“For the first time in my life, I feel like a tourist on vacation in my own city,” a friend said to me on a sunny July afternoon outside Tia Maria’s, in the heart of cobblestoned downtown New Bedford. He cited the fervor for the new beachfront brewery, the floating ocean waterpark, our beautiful public spaces, and the evident investment taking root across the city. He was right. 

Over the last decade, the theory of action in New Bedford has been to confront challenges head on; to get away from blaming outside forces for our plight; and to do more than desperately hope some unlikely Next Big Thing would remedy our most intractable problems for us. It’s hard to argue it hasn’t worked.

The city’s unemployment rate has fallen drastically, schools have vastly improved, and violent crime has plummeted. Investment in New Bedford is at a peak, with vibrant hospitality and art sectors, renewed investment in the waterfront, and a full and thriving business park. Over the next few years, the city will have a new advanced manufacturing campus boasting 1,000 new jobs, emerge as the leader in American wind energy, and finally be connected to Boston by rail. 

My friend feels like a tourist in his own city because the quiet but steady pace of change caught him by surprise. Something similar happens when I step on the bathroom scale for the first time in a while. While the incremental daily changes are barely perceptible to the two of us, others have taken note. New Bedford has become a more desirable place to live, and as a result, a much more expensive one, too. 

The once-bountiful inventory of apartments available for less than $1,000 a month has dried up. Rents have increased 70% in a decade. There are only a handful of apartments even listed for rent, and the average monthly cost for a three-bedroom among them is $1,430. Tenements are selling at unprecedented prices, with triple-deckers going for around a half-million dollars. Our region leads the state in evictions, not because of pandemic-related non-payment of rent, but because investors are tossing out families so they can renovate and re-rent at the higher rates they need to make their investments worthwhile.

According to the U.S. Census, New Bedford picked up an additional 6,000 residents over the last decade but lost some 2,000 housing units along the way. As home prices soar, would-be homebuyers stick with renting. Competition for decent rentals is fierce, with landlords taking hundreds of applications per vacancy. Apartment-seekers making less than $50,000 a year need not apply, and even then, the half of the city population that can clear that hurdle better have a spotless rental history, a clean CORI, good references, no pets, and quiet feet. So where will everyone else live? 

Riverbank Lofts on Riverside Ave. in New Bedford. Credit: David W. Oliveira/New Bedford Light

It isn’t that the city necessarily needs more deeply subsidized units in which tenants pay 30% of their income in rent, or formal capital-“A” Affordable Housing, but it clearly needs units the typical household can afford. Working families are doubling up. Young professionals are staying at home. Increasingly discerning landlords engage in illegal housing discrimination. Elderly relatives paying stale rents are being forced out into a market they can’t afford. Tenants on the brink are pushed out to their cars or onto the streets. The invisible hand of the housing market is no longer serving New Bedford residents.

In the preceding couple decades, it did. Some landlords found great wealth buying up cheap tenements, barely maintaining them, and renting them at bargain rates. Neither tenants nor neighborhoods were served particularly well by this arrangement, but a grandmother on Social Security or a single parent waiting tables could piece together the rent each month.

Hundreds of these units insulated us from the housing challenges that have plagued many cities post-recession. But now many of those same landlords are selling their properties at the top of the market, often to nameless, faceless outside investors looking to rent for twice as much. We never thought we would miss the days of the absentee landlord’s ill-maintained $800 apartment. 

At the same time, larger-scale housing development in the city has been glacial. Developers spend their time and money around Boston instead, where it costs about the same to build as it does in New Bedford, but prospective rents are much higher. New Bedford has developed little more than a reputation for its reflexive opposition to projects that include the number of affordable units needed to capture the tax credits that make building them financially feasible. New Bedford is short about 2,000 units — market rate, affordable, or otherwise, and while we aren’t alone in experiencing a housing gap, our work to close it lags far behind.

In solidifying New Bedford’s rightful place at the center of the southeastern Massachusetts universe, these growing pains come as no surprise. City leaders must take the same approach that got us here: own the problem, confront it head on, and create and execute a thoughtful plan.

Yes, nationally, the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer. Gentrification in Greater Boston has created a ripple effect in communities like ours. By perennially being one of the most affordable places to live, New Bedford has unsurprisingly assembled a population more vulnerable to spikes in housing costs. And it is true that our surrounding towns have not done their part; save for a placid senior development here or there, they haven’t met their obligations under the state’s affordable housing law and will continue to obstruct any development that sets off NIMBY sensors in their enclaves.

No one has sought to seriously understand how variables like the coming train, low interest rates, working from home, and all the positive developments in our community are interacting and contributing to the rise in costs.

But whining and wallowing have never solved our problems. No one is coming to save the day, and the problem won’t fix itself. This challenge is a product of our own success, and we should seize the rare opportunity to address it before it snowballs. Cautionary tales of midsize cities that chose instead to ignore the problem blanket the country. 

This isn’t to say New Bedford must forever offer an abundance of cheap housing or live with the constrained tax base that comes with it. But our neighbors need a chance to gain traction in the city’s growing economy before they are faced with housing instability. Gradual shifts are better and more humane than overnight spikes.

Rents have increased at a rate three times faster than income has, and property values have ascended quicker than the rising tide has lifted the workforce. We must research the drivers of the New Bedford housing market and create a comprehensive plan to manage them.

No one has sought to seriously understand how variables like the coming train, low interest rates, working from home, and all the positive developments in our community are interacting and contributing to the rise in costs. We should learn all we can from the other cities that have experienced these challenges before us. We should listen to New Bedford residents and devise solutions that work for them.

It is hard to imagine a plan that doesn’t include the creation and preservation of rental housing people can afford; getting past old dogmas about subsidized housing; and investing in pathways to homeownership for New Bedford residents. Taking bold action will protect the city and its residents from drastic swings in the other direction, too, which could capsize the speculators and return the blighted and abandoned properties we worked so hard to vanquish. Indeed, it is possible to implement smart and sustainable solutions that take care of people now, while simultaneously serving the city’s long-term interests.

Over the course of the last decade, New Bedford has established itself as a leader in mid-size cities across the country. The time has come to recognize the new challenges that have spawned from solving the old ones, and to update our understanding of what our neighbors want and need. New Bedford’s people are what make the city great, and we can’t afford their not being able to afford to live here. With smart leadership and a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest over $70 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, New Bedford has a chance to stem the tide and demonstrate how it can be done — and done in a way that doesn’t undermine success.

Housing is as critical a component to a city’s vitality as its workforce, economy, public safety, education, and cultural institutions, and we must treat it as such by owning the problem and devising a clear-eyed approach to solving it. That’s what leading cities do.  

Joshua Amaral is the chair of the New Bedford Homeless Service Providers Network and assistant executive director of PACE, a leading anti-poverty non-profit serving Greater New Bedford.

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