city, and the company wants to expand its presence there.

Since 2020, the company has purchased 12 multifamily buildings — each ranging from four to 24 units — in New Bedford for a total of nearly $8 million, according to public records.

The company has invested $4.5 million in renovations, making the buildings more energy efficient and making upgrades that are in keeping with New Bedford’s historic aesthetic, Osofisan said.

But these expensive renovations often make apartments less expensive for residents.

“When you make that investment for 10 or 20 years, you’re going to have to recoup that,” Osofisan said, arguing that improvements in housing quality mean “you’re able to justify that rent increase.” “

“This is capitalism,” he added.

Apartments owned by Terra Incognita are under renovation on Elm Street in New Bedford.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Apartments owned by Terra Incognita are under renovation on Elm Street in New Bedford. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

New Bedford does not lack people who can afford the high rents, Osofisan said. Many of the tenants come to New Bedford from Cape Cod, where they continue to work, but can’t afford to live, he said.

Some question the long-term prospects of a city where housing costs are rising so quickly.

“I’ve seen these courses before,” said Martin Correia, a real estate agent who has been doing business in the city for three decades. “People come in, buy, buy, buy, buy, and change the market a little bit.”

Prices may eventually stabilize, Correa said. But he worries that wages simply haven’t kept up with the cost of housing in the area. “Income is the biggest thing,” he said. “I don’t think the income supports the prices we get into, not even the rental prices.”

Then there is the problem of inventory.

In his office in northern New Bedford, Correa combs through home listings to show how little supply is on the market — about a quarter of what he said are historic levels. Experts say high interest rates are one factor preventing homeowners from buying or selling in this environment, as the new mortgage rate can be two or three times higher than the previous mortgage.

Real estate values ​​in New Bedford have jumped over the past four years. Median single-family home prices in the city started out much lower than the state overall, but have risen 50% since 2019, faster than Boston and the rest of Massachusetts, according to data from Peabody’s Warren Group.

Calls for rent control

Many longtime residents feel that lofty visions for New Bedford’s future were never meant for them. Community activist Eric Andrade has spent more than a decade advocating for gentrification happening in the city’s core, a historically diverse neighborhood where, he said, residents are facing widespread displacement.

He has a dim view of what some see as New Bedford’s progress: “Homelessness, increased couch surfing, people working three to four jobs to try to maintain it, people moving in with other people, people just leaving town.”

“I’ve seen people with degrees from prestigious schools who are homeless in the city now,” Andrade said. “People live with their parents, move in with friends. People live in their cars.”

New Bedford resident Millie Padilla mocks a sign advertising luxury housing in downtown New Bedford.  (Simon Rios/WBUR)
New Bedford resident Millie Padilla mocks a sign advertising luxury housing in downtown New Bedford. (Simon Rios/WBUR)

All of this has led to calls for rent control in New Bedford, which shares a place with Fall River as the second-poorest city in Greater Boston, after Lawrence, according to census figures.

“Obviously the goal is to build more housing units. That takes time,” City Councilman Shane Burgo said. In the meantime, he said he is pushing for ways to help keep lifelong residents in their homes.

Earlier this year, Burgo tried to get a question on the ballot to poll residents about their desire for rent control. The City Council passed it, but Mayor Mitchell vetoed it, and Burgo was unable to muster the votes to override it. The city’s mayor opposes rent restrictions, which he believes will stifle development.

The city recently released a roadmap to address the housing shortage, led by Housing Chief Josh Amaral. He argues that despite recent increases in home values, New Bedford is still among the cheapest places to live in the state. But more construction is needed.

“We don’t want people to be priced out of living in New Bedford,” Amaral said. He said the city’s housing plan proposes increasing rental assistance, expanding first-time homebuyer programs and fixing up homes, while also working with housing developers to build more units.

“They were expelled from New Bedford.”

These long-term plans don’t help people who already spend their days looking for apartments they can afford.

Angie Vargas stands outside her storage unit in New Bedford, next to the minivan she's been living in since July.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Angie Vargas stands outside her storage unit in New Bedford, next to the minivan she’s been living in since July. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Angie Vargas, 54, has been living out of her pickup truck for three and a half months. Vargas said she spent 16 years in the same apartment before selling it to an investor in Boston, a transaction confirmed in public records.

“I’m sleeping here in my truck with my two little dogs,” she said in Spanish. “And it all started on the Fourth of July. I gained my independence, but on the street!”

A decade ago, Vargas was a prominent leader in the city’s Puerto Rican community. Now, she said the stress of homelessness is taking a toll on her health. Earlier this month she suffered two minor strokes.

After pursuing dozens of apartment collapses in New Bedford, she recently found a place in Fall River. Vargas said she didn’t want to leave the city she loves, but she couldn’t wait any longer, in part because her Section 8 voucher was set to expire. She was tired of living in her truck.

“I feel like they’re kicking me out of New Bedford, but at least at this point I’ll have a roof over my head,” she said in a text message.

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