NEW BEDFORD — Civil Rights leader Dr. Jibreel Khazan has lived in the same house in the West End of New Bedford for 50 years.
Five years after leading one of the most notable of the 1960s demonstrations — the Greensboro Four’s North Carolina lunch counter sit-in — Khazan (then known as Ezell Blair Jr.) moved to the city in 1965. Three years later he converted to Islam and has remained active in civil rights ever since.
Khazan, now approaching 80, has a problem he never anticipated.
The owner of that same house he lived in all these years wants to sell it. Real estate prices in New Bedford, following other areas in Massachusetts, have exploded over the last three or four years, as much as doubling in price.
Khazan, about a year ago, applied for an apartment with the New Bedford Housing Authority. But it can take as long as three years to receive a placement. He’s also looked into a place at the privately operated Temple Landing low-income development, but there are very few available single apartments there.
When he received a Massachusetts Black Excellence award from state Rep. Tony Cabral this past February, he talked on video to his friend, poet and community activist Erik Andrade, about the threat of gentrification in the city’s Cape Verdean neighborhoods.
“I’m saying, ‘Please, keep your houses if you can. Don’t sell your houses, because there goes the South End! There goes Cabo Verde!” he said, referring to the Cape Verdean enclaves that exist in the neighborhoods immediately south, west and north of the city’s reviving downtown.
Andrade decried what he said is the effect of gentrification on Khazan.
“He’s been actively having to go through a search for housing,” for the first time since the 1960s, he said. “The struggle has been so extreme that the stress level he has is insane.”
As real estate prices increase, there is evidence that low-income residents are being forced out of homes in New Bedford, in some cases, places they have lived in for their entire lives. Owners are exercising their right to benefit from the increase in property values, and in some cases, out-of-town entities have begun to speculate on real estate in the city.
According to The Warren Group, the number of single-family homes in the city purchased by “non-persons” (usually limited liability corporations) jumped from 71 to 85 in 2016 and has remained in the 80s since. The number of multi-family homes purchased by “non-persons” jumped from 353 to 471 in 2017. And it has remained in the high 400s since that time.
Students, families and senior citizens who have long lived in the city have talked to him about being forced out, moving to Fall River or out of state, Andrade said.
“This development that is happening rapidly is in the interest of those who have financial gain, and what it is going to do is harm those that are the most vulnerable,” he said.
The threat now and in the future
Local professionals who follow the New Bedford housing market say that with the prices rapidly increasing, the city could be facing increased danger of gentrification — the process by which low-income residents of a poor urban neighborhood can be displaced by wealthier people and new businesses.
Then City Councilor Dana Rebeiro and a group of downtown stakeholders, including the UMass Dartmouth Public Policy Center, held a public forum four years ago on the threat they saw coming.
Rebeiro and Andrade last year also objected to the efforts of the city’s preeminent preservation organization, WHALE, to rehabilitate decaying homes (with a preference for selling to city residents and sometimes first-time homebuyers) in some of the neighborhoods close to the downtown, saying the upgrades are a part of gentrification.
Residential home prices in New Bedford are surging as supply remains low — and local buyers are finding it hard to compete.
“We’re seeing some folks really having challenging times being able to afford this rental market.”
“If the city has the political will, it can make any of this work,” said Robert Terrell, a lecturer at Tufts University.
Experts are divided on the level of gentrification present in New Bedford.
Michael Goodman, the former director of the UMass Dartmouth Public Policy Center, said that gentrification is not really apparent until after it has already occurred.
Signs that the city could be vulnerable to gentrification, he said, include the recently rising prices, the arrival of commuter rail in 2024 (stations and tracks are under construction now), and the trend toward working at home (which accelerated during the pandemic).
Currently, most of the upheaval in the real estate market is that middle-class and upper middle-class people are being forced to look elsewhere for housing, according to Goodman. Part of the reason for that, he said, is that there are so few properties on the market because of the pandemic, but that may soon change as the economy begins to rebound.
“We’ve yet to see evidence that the people moving in are displacing people,” he said.
Patrick Sullivan, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development, said gentrification is definitely a problem when people are displaced.
In New Bedford, he said, gentrification issues have been addressed in the recent past through zoning, by requiring affordable units in large downtown developments. The Regency Towers, which was renovated about a decade ago, was “tremendously successful” mixing affordable and market-rate apartments, he said.
Another example of a big development designed to address issues like gentrification through zoning, is 117 Union, he said. The New Bedford Housing Authority-sponsored project will include 46 mixed-income units, though how many of each has yet to be determined.
Sullivan said his office has done a lot of outreach to city residents, including young people who live in the downtown and have degrees but are in low-paying jobs, he said. It runs the Neighborhood First Home Buyer Program, which assists qualified buyers with closing costs, rehab costs, and gap financing.
He acknowledged the threat, however. “We have to be cognizant of the fact that as development occurs, we’re not displacing people who live in downtown or the neighborhoods,” he said.
Even without gentrification, the city has for many decades struggled to provide home ownership for its low-income residents, Sullivan said. “There has always been an affordability gap with home ownership in New Bedford,” he said.
The majority of residents cannot afford to buy without subsidies, he explained. Either that or they have to purchase a home that needs a lot of work, which residents cannot afford in addition to the mortgage.
Sullivan said some of the city’s programs prepare people to be multi-family homeowners. Some 65 percent of the housing stock in the city is multi-family housing, built as immigrant worker housing during the period when the mills were the backbone of the city’s economy. Eighty percent of the buyers in the city are purchasing multi-families, he said. “It works well, gives them an income stream.”
The downtown cultural scene
Erik Andrade placed the emphasis differently. He said gentrification is already a big problem in the city.
Andrade has noticed a difference in the Cape Verdean neighborhoods directly south and west of the downtown, he said, since the adoption of the Seaport Cultural District in 2013. He said the cultural district includes members who own or work at downtown artistic ventures, which he said is a conflict of interest.
He gave the example of the Cape Verdean Veterans Memorial Hall, which he said did not succeed in becoming part of the district. He also believes there is a bias against some neighborhoods.
The Cape Verdean neighborhood just south of downtown includes cultural icons such as the United Social Club and the Longshoremen’s Union hall, Andrade said. He identified those venues to those forming the district, he said, but they were passed over and some have now been lost.
The Seaport Cultural District was first formed by the city through the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 2013 and then expanded in 2019. But it still does not include the Cape Verdean Vets Hall, which Andrade has been trying to help restore and renovate.
Margo Saulnier took over as executive director of the district in 2018 and said she believes the Vets Hall should be in the district. Saulnier is the creative strategist for the group’s umbrella organization New Bedford Creative.
“In general, government programs we have are based on a Euro-centric system,” she said. “What we’ve been attempting to do with this Art is Everywhere program is make it a more equitable process in applying for funding.”
Andrade’s group La Soul Renaissance is leading a cultural memory project called Um Frenti Unido – Um Prujeto di Memoria Kultural (A United Front – A Cultural Memory Project). “This project aims to explore how ‘creative placemaking’ is a catalyst for the rapid rent increases leading to the displacement and gentrification of the historic African and indigenous communities in Acushnet (New Bedford),” he wrote in a message to The New Bedford Light.
On Wednesday, New Bedford Creative (the parent group of the Seaport Cultural District) announced the project had won a $12,000 grant.
Andrade seeks to put the issues of gentrification and displacement in a historic context.
People of color have been displaced in New Bedford, he said, going back to when the Plymouth colonists first eyed the Southcoast land called Acushnet. When the whalers later came, the waterfront was populated by people of color, and people of color were again displaced when Route 18 was built to go through Cape Verdean neighborhoods in order to avoid the Whaling Museum and the neighborhood that is now the National Park.
With the real estate speculation, he says the syndrome has come around again with gentrification. “Right now, we are experiencing a serious housing crisis,” he said.
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