South Coast’s housing problem needs regional solution
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South Coast’s housing problem needs regional solution

NEW BEDFORD — Leaders from around the South Coast say the housing crisis is a region-wide problem that demands a region-wide solution.

Dozens of local officials and experts gathered at the Whaling Museum on Tuesday for Greater New Bedford’s first regional housing summit. The Housing for All Symposium was hosted by the New Bedford Economic Development Council, which released a report earlier this year that said the region needs to build 8,700 new housing units by the end of the decade to keep up with demand.

“Dealing with the challenges we have in housing has to be a team effort,” New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell told the crowd. 

Establishing a regional approach was a key part of the Building New Bedford Plan, the wide-ranging housing plan that the city launched last year. On Tuesday officials from New Bedford, Dartmouth, and Fairhaven spoke about their plans to support construction. 

Ed Augustus, the secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, praised the city’s plan in his keynote address.

“We need all our communities to do this,” he said. “The cost of housing is too high and that is the greatest threat to the economic competitiveness of the state.”

Augustus called the state’s high housing costs an “existential crisis” because they’re driving young people to leave Massachusetts in search of cheaper markets. The secretary left the summit early to attend a local listening session on housing that his office was running at UMass Dartmouth.

Local leaders gather at the Housing for All Symposium at the New Bedford Whaling Museum on Tuesday. Credit: Grace Ferguson / The New Bedford Light

Suburbs must push for solutions, too

Dartmouth is working on its own housing plan, said Dartmouth Select Board Member David Tatelbaum. The town also has plans to spend more of its Community Preservation Act funds on housing, he said.

Housing development often faces opposition in suburban areas, but Tatelbaum said the town is prepared for the pushback. 

“We’re going to make it a point,” he said. “There’s an absolute need.”

Planning officials from Fairhaven expressed an interest in setting up “smart growth” zoning districts. Both Dartmouth and Fairhaven are also taking steps to expand the allowability of accessory dwelling units, commonly known as in-law apartments. Their current zoning restricts where and how they can be built.

Cities large and small across the country are facing housing shortages. But New Bedford’s housing crisis is different from the crises in larger metro areas, Mitchell said, because it’s not caused by private equity investors or an influx of wealthy tech entrepreneurs.

“It comes from folks being displaced from places where they can’t afford to live anymore,” he said.

Mitchell cited sections of the Economic Development Council’s report explaining that the people moving to New Bedford from other parts of the state — Boston, Brockton, and Cape Cod — tend to have lower incomes than the people who already live here. The people moving to New Bedford are not like the affluent workers flooding to cities like Boston, but instead are the poorest renters being squeezed out of other markets, he said.

That means New Bedford’s housing crisis will require different policies than crises in larger cities like Boston, Mitchell said. He and other leaders called for building a balanced mix of housing to meet demand in all parts of the market, rather than focusing on subsidized, low-income developments that they worried could concentrate poverty in the city.

New Bedford has to “hustle” for development, Mayor Jon Mitchell said when he introduced the plan last year. Construction costs in New Bedford are about the same as other cities, but the rents are much lower here, which means lower returns for developers. Many of them choose to build in other areas where they can turn a higher profit.

Population outpaces housing construction

Ben Forman, a MassInc researcher who led the research for the report, presented a stark series of figures that showed the severity of the housing crisis. The increasing population of Greater New Bedford has far outpaced housing production, the data showed.

“There’s 3,000 new households trying to fit into 1,600 new housing units in the last decade,” he said.

The report also showed that two-thirds of the city’s renters could not afford a typical apartment in the city if they were forced to move today. And Forman said it’s “deeply concerning” that 86% of New Bedford households don’t make enough money to afford a mortgage for a typical home in the city. That’s because wages have not kept up with housing costs, the data showed.

High housing costs are bad for the local economy, Forman explained. They drive away existing businesses and reduce the amount of savings that residents have to start new businesses. The stress of unaffordable housing also can make workers less productive and distract young students.

New Bedford’s middle-income renters “are actually quite well served,” Forman said. But there are major gaps in supply at the extreme high and low ends of the market. That means there’s a market of very low-income renters competing for too few low-priced apartments, and a market of underserved affluent renters who could afford to pay more.

“You gotta build for all types, wherever you can,” Forman said.

Housing production in the region hasn’t bounced back from the Great Recession, Forman said, and it has fallen even more sharply in the suburbs. Those areas will have to think about adding more dense housing, he added.

The gap between supply and demand is projected to deepen, which is why the report called for building 8,700 new units over the next several years.

“I want someone to tell me where in the city we’re going to find space to build 5,400 units,” one attendee said during a Q&A, referencing the number of new units that need to be located in New Bedford city limits.

Forman responded that a surprising number of units can be added through smart redevelopment of existing space, often known as “infill.” Josh Amaral, New Bedford’s housing director, later said the city is getting creative by focusing on smaller projects and revamping vacant buildings.

Buyers battle high interest rates, bidding wars 

Leaders in real estate and banking described a cutthroat housing market for would-be buyers. A local banker said many mortgage applications sit in pre-approval for a long time as buyers struggle to win bidding wars. High interest rates in the 7% range are also a challenge.

“There is definitely a housing crisis and I am in the thick of it,” said Donna Davids, Southeastern Massachusetts Regional vice president for the Massachusetts Association of REALTORS. “There’s no availability.” 

Davids said homes that hold open houses on a Saturday can get 30 offers by the next Monday. She recently sold a house to a cash buyer who paid $125,000 over the asking price.

Some people sold their homes to cash out their equity during the pandemic, when property values were high, she said. They rented for a few years, and now, they’re back on the market for a home — with plenty of money to spend and no worries about a high mortgage interest rate.

Collaboration must continue

Local leaders said the event helped set the stage for more collaboration between communities moving forward. Throughout the event, they shared ideas on ways to fund more development, update zoning, and support developers.

Tony Sapienza, president of the Economic Development Council, said he hoped the event would be the first of many gatherings. He said Tuesday’s meeting educated leaders on the magnitude of the problem and solutions that could work.

“We all learned a few things,” he said.

Email Grace Ferguson at [email protected]

Editor’s note: Tony Sapienza is a member of The New Bedford Light’s Board of Directors. The New Bedford Light’s newsroom is scrupulously independent. Only the editors decide what to cover and what to publish. Founders, funders and board members have no influence over editorial content.

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