NEW BEDFORD — Kelly Marlowe is paying more and getting less nowadays.

Last year, the 61-year-old grandmother was paying $700 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. But an investor bought the building and evicted her and her husband. Now, they’re living paycheck to paycheck in a studio that costs $1,300 a month.

“It’s not really what we can afford, but I’m willing to change things,” she said. “We’re going to cut the food.”

Milk is now a luxury in Marlowe’s household, and she recently needed help from a local nonprofit to pay her overdue utility bills.

Her story is familiar to those who work in support services around the city. 

Local nonprofit leaders say rising rents are putting extra pressure on New Bedford’s low-income tenants. Incomes in the city have not kept up with rent increases over the past few years, a New Bedford Light data analysis found.

The price of a typical two-bedroom apartment in Bristol County has shot up by 31% since 2020, according to data from the listing site Apartment List. Wages and Social Security benefits have also gone up, but they lagged behind, federal data shows.

For Marlowe, the change was shocking. She knew that her previous apartment was cheap, but she couldn’t believe the prices on the listings she saw — $1,300 was the lowest monthly rent she could get after submitting dozens of rental applications.

“These rents — they say it’s because the train’s coming,” she said, referring to the Boston commuter rail connection expected to start later this year. “I’m like, ‘I don’t care about the train. I ain’t taking no train.’”

Marlowe was a certified nursing assistant until an injury put her out of work 10 years ago, so she depends on disability checks. Her husband jumps between seasonal jobs. Marlowe’s disability benefits have gone up during the pandemic, but it hasn’t helped much because the extra money went to pay her higher health insurance costs. She’s thought about getting a part-time job, but that extra income would only reduce her benefits, she said.

“It’s like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she said.

“Clearly, for people who are looking [for an apartment] now, as opposed to two, three, five years ago, it’s much more expensive,” said Mike Goodman, a professor of public policy at UMass Dartmouth.

The city has added very little to its housing stock in recent years, but the rise of remote work and the coming commuter rail have increased demand for housing in this area, Goodman said. 

Meanwhile, average annual wages in greater New Bedford grew less than half as quickly as rents from the start of the pandemic to May 2022, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Local data isn’t available for 2023 yet, though early regional numbers suggest that the gap has narrowed only slightly.

“We’ve experienced a lot of wage growth, which is awesome because we are a low-wage community,” Goodman said. “But a lot of that wage growth has come as a result of, or at least at the same time as, this spike in inflation.”

Social Security benefits haven’t kept up with rents either, even with last year’s historically high cost-of-living increase.

Many tenants in New Bedford have been forced to spend more of their income on housing, Census data shows. In 2021, nearly half of New Bedford’s renter households were considered “cost-burdened,” which means they spent more than 30% of their income on rent.

The number of renter households that were severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their income on rent, jumped during the pandemic. In 2019 there were 4,844 of those households in the city, and in 2021 there were 7,288.

Staffers at the local anti-poverty nonprofit PACE get calls every day from people who are struggling to afford housing, said Pam Kuechler, the organization’s executive director. 

“It’s disturbing and it’s alarming,” she said. “That means they are put in a position where they have to make decisions about how to make the money they live off of go even further.”

Housing isn’t the only necessity that’s become more expensive. PACE is also receiving more applications for its home energy assistance program and seeing more people at its food pantry.

By the start of this year, household energy costs in New England had gone up by 76% since May 2020, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows. Those prices have started to fall this year, but they’re still much higher than they were three years ago.

Meanwhile, groceries in New England are 13% more expensive now than they were three years ago. 

People are taking second and even third jobs to afford the cost increases, Kuechler said. 

“How do you make ends meet? It’s a challenge,” she said. “And some people are struggling. They’re barely making it.”

Corrinn Williams, executive director of the Community Economic Development Center, said she has spotted a “disturbing pattern” among the immigrant population her organization serves — families will often double or triple up with each other in a single apartment so they can afford the rent. For example, three separate families might each take one room in a three-bedroom unit.

“That’s the only way they can cope,” she said.

It’s especially difficult for elders to get by, Williams said. They often live on fixed incomes that haven’t increased as quickly as housing costs and inflation.


The center provides free tax preparation for seniors, and their clients are often excited for even modest tax breaks, like the state’s “senior circuit breaker,” which provides a $1,200 tax credit to seniors who spend more than a certain amount of their income on housing costs.

Joselyn Feliciano, a tax coordinator for the center, said many of her clients live alone and have no support. She remembers one client in particular who was looking forward to his tax credit — his income was $11,000 a year.

“He really just wanted the circuit breaker for food,” she said. “And that was really hard for me to see.”

A living wage for a single person in Bristol County is $37,181 before taxes, according to the MIT LIving Wage Calculator. But average wages for many jobs fell below that number last year. They include fish cutters, fast food workers, home health aides, child care workers, and more than a dozen other occupations.

It’s even more difficult to get by with children. A living wage for a single parent with one child in Bristol County is $83,580 a year, or $40.18 per hour.

“How many single moms in New Bedford work in a Market Basket or Dunkin’ Donuts?” Williams said. “There’s a real disconnect there in thinking about living wages and how people can manage.”

The bottom line: It’s harder to make a living in New Bedford now than it was before the pandemic, Williams said.

It may not do much for people who are struggling today, but Goodman, the UMass Dartmouth professor, is optimistic that wages can eventually catch up if the city produces more housing, which will slow down rents.

“I think the good news is that inflation won’t rise forever,” he said. “And those wages will not be lowered.”

Email housing reporter Grace Ferguson at

Join the Conversation


  1. The misleading hype on the train coming by Boston investors and landlords of multiple houses caused the inflated rates. GREED, GREED, GREED, and it worked for them.

    1. Don’t we pay our government officials to address and solve these problems? Real City leadership could help solve this issue by sitting down with developers and aggressively hammering out plans for affordable housing stock to be implemented right away. This is a crisis.

      1. No, we don’t pay our public officials to solve affordable housing problems, how can you possibly address a problem like people don’t make enough money to pay their housing costs and other expenses? Where do you expect low income housing to come from?
        One solution that can be implemented tomorrow is solve the section 8, and housing projects fraud that’s been going on for decades. A single mother of 1 or 2 children lives in the housing projects with rent based on her income, then she meets a guy who moves in with her an say he makes $60,000 per year, he lives rent free, and she enjoys all the luxuries from his paycheck, and the tax payers fund the SNAP benefits and welfare check she receives monthly. End the public housing fraud and there’s plenty of low income housing for people who really need it.

  2. I feel very concerned about the grandmother whose rent went from $700 for a three bedroom apt. to $1,300 for a studio. Unfortunately, the $700 was a totally unrealistic amount, compared to overall US rentals and, particularly, for the eastern MA market.

    New Bedford rentals moving into levels more compatible with overall MA rentals is definitely going to create some major hardships and transition issues. It is not going to accomplish anything to demonize landlords who manage rental properties in a market responding to economic realities. New Bedford is moving towards becoming a part of “Greater Boston”. Hopefully that situation will also allow residents of New Bedford to experience increasing job and income possibilities.

  3. Hate to beat the drum once again but affordable housing and rent control go hand in hand.Thought Scott Burgos proposal to at least let ,citizens of New Bedford vote on the idea a lesson in democracy.Of course the development bosses will always,complain the rent they charge is never enuf. ?Take it from the needy give it to the greedy.Meanwhile people like Mildred and others suffer while absent developers live in mansions and cool their buns in pools New Bedford or Fall River are not like Cambridge Somerville Malden or ,Quincy all of which are within 5 miles of Boston and were blue collar towns changed forever by yuppie development and skyrocketing rents New Bedfird is 60 miles away it will take,a generation or more for jobs,or training to catch up. THAT IS,WHY AFFORDABLE AND NOT LUXURY HOUSING should be considered! 3 diesel trains a day won’t change that factor

    1. Rent control should never even be discussed, we live in a capitalist nation and property owners are, and should be free to charge what they want when renting their property.

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