NEW BEDFORD — Former tenants of the apartment complex on Elm Street, who were given a month to move out by the building’s new owner, have struggled to move on.
Terra Incognita Partners bought the building in late September, then threatened to file for eviction if residents didn’t leave by Nov. 1. The result was a rushed move-out that left some of the tenants in unstable situations.
One tenant is struggling to afford her new apartment. Another said the stress of moving led to an injury at work, and now he’s homeless and couch surfing. A third tenant found an affordable place, but he won’t give up the fight to save his neighbors from gentrification.
A group of investors appears to be behind Terra Incognita, but it isn’t clear who really owns the company, thanks to lax disclosure requirements. Its subsidiaries have poured almost $4.9 million into New Bedford real estate in just two years.
Terra Incognita’s property manager, Isaiah Osofisan, has declined or not responded to numerous requests for comment since the Elm Street eviction crisis began, including a request on Tuesday.
You won’t see LW in eviction court this month — she found an apartment and moved out of the Elm Street complex last week. But she’s not sure how long she can stay there.
“The not knowing what your next move is is probably the hardest part, especially if you’ve never been without housing,” said LW, who asked The Light to only use her initials. “It’s scary, ‘cause at one point I’m like, ‘Well damn, I’m gonna have to live in my car with my cat.’”
An eviction can be like a scarlet letter in the age of tenant screening software. LW wasn’t sure if any landlord would rent to her ever again if Terra Incognita took her to court.
She reached out to the Elm Street building’s old property manager, and he offered her a one-bedroom unit in the North End. The monthly rent was nearly $1,300.
“I wasn’t going to find anything much cheaper than that around here anyway,” LW said. She had seen plenty of apartment listings before calling the property manager.
A rent payment like that wasn’t going to be easy — it’s more than $500 higher than Elm Street. LW normally works in human resources, but right now she’s working as a substitute teacher while she’s between jobs, so she doesn’t have a lot of money to spend. With school holidays coming up, she’ll have even less.
She took the apartment anyway. The way she saw it, she could sign this lease to keep a roof over her head, or risk eviction while she looked for something more affordable. Meanwhile, she said she might have to dip into her savings.
“I’m pretty damn stressed,” she said. “‘What the hell am I gonna do?’ is my question, when it’s time to come up with the rent.”
LW said she has some ramen noodle dinners ahead of her if she can’t find a new job or a cheaper apartment. She’s put in dozens of job applications, but only gotten two callbacks.
She’s still angry at Terra Incognita for only giving her a month to find a new place.
“I totally get that you’re a businessperson, you have to make money — that’s fine,” she said. “But the way that they did us was just uncalled for.”
Henry Burnett couldn’t take his mind off the move.
He had managed to find an apartment not far from Elm Street, but the rent was going to be $1,300 a month — a payment he would struggle to make, and a far cry from the $800 he had been paying before. His move-in date was just a week away.
Burnett kept worrying — even when he was at his job, where he does custom woodworking.
“I build cabinets for million-dollar houses, so my game has to be sharp. I have to really concentrate for my job,” he said. “It was stressing the hell out of me.”
He was cutting a piece of wood with an electric saw when the accident happened. The wood slipped, spun around in the air, and took out a chunk of his hand. In 26 years of carpentry Burnett said he had never had an accident like this, but now his hand is in a cast and he’s about to have his second surgery on it. He said he thinks the stress is why he lost focus and got hurt.
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Burnett is out of work for at least six weeks while he recovers. He had to give up his new apartment because he can’t afford it anymore — now he’s scraping by on workers’ compensation, which is just 60% of his normal pay.
“I’m down and out and basically homeless. Right now, I’m trying to bunk around,” he said. “It kind of sucks, being down during the holidays. My hands are my money.”
He’s staying with friends until he can get back to work. Sticking around at Elm Street wasn’t an option because he didn’t want to risk an eviction court battle.
“There’s nothing you can really do,” he said. “You can play toe-to-toe lawyers with them, but how long are you gonna play that out? They got money and power.”
Burnett laughed when he was asked if he knew when he would start looking for an apartment again.
“Everything’s been turned upside down for me,” he said. “I don’t want to think about it right now, I just want to heal.”
Righting a wrong
Joe Quigley finally got an apartment in his budget.
“Here’s the servant’s quarters,” he joked as he walked up the second flight of stairs to his new place.
Quigley stepped up into the attic of the Victorian house. The hallway smelled like cigarettes. He opened the door to his living room, filled with many of the knick knacks that had decorated his Elm Street apartment — figurines of cartoon characters, a marionette puppet, and even his plastic dinosaur skeletons. He apologized for the mid-moving messiness.
Paint peels from the unit’s slanted walls. The floors are blue and white linoleum. Past a narrow doorway, the bedroom also serves as a kitchen. But the rent is affordable for Quigley, a retired teacher who lives on a fixed income.
“It’s not paradise,” he said. “It’s not where I thought I would end up in my old age, but it’s good.”
Quigley said he’s relieved that he isn’t facing eviction anymore. Still, he wonders what will happen to LW, Burnett, and his other neighbors in difficult positions.
“I don’t want to just walk away, like ‘Oh, he lucked out,’” Quigley said. “The wrong is not righted yet.”
Quigley has proposed a range of policies to prevent another crisis like what happened on Elm Street. Some the city could theoretically implement, while others would need state approval.
The policies would give tenants more time to find a new apartment when a landlord wants to evict them. They would also put limits on rent increases and require that a certain percentage of all renovated apartments be set aside for low-income renters.
Quigley also wants the city to have an office that people can call to get help with an eviction. City staff could tell tenants about their rights, he said, and direct them to local resources.
“Something like a hotline,” he said. “A central place where they could put you in touch with anybody you need to save your ass.”
Local nonprofits rushed to provide housing and legal services to Elm Street tenants after The Light reported on the crisis. But the city government hasn’t taken any action to address the situation, short of letting tenants join yearslong waitlists for public housing.
The Elm Street crisis didn’t even come up at the City Council’s Affordable Housing and Homeless Affairs Committee meeting on Monday. The committee’s chair, Councilor Shane Burgo, said the City Council would have had to pass a motion for the committee to discuss it.
The half-hour session was the first time the committee came together since news of the evictions became public weeks ago, yet the only thing on the agenda was a year-old motion to discuss how the city was addressing the broader housing crisis. It ended early because some city staff who were invited couldn’t make it.
Meanwhile, Quigley worries that developers like Terra Incognita won’t stop wielding their power and money against tenants with few resources.
“It’s going to keep happening,” he said. “And it’s going to get worse.”
Email Grace Ferguson at firstname.lastname@example.org