NEW BEDFORD — Samantha Iris Santiago was unable to find a one-bedroom apartment in her price range, so she lived in her car for a few months this year until her sister in New Bedford took her in.
“She told me, ‘I can’t have you staying out there in your car,’” said Santiago, 27, who did not expect it would be so hard to find a rental after deciding not to renew the lease on her Fall River apartment in February.
“When I originally searched for my last apartment, it happened so fast, I didn’t have an issue,” she said. “So when I ended up terminating the lease and trying to find something on my own, I would have never expected it to be this difficult months later.”
Santiago’s predicament appears to be increasingly common in most of Southeastern Massachusetts. She is one of 14,000 members in a private Facebook group who are searching for nearby apartments and often vent about their frustrating housing searches in group chats.
“I can’t afford the apartments that are out there right now, and I’m not alone,” said Santiago, who earns $19 an hour working as a receptionist and dental assistant in Brockton.
“I make a pretty decent amount an hour, and you would think that that would be sufficient, but honestly it’s not, and that’s crazy,” Santiago said, adding that she has been looking for a one-bedroom apartment with a monthly rent around $650. But the average rents that she has seen for one-bedroom apartments are right around $1,000.
“I’m willing to go anywhere,” she said. “I’ve looked at Taunton, in the Brockton area, but everything is just so high right now.”
Average monthly rents in New Bedford
Renting an apartment in New Bedford will cost you 3.9 percent more this year than last year, according to data from Apartments.com.
Recent listings bear testament to just how expensive it has become to rent an apartment or house in New Bedford. A three-bedroom place on the 200 block of Brooks Street, just off Nash Road, was listed for $1,500 a month. No pets allowed.
The Welby Park Estates, an apartment complex off Phillips Road in the far North End, listed a monthly rent of $1,505 for two-bedroom apartments that rented for about $850 one decade ago.
A three-bedroom condo on Nye Street, on the block between Ashley Boulevard and Acushnet Avenue, was listed for $1,300 a month, despite its location in one of the city’s higher-crime neighborhoods.
“The units that are available, the ones that are somewhat within someone’s budget, are often in challenging areas that have increased crime and other issues, where the properties may not be maintained as well,” said New Bedford’s Director of Housing and Community Development Patrick Sullivan.
Sullivan said he has seen “a significant and kind of unprecedented” uptick in the city’s residential property rental market.
“I haven’t seen this kind of exponential increase in the rents, and I’ve been working for the city for almost 30 years now,” Sullivan said. “We’re seeing some folks really having challenging times being able to afford this rental market.”
According to data from Apartments.com, apartment rent in New Bedford has increased by 3.9 percent over the past year. On average, a one-bedroom apartment in the city now rents for $1,147 a month; $1,418 for two-bedrooms, and $1,717 for three bedrooms. Those monthly averages are similar to estimates computed by other apartment rental sites such as Zumper and Trulia.
Mike Goodman, a UMass Dartmouth public policy professor who specializes in housing policy, demographics and economic development, cited as factors rising real estate sales in the region, low interest rates and especially the rise of telecommuting as living in SouthCoast becomes less of a barrier for white-collar professionals with jobs in Boston.
“There is reason to believe the regional housing market, for rent and for sale, would have a little bit of a lift in it due to people starting to cast their search net a little bit more widely,” Goodman said.
Sullivan added that the hot real estate market in Massachusetts and low interest rates on mortgages have also been encouraging real estate investors to purchase residential properties, including multi-family homes in cities like New Bedford and Fall River, which in turn are driving up property values that trickle down to tenants in the way of higher rents.
“The pending commuter rail service has also attracted investors from the Boston area. They’re starting to acquire some of these properties,” Sullivan said. “With the price appreciation, the owners of these multi-family properties are seeing opportunities to sell. In some instances, investors are coming in and paying a premium for some of these properties that usually you don’t see. Consequently, they’re increasing the rents to cover their mortgage expenses. All that has a trickle-down impact on the renters.”
Lisa White, a landlord who owns seven residential rental properties in New Bedford agreed, adding that “a secondary effect of a really strong real estate market is a really high rental market.”
Said White, “The real estate market is going crazy right now. Every time a property sells, it’s going to sell at a higher rate, and that means the purchaser coming in is going to have to raise the rents to cover their expenses.”
White, one of the administrators of the private Facebook group for local apartment seekers —“Apartments for Rent in the 508 Area” — said she has resisted market pressures to increase her tenants’ rents.
For a one-bedroom apartment, White said she charges $764 a month in rent for minimum-wage workers. Her rents for a two-bedroom apartment ($800) and three-bedroom ($1,000) are now on the lower-end of the spectrum in New Bedford.
“There are some landlords who will poke fun at me, but I believe in the Golden Rule basically,” White said. “I have enough. If you have enough at this level, why charge more? I think greed has a lot to do with this.”
Still, the recent economic fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic did not leave White unscathed. She estimated her pandemic-related losses in rental income, mainly from the eviction moratoriums, to be around $40,000.
“I’m not gonna lie, it’s been a really, really difficult year, beyond anything I’ve ever dealt with,” said White, adding that her husband’s full-time job in the military and cutbacks in expenses enabled them to absorb some of those losses.
Another factor that places a pressure point on the local rental market is the relatively limited supply of housing in Greater New Bedford.
“We’re facing a significant shortage of units here,” White said. “There are not enough housing units available. The city makes it very difficult to build here.”
New Bedford has about 43,000 housing units. Of those, almost 65 percent are multi-family buildings, most of which were built before 1940.
“We’re not seeing a lot of new units come into the inventory because we’re basically a build-out community,” Sullivan said. “We lack very little developable land. Any additional new rental units are usually derived from the adapting and reuse of mills and former school buildings, but not on a scale that meets the demand that’s out there.”
Several of the city’s former mills that have been converted into modern, high-end apartment buildings — such as the Lofts at Wamsutta, Victoria Riverside or the Riverbank Lofts — charge monthly rents of anywhere between $1,550 to more than $2,100.
“When you look at folks who are low-income, say 80 percent below that of the median, that constitutes about 52 percent of our population,” Sullivan said. “Those folks are being particularly impacted by the higher rents.”
The area’s skyrocketing rents are beginning to exceed the reach of people on fixed incomes such as Nicole Canfield, 30, who has been living at the Whaler Inn & Suites on Hathaway Road for several weeks with her three young boys, ages 6, 8 and 9.
“It’s very hard to find a rental, especially when there’s like 400 people going to look at one apartment,” said Canfield, who became homeless in March after she said her previous landlord asked her to move into a smaller apartment infested with mold.
Since then, Canfield estimated that she has applied to “hundreds” of apartments but said she only received call-backs from four landlords.
“They know they can be picky because there are so many people looking for apartments, and it makes it that much harder,” she said. “They want excellent credit. They all want you to make three times the income. They want first, last month and a security deposit. Realistically that’s not possible for a lot of people, not just me.”
Several property owners listing rentals online in New Bedford last week indicated they were seeking prospective tenants to pay rent for the first and last month, plus a security deposit. They also needed to meet a list of other background criteria.
For a listed $1,200 three-bedroom apartment on the 500 block of Brock Avenue, a prospective tenant would have to write a check or money order for $3,600, covering the first and last month’s rent and security deposit They would also need to have a minimum 600 credit score, no prior evictions, and proof that their income was at least three times more than the monthly rent. Plus, they can’t smoke or have pets.
“Just think about it, you gotta come up with first, last, and a security deposit. Even with rental subsidies, it makes it very challenging,” Sullivan said. “So as these rents go up, if you’re looking at $1,200 for a two-bedroom, you gotta come up with $2,400, at least, which is significant for a lot of people.”
White said most people who do not qualify for her apartments do not earn enough income. Of those who pass the income guidelines, some do not have pay stubs, indicating that they might work under the table. Nearly half who do earn enough money, however, have previously been evicted.
“Which is unfortunate,” White said.
Santiago, the apartment-hunter who is staying with her sister in New Bedford, meanwhile, continues to scour the rental listings online and on social media, hoping that eventually something will come through.
“Some of the places I’ve seen were OK, but a lot were not that great for what they were charging,” she said. “Personally, I think $1,000 for a one-bedroom, where nothing is included, to me, is excessive.”
Residential home prices in New Bedford are surging as supply remains low — and local buyers are finding it hard to compete.
As real estate prices increase, there is evidence that low-income residents are being forced out of homes in New Bedford.
“If the city has the political will, it can make any of this work,” said Robert Terrell, a lecturer at Tufts University.
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