United Interfaith Action held a press conference last week on the crisis of affordable housing in New Bedford.

The activist group — made up of local faith leaders and social service providers — presented a case that Mayor Jon Mitchell’s plans to spend some $82 million in federal pandemic relief funds have not prioritized the housing crisis highly enough. 

The group displayed charts that showed what The New Bedford Light reported several months ago. Bristol County in 2020 led the state in evictions by a wide margin, even over larger counties like Suffolk and Middlesex.

There were 299 evictions in New Bedford in the year that the pandemic began vs. only 127 in nearby Brockton, a city with a similar demographic and a slightly larger population.

UIA also cited state and federal statistics that indicate some 47% of city residents are “housing cost burdened” (which according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council  means that they are paying more than 30% of their income toward housing). The statewide housing cost burdened number is 29%, some 13 percentage points lower than in New Bedford.

It’s even worse in the city for those with very low income. Some 23% of city residents are “severely cost burdened,” which means they are paying more than 50% of their income to housing. The statewide figure for severely cost burdened is 14%, or 9 percentage points lower than in New Bedford.

Perhaps the most distressing statistic was the one that comes directly from the New Bedford Housing Authority. There are currently 4,087 individuals waiting on the city’s federal public housing list; there are 4,378 people waiting on the state public housing list; and 4,131 people are waiting on the so-called Section 8 list for federally subsidized private housing. 

According to the numbers it’s a no-brainer. New Bedford has one of the worst affordable housing problems in Massachusetts.

The UIA press conference, however, was a failure by almost any measure.

None of the most prominent media that covers the city — the daily newspaper, the local news and talk radio station, even the social media sites that breathlessly report every crime that moves every day — were in attendance. 

This columnist from The New Bedford Light was there, and there was a reporter who does enterprise stories for Rhode Island public radio.

That’s it.

The mayor of New Bedford was not there. Neither were 10 of 11 city councilors. First-term Councilor Shane Burgo attended by way of Zoom. Most of the services who provide housing in the city or work with the homeless in the city were not there.

Part of that may be the fault of UIA. Maybe it wasn’t coordinated well enough. They sent out multiple press releases beforehand, but some of those active in New Bedford on housing said they did not know about it. 

Part of the lack of interest probably has to do with current business model problems in community media — staffs have grown very small — but part of it is probably just a function of the community’s general lack of interest in a problem that has long been one of the ingredients in the city’s lagging economy. But it is not exactly news.

Still, the housing crisis in New Bedford has gotten acutely worse over the last several years, and both New Bedford and Fall River have now joined larger cities in seeing rental and mortgage prices increase beyond the reach of average working people — particularly young people just starting out.

Also actively working on the housing problem are the folks over at the nonprofit service agency PACE (People Acting in Community Endeavors). I met recently with Josh Amaral, David Lima and Peter Muise — all community leaders who have long been active on housing issues — and in the case of Lima and Muise, particularly those affecting the homeless.

The three talked to me about something called affordable housing trusts.

Amaral said such a trust would combine grants from both public and private sources with a homeowner-to-be borrowing to purchase multifamily properties that are in decaying condition or in troubled neighborhoods. The trust would have a harder time purchasing properties in good shape or in more stable neighborhoods because it would be a challenge to get financing in order as quickly as buyers on the open market.

However, once a first-time buyer has purchased a three-family in New Bedford, the grants would subsidize enough of the original cost that the mortgage could be paid off solely through the rents. The owner would then use some of that money to maintain the property. And, if all goes well, perhaps purchase additional properties.

It’s an interesting idea, and both PACE and others have already engaged in similar programs in the city. But Amaral says that with $1 million in ARPA funds, the affordable housing trust might be able to do 50 affordable units over the course of two years.

That’s the rub. What kind of innovative program can you come up with so that the program becomes self-sustaining and produces enough affordable units to begin to make a dent in the problem?

Both Amaral and the folks at UIA of Southeastern Massachusetts think that the largest portion of New Bedford’s $82-odd million in American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) money should go to affordable housing. The city’s Regeneration Committee has also suggested housing as one of the areas it believes should be a focus for the funds. The mayor has incorporated that, along with such committee recommendations as infrastructure upgrades, health care and small business assistance, 

The UIA unveiled a proposal at the press conference that would devote some $20 million to housing. The group has broken it down to $10 million for new construction; $5 million for a central location for homeless housing; $2 million for working-class, first-time homebuyers; $2 million for emergency rental relief; and $500,000 apiece for a legal services fund for folks in housing court without lawyers, and for a day program for those experiencing homelessness.

The housing advocates may feel passionate about the issue, but the mayor is not convinced that housing should rise to the top of the ARPA allotments. And outside of Councilor Burgo, nobody on the council seems to be talking about housing as a priority.

Mitchell points out that he has recommended to the City Council “a fair amount of money” for the category: “Neighborhood revitalization and housing.” The classification  includes money for both housing and rental assistance, as well as neighborhood improvements. But his original $13 million was less than the $18 million he originally proposed for “Arts, culture, hospitality and tourism.” In negotiations with councilors, that amount has reportedly been now reduced to $15 million.

Meanwhile, the City Council continues to be locked in a battle with the mayor over who will decide where the $82 million goes.

Councilors had been expected on Thursday to finally accept the ARPA funds, and the housing amounts would have been settled. But after the council’s attorney, David Gerwatowski, argued strenuously that their job was not to accept the money but simply to authorize its spending in the categories they wanted, the council went in another direction.

Each of the 11 councilors is now going to submit individual recommendations for various categories, and Councilor Linda Morad will average them out. To what end is unclear, but it sounds like they are going to pass it along to Mitchell as their directive on what he can spend … and how.

Mitchell said his attorneys do not agree with Gerwatowski’s interpretation of who has control of the categories and who can accept the money. But he is not concerned as he’s come to an agreement with the majority of councilors. “I don’t think it will matter,” he said. “It will actually get to an agreement of what money should be spent.”

Mitchell, during the course of his 10-year mayorship, has not been known as a big advocate for affordable housing. He has more often stressed that the suburbs need to do more of their share in building affordable housing, and the city needs to attract more market-rate housing to improve economic development and tax revenue.

But the ARPA funds are only eligible for affordable — not market-rate developments.

As far as more money for housing, the mayor said everyone would like more affordable housing to be built in the city, but the ARPA money has to be used for projects that are already in the pipeline to meet the deadline for spending the money by 2026.

There are only four or five affordable housing developments that are currently far enough along to meet the deadlines, and which also have other sources of money that Mitchell wants.

In addition, Mitchell pointed out that you could spend the city’s entire $82 million allotment, and it would not solve the problem of affordable housing in New Bedford.

“As a general proposition, I want more people to be able to afford housing in the city,” he said, but it’s a countrywide problem.

“It’s obviously not something you could shift just with what we got from ARPA.”

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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