Anthony has lived in his apartment for 18 years, and now he can’t afford it.
The four-bedroom unit in New Bedford’s South End has been home to him, his wife, and their children. But in January, his landlord raised the rent by $500 a month. Anthony says the landlord has harassed him as he struggles to make the new payment.
“He’s knocking on our door, saying ‘Where’s my f–ing rent money?’” Anthony said. He asked that his last name not be used, fearing retaliation from his landlord.
Anthony has faced rent increases in the past, but none as drastic as this one, which brought his rent from $1,000 up to $1,500 with less than a month’s notice.
“I never was in this situation before, and neither was my wife, ‘cause we always, always had our bills paid on time, never owed any bills, never was behind on rent, nothin’,” he said. “Until now.”
Rents are still much cheaper in Bristol County than in other parts of Massachusetts, but during the pandemic they have risen faster than any other large county in the state, a New Bedford Light analysis of Apartment List data shows.
Massachusetts median rents since March 2020
Anthony’s rent is now more than he makes in a month on his fixed income. He’s only able to avoid eviction with emergency rental assistance, a temporary solution as he fruitlessly searches for an affordable place to live. He is on numerous waiting lists for programs in New Bedford and other nearby cities.
The median rent in Bristol County has gone up by 35% since the start of the pandemic, and more than half of that increase happened in 2022 alone.
Percent change in Massachusetts median rent since March 2020
“For prospective renters with low and moderate incomes, it doesn’t matter that it’s 50% less than Boston — it’s more than they can afford,” said Michael Goodman, a professor of public policy at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Average wages in Bristol County are also low compared to the rest of the state, making increases in housing costs more burdensome.
“The prices of other things are rising as well thanks to inflation, so it sort of adds insult to injury for those who can least afford it,” Goodman said.
Year-to-year rent increases now appear to be slowing down in some other counties, particularly in greater Boston. But in Bristol County, the data shows year-to-year rent increases accelerating over the past two months.
The rise of working from home and a commuter rail connection to Boston expected next year are putting apartments in Bristol County in reach of workers from larger, more expensive communities. That’s increasing demand for apartments here, which makes the market more competitive for locals.
“There’s just a shift statewide of the population, and people are going where they can afford to live,” said Joshua Amaral, assistant executive director of People Acting in Community Endeavors. “But unfortunately, that puts the people who could barely afford to live in New Bedford in a tough spot — there’s nowhere else to go.”
New Bedford residents might only be willing to pay $1,200 for a given apartment, but Bostonians who are used to much higher rents might be comfortable paying $2,000 for the same unit and still consider it a discount, Amaral said.
Bristol County led the state in eviction executions last summer, The Light reported at the time. The county now ranks third behind Middlesex and Suffolk counties. But on a per capita basis, Bristol County still has the highest eviction rate in Massachusetts.
High prices in the real estate market, here and across the country, are also driving up costs for tenants. Interest on mortgages is on the rise as well, making those transactions even more expensive. When landlords have to pay more to acquire property the pricier mortgage translates into higher rents.
Jess Hamilton bought a two-family building on North Front Street in New Bedford for $235,000 last summer. The previous landlord had paid $175,000 for the property less than a year before, and didn’t make any changes to it before selling.
Still, even with the markup, Hamilton was attracted to invest here because it’s cheaper than Boston. He says his friends are hearing buzz about New Bedford real estate from as far away as the Dominican Republic.
“It’s not just Boston people,” Hamilton said. “People all over the country have gotten wind of it.”
Hamilton gets the sense that landlords used to keep prices low by only making repairs and aesthetic updates when absolutely necessary. Now, he says, the local landlords are cashing out and the new ones are willing to put more money into renovating the city’s aging housing supply, which also adds to the rent bill.
“I get it, it’s tough to be a tenant that doesn’t necessarily have high income,” he said. “But in order to pay for the deferred maintenance on a lot of the properties, the money’s gotta come from somewhere”
While much of the effort to increase New Bedford’s supply of affordable housing has focused on lowering the cost burden on renters, Amaral of PACE thinks it would also help if renters themselves had deeper pockets.
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“Our population in general is not as resilient to these price changes because the income is limited,” he said. “So improving skills and getting connected economically to the opportunities that should lie ahead is just as important, and really the only way to guarantee that someone can be protected from these kinds of market changes over time.”
PACE has led workshops focused on helping workers gain skills that will make them eligible for higher-paying jobs. Amaral hopes that the changes expected to bring Bostonians to New Bedford — like South Coast Rail and the offshore wind industry — can also connect people here to better economic opportunities.
“But if all of your costs are increasing today, and all of your revenue-making opportunities are promised to you three or four years from now, that doesn’t pay your rent today, so we need to help people buy time.”
Email Grace Ferguson at firstname.lastname@example.org.