NEW BEDFORD — With rents averaging $750 in New Bedford, about half the cost of Boston and other metro area housing, some city and neighborhood leaders are questioning whether New Bedford has become a magnet for the poor.
“This is a conversation the community needs to have,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell. “New Bedford can’t be seen as a community of last resort. We need to be seen as a community of choice.”
Since entering office four years ago, Mitchell said he believes an influx of low-income people to the city is one of the major challenges to the city with implications for “neighborhood stability, school performance and economic competitiveness.”
“I have been concerned for sometime about the influx of dependency into New Bedford,” said Mitchell. “It’s evident based on numerous conversations with school officials, police and residents across the city. It’s pretty clear that there are major demographic shifts taking place in the city in which individuals displaced from much more expensive housing markets like Boston and New York are flocking to the much lower cost housing market here.”
According to the U.S. Census, the median home value in New Bedford is $202,500, while the median rent in the city is $757.
In comparison, the median value of a home in Boston is $381,700. The median rent in Boston is $1,263.
Statewide, home values average $327,200. Median rent in the state is $1,077.
The percentage of families whose income in the past 12 months was below the poverty level was 24.9 percent in New Bedford, compared to 17.7 percent in Boston.
Those figures could lead many low-income people out of Boston and into New Bedford and other gateway cities, city officials said.
“Folks that are living in higher rental markets are getting priced out in Boston,” said Patrick Sullivan, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development. “People are gravitating to areas with more affordable rental units. I think these cities outside of Boston are where people are gravitating to.”
Sullivan said the gateway cities, including Fall River, Lowell, Springfield, Lawrence and Brockton, are bearing the burden of Boston’s expensive housing market.
“The gateway cities have similar types of challenges. We are trying to embrace the combination of having low-to-moderate income folks rather than moderate-to-high income people and determine how that community adjusts.”
“Generally cities like New Bedford and Fall River have housing stock that is more affordable,” said Steven Smith, retired executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District, or SPREDD. “It’s a natural fit that poorer people will be able to find housing in New Bedford (rather) than surrounding towns.”
“It’s not unique to New Bedford. It obviously puts a burden on the city in terms of social services — that’s why some cities have argued they shouldn’t have to accept more affordable housing and they’re doing their fair share,” said Smith.
Mitchell has made housing in the city a key priority of his administration, creating a Neighborhood Task Force, made up of city solicitors, health and building inspectors and the Fire Department, to essentially sweep up the city. The task force’s main tool is issuing code violations to landlords to clean up and fix properties.
The city’s new problem properties ordinance, signed into law in April, is a second tool, “aimed at landlords who don’t monitor their properties,” to improve neighborhoods, Mitchell said. A problem property is one in which there has been eight valid police complaints in the preceding 12 months, for any misdemeanor or felony under Massachusetts law.
“We’ve had many instances where absentee landlords have brought people from other places into New Bedford and caused wider problems in neighborhoods as a result,” Mitchell said.
The city is also not building any more public housing, Mitchell said.
Currently, there are 44 housing developments in the city: 1,756 federal units, 749 state units and 1,900 Section 8 units. There is a waitlist for Section 8 housing of 2,500, according to the Housing Authority.
“We never want to be seen as a city that is not welcoming of others,” said Mitchell. “New Bedford’s willingness to embrace newcomers is one of our greatest strengths. We also know that concentrating poverty in a particular place can lead to big problems.”
The New Bedford Housing Authority, the government agency that administers public housing, says the opposite: people are not coming from out of town.
“Our statistics don’t bear that,” said Executive Director Steven Beauregard. “We do give preferences to New Bedford residents. We found most of the people in public housing are from New Bedford.”
According to the latest data available at the Housing Authority, of 100 applications taken in 2012 for Section 8 housing, 90 applicants have lived in New Bedford for the past five years and 10 applicants were non-residents.
Beauregard said the nature of public housing has changed from that of simply providing a place to live to providing social services. He said it is not about who is in public housing, but breaking the cycle of poverty and helping people become more self-sustaining.
According to a study by the UMass Dartmouth Public Policy Center, called “SouthCoast Urban Indicators Project,” the majority of people in the southeastern cities, New Bedford and Fall River, are renters and tenement housing continues to dominate the housing landscape in both cities.
But there hasn’t been a dramatic population shift, the data shows. The population of New Bedford has declined since the 1970s by 6.6 percent, according to the nonpartisan policy center. Between 2000 and 2010, it declined by 1.4 percent. The project did not have data on where people are coming from.
“The reasons why people move are not solely connected to the cost of living,” said Dr. Michael Goodman, executive director of the Public Policy Center. “People of working age move in a way that allow them to access job opportunities.”
If people were attracted to cities solely for affordable housing, Goodman said, there would be a similar correlation between the vacancy rate and housing rents. Data doesn’t show that where rents are lower, vacancy rates are lower, Goodman said.
“We would expect areas with the lowest rents to have the lowest vacancy rates,” Goodman said. “If low rents were a magnet for Boston area residents, we’d expect lower vacancy rates.
According to the 2012 SouthCoast Urban Indicators Project, in New Bedford, the median rent is $766 and the rental vacancy rate is 6.1 percent. The lowest rent is in the South End at $729 per month. But that same neighborhood has the highest vacancy rate in the city at 7.9 percent. The SouthCoast Urban Indicators Project was designed by the UMass Dartmouth policy center to provide information on the housing, education, economic, health and environment of Bristol County cities for residents and policymakers.
“When I look at those two facts, it doesn’t look like to me that anyone is being magnetically attracted here,” Goodman said.
Neighborhood leaders say that the nature of housing in the city has changed and not for the better.
“I think we do have too many homes that are low-income housing,” said Loretta Bourque, president of the Cove Street Neighborhood Association. “When you get around to it, you have so many of these absentee landlords who have low income people that live in their properties.
The city has enough low-income housing, said Celine Saraiva, president of the Clark’s Point Neighborhood Association in the South End.
“I think we have enough. I don’t want to see anymore low income housing,” Bourque added.
Neighborhood leaders contend there is an issue of both absentee landlords and tenants not maintaining their properties and homes.
“Way back when, people owned their home and lived in it. That’s something we don’t have much in the city today,” said Bourque. “Everyone took care of things. They did it because they felt pride in their homes. If only we could get back to that what a big difference there would be.”
“Years ago, homes were owner occupied,” said Ken Resendes, president of the Bullard Street Neighborhood Association in the North End. “Now it’s absentee landlords. You can see the shift in the neighborhoods.”
“The city of New Bedford has a terrible problem with absentee landlords,” said Saraiva. “They should be more strict when people fill out applications. I don’t know where they come from. People say they are coming from Boston.”
Beauregard counters that the problem isn’t that out-of-towners are moving to New Bedford. It is the lack of jobs, he said.
“There are no jobs anymore. To me, that’s your biggest problem. People who don’t have educational attainment say ‘I want to work, but where do I go?’”
Steven Smith at SPREDD said there needs to be a balance between more market rate housing in New Bedford and affordable housing in the suburbs.
“New Bedford needs more market rate housing to bring the middle class back that fled the city in the 1970s and 1980s,” he said.
Smith said South Coast Rail could be the key to bringing mixed use housing to the city and attracting people who want to commute to Boston by train.
With its numerous summer festivals and cultural events, Smith said “the city is doing a lot to make it more attractive.”
The National Historical Park, established on 13 city blocks in 1996, has also raised the city’s status, Smith said.
“It makes an enormous difference in the attractiveness of the city,” Smith said.
The $650 million casino proposed for New Bedford’s waterfront could also be the answer to the city’s problems, neighborhood leaders said.
“Maybe the casino will be a spike in jobs for people in the city,” Resendes said.