DARTMOUTH — Adriana sits in her car at a shopping center parking lot waiting for someone from the Social Security Administration to interrupt the on-hold music. It’s nearing midday and the sun is breaking through. A jackhammer bangs in the distance, so she keeps the windows closed to hush the noise. The car warms quickly.
On her console sit two thick packets of housing applications to be filled out that afternoon; tucked underneath are matching keys for a storage unit. On the passenger seat is a plastic bag holding water bottles, fruits and a roll that her sister packed for her, but she doesn’t have an appetite.
Behind her are garbage bags, black to hide their clothing contents; a container of uncooked rice (she remarks she doesn’t know why she keeps it); shoes; a pillow and blanket; and a photo album filled with pictures of her family, friends and herself.
She says she has been in the lot for hours, sleeping there the night before in a different spot by the edge with the driver’s seat reclined and the windows open a crack.
Adriana — a 74-year-old sister, mother, widow and grandmother — has been without a home and spending most nights in her car since April.
“Your legs hurt… your whole body aches. I told my sister I’m gonna go crazy. Sometimes I gotta hold my head ‘cause I see my mind it keep going out,” says Adriana, who emigrated from the Azores as a teen. “Thinking, what am I now? Homeless, with the clothes in the car, not knowing what tomorrow’s gonna be. It’s hard. It’s very hard.”
She says her landlord was raising the rent for her two-bedroom unit in Fall River from $800 to $1,400. Unable to pay that, she moved out.
“There was people that come from Boston because the train is coming this way… In Boston, the rents are very high, so they don’t care paying $1,200 or $1,400 to live down here,” she says.
Adriana’s experience of getting “squeezed out” of the housing market due to surges in rent is happening to others in New Bedford and the South Coast, according to housing advocates and community leaders, many of whom have been convening with the community and elected officials to discuss solutions to what they are calling a housing crisis.
“In the last couple of years, there has been a real intensification of the cost of rent,” said Joshua Amaral, assistant executive director at People Acting in Community Endeavors (PACE).
The organization provides limited rental assistance for individuals and families struggling to pay rents or mortgages due to loss of income.
He said a lot of the clients they previously served would rent units at around $1,000 a month, but now they are seeing more and more units reaching the $1,500 range or higher, with even those units now hard to come by.
PACE regularly creates a list for clients of available housing that its staff can find in the area. In its September of 2020 listing, the one-bedroom units ranged from $700 to $875 and two-bedroom units ranged from $900 to $1,000.
According to its more recent list from May of 2022, staff listed one-bedroom units reaching $1,200, and two-bedroom units reaching $1,525.
“We’ve had to edit that list significantly,” he said, noting they have to keep it realistic, even if there are not as many options. “We try to find the very few apartments in the $1,200 to $1,500 a month range and in some cases less. But that’s the best we can do these days.”
Amaral said it’s hard for anybody to find an apartment in the city now, and the issue is further compounded for people who have a “Scarlet Letter” from a past eviction, or who don’t make at least three times their rent in income, which some landlords are requiring.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 19% of people in New Bedford live in poverty, and the median household income for 2016 through 2020 was $48,999.
Fixed income doesn’t provide enough for shelter
Sometimes, Adriana sleeps at her sister’s apartment, taking care to come in past midnight and leave before early morning to avoid nosy neighbors who might see and cause housing issues for her sister.
On a bedside table of one of her sisters are figurines of Santo Christo and Our Lady of Fatima, some of the few items Adriana says she lets her family or friends look after, not wanting to burden them with storing items.
“To me, that represents faith, hope … and Santo Christo, the miracle,” she says.
A black and white photo stands on the dresser of her with her several siblings just before they came to the United States from the Azores when she was a teen. The same photo is tucked into the photo album in her car.
When Adriana came to the United States, she lived with her grandparents in New Bedford and got her first job at 16 as a seamstress making dresses until she had her first child at 20 years old. She later worked at factories in New Bedford and Rhode Island, making pajamas, Converse sneakers and medical equipment for hospitals.
She went back to school to get her GED in her forties, and later on worked at a nursing home. Her second husband died more than a decade ago, which is when she stopped working, and the only source of her fixed income has been the monthly Social Security check.
With monthly insurance, car and cell phone bills, and then the cost for food and fuel, she says the most she can afford for rent is $900 a month — maybe $1,000 if it included utilities. Her siblings and friends help her look for apartment listings, but so far have not found anything, she says.
Amaral said landlords are getting more than 100 applications for their listings and sometimes charge an application fee to cover background checks. With higher demand and people willing to pay higher prices, he said there is little incentive for landlords to keep the rent lower.
“Many landlords own these properties as investments, so they want to maximize their investment,” he said.
For Adriana, that meant leaving her apartment.
“I can’t go over $900. Otherwise, I won’t be able to eat or get some of my pills that I really need,” she says, sharing her struggles with some chronic health issues. “Now, because the people coming from Boston, they take advantage of people who don’t have enough income to raise the rent.”
City leaders and housing advocates look for solutions to crisis
Gentrification has worried locals, and with the promise of the South Coast Rail coming next year and the burgeoning offshore wind industry, there are concerns the issue will only get worse.
“We’ve gotta find better ways to address this, make it more affordable and make accommodations for folks that are getting left behind, because that drags down our entire economy and it drags down all the progress that we’re trying to make in terms of economic development and the great things that are happening with energy and wind,” said Carl Alves, executive director of Positive Action Against Chemical Addiction (PAACA).
Alves has also helped create the new Housing Options for Momentum and Equity (HOME) Group in New Bedford, which had its first community meeting on June 1.
“It seems like there is an intensity now,” Alves said. “We’re seeing rents go way up. We haven’t seen a whole lot of building or development since the recession in 2008. The population continues to grow in our area but the housing stock hasn’t.”
City Councilor Brian Gomes in November of last year introduced a motion that a committee meet to discuss the housing shortage and cost in the city, and that the Mitchell administration explain how it is dealing with the present crisis.
In late May, after the motion sat for months, the council referred it to the new Affordable Housing and Homeless Affairs Committee, established by Council President Ian Abreu. Shane Burgo, who was elected to the City Council last fall, is chairing the committee.
During a meeting hosted by United Interfaith Action, members asked Burgo if he, as chair of that committee, would work to get the City Council to adopt inclusionary zoning, which would require new developments to have a certain number of affordable units.
“I’ll say yes,” he said, noting New Bedford in the next year and a half will see the development of more than 300 units that are designated to be about 60% to 70% affordable housing.
The city announced a housing expansion initiative with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds this year, in which it will provide $250,000 to $2 million to developers that plan to create units of mixed-income housing.
The program is meant to fund large-scale projects that are fully permitted and ready to start construction in a “reasonable” time frame.
According to the city, every project funded through this initiative will be required to provide ongoing evidence that tenants meet income guidelines and owners meet affordable rent guidelines.
Per the city, this means a one-person household at 60% of the median income would have an income cap of $35,340, while rent for a one-bedroom affordable unit would have a cap of $818 per month, including utilities, as an example.
There have been six applicants, with city spokesperson Mike Lawrence stating an announcement on the program will be made later in June.
Long and frustrating wait for many seeking help with housing
Adriana steps into the Immigrants Assistance Center with one of her sisters by her side for help as she nears two months without a home. It’s the first of a few appointments she has in the coming days with local agencies that want to open a case for her and try to help.
Lucia Oliveira, the elder services coordinator at the center, sits behind a plastic divider and asks Adriana for some basic information. Then, she begins making calls.
“She’s homeless and living in her car,” Oliveira tells an organization. “Can you help with anything?”
During one of the last calls, with the phone pressed to her ear, Oliveira knocks her head back and puts her hand on her forehead out of frustration. The call ends soon after.
“This is ridiculous,” she says. “This is not working the way this should be working.”
One apartment complex in Dartmouth told Oliveira that the waiting list is two to three years with no priority, even though Adriana has been living mostly out of her car.
About 6,000 people are on the waiting list for housing with the New Bedford Housing Authority, according to Executive Director Steven Beauregard. He noted the wait can vary depending on applicants’ preferences and priorities.
According to a spokesperson from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, approximately 230,000 applicants are on at least one waitlist at any local housing authority across the state. Of that, about 19,900 are claiming homelessness.
Locally, approximately 1,300 applicants are currently claiming homelessness that are on at least one waitlist for the New Bedford Housing Authority as of April of this year.
The spokesperson said there is no emergency waiting list, but that applicants claiming homelessness are prioritized.
“Homelessness can hit any one of us,” said Helena DaSilva Hughes, executive director of the Immigrants Assistance Center.
Rent is becoming a major concern among the center’s clients, she said, adding that sometimes people come in crying. Oliveira said they see housing issues day to day and that it’s getting worse.
DaSilva Hughes said she would like to see rent control. Credit checks are becoming the norm, she said, and combined with a lack of housing, eviction histories, court cases and other costs, people are getting “squeezed out in so many ways.”
She also said the housing crisis and mental health are intertwined, with the former triggering anxiety and depression for people struggling through it.
Alves, who in his work with PAACA has dealt primarily with people with substance use problems, said homelessness is affecting people across the board, not just those with mental health or substance use disorders.
The Light last summer reported a 27-year-old woman was also living in her car for a few months until a relative took her in. She could not find an apartment in her price range after choosing not to renew her lease.
The city this month released its annual “point-in-time” survey of people experiencing homelessness in New Bedford. It is a sampling of who is experiencing homelessness in the city at, as its name suggests, a single point in time.
The count includes “sheltered” (meaning in transitional or emergency housing) and “unsheltered” (living on the streets or in places not meant for human habitation).
Alves said one of the fastest sectors of the population that is becoming homeless is the elderly population.
Lawrence said by email that homelessness advocates nationally have expressed concern that the “sizable, aging Baby Boomer generation” will become more reflected in homeless populations.
He said the evidence for that trend has not appeared locally to a “significant degree,” but that it’s an issue that will be important to monitor in the coming years.
According to the city’s point-in-time data, three of the 43 unsheltered people counted in 2021 were 61 years or older, and in 2022, it was seven out of 61 who were 61 years or older and unsheltered. The city could not pull the age data for individuals who were sheltered, citing federal data requirements.
For now, Adriana lives like a shadow, moving around the city
During the day, Adriana sometimes drives around or goes near the water, watching and sometimes chatting with passersby and their dogs. For a time, it helps her get out of her head and away from her worries.
When night comes, Adriana parks in a lot or on a residential street under a light and near her sister’s apartment, just in case something should happen. Some nights, she will sleep at her sister’s place.
She takes care not to park in the same place so as to not arouse any suspicion.
Most of the time, she says she sleeps with the windows closed to stay safe from a potential break in, and wakes often due to outside noises or physical discomfort.
With the weather warming, she’ll turn the car on and off for bursts of air conditioning. If it gets too hot, she’ll go to her sister’s apartment if she can.
“I don’t wanna bother my brothers and my sisters, so I sleep in my car,” she says. “I go one street, then my friend’s street, then one of my sister’s street… I’m afraid in the night.”
She says her children and grandchildren don’t know that she has been mostly living out of her car, and she wants to keep it that way because she doesn’t want to worry them. As for her friends and family who do know, she repeats she does not want to burden them.
“I believe this is my thing, I never wanted to bother nobody,” she says. “They say in Portuguese, the bones after three days, it stinks.”
In other words, when someone stays too long, they become an unwelcome sight.
“They married, they got their husbands and their grandkids to take care of. They don’t need me to impose, one more mouth to eat and all that. I don’t want that.”
She’s grateful she has her car, but notes it’s also a monthly payment that eats up what she could put toward rent.
“When you are younger you can take it better. You can go to work and you can go and sleep outside … At my age, I can’t, I can’t work because of my heart.”
She says she sometimes cries, with the weight of her housing situation sitting heavy on her head and heart. Family and friends call to check in on her and ask where she is. Sometimes she is nearby, but doesn’t share that.
“Every day I ask [God], please help me,” Adriana says. “Give me light, and everybody that is in my condition, give ‘em something they can sleep comfortably.”
Email Anastasia E. Lennon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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