The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
CHELSEA — Chelsea faced a housing crisis before COVID-19. The pandemic just made it worse.
Now, people are fighting to keep these intertwined crises from spiraling out of control.
As a second wave of COVID-19 cases rolls into Greater Boston, and housing advocates gird for a feared flood of evictions of renters who’ve been out of work for months, Chelsea is once again emerging as the center of the storm.
But pressures on the city’s housing market long predate the virus, and many worry they’ll accelerate after it’s over.
For decades, Chelsea has been an immigrant community, a relatively affordable entry point for newcomers to expensive Greater Boston. In recent years, as rents have climbed in nearby communities such as East Boston and Revere, even more people have found their way to Chelsea, squeezing into the city’s aging three-deckers and brick row houses.
“You’ll find 25 or 30 people sometimes living in a three-bedroom apartment,” said City Councilor Damali Vidot. “Entire families living in one room. People are doing what they have to do.”
When the pandemic hit, those crowded apartments became petri dishes for the virus. A report by the Boston Foundation in July found that the city had both Massachusetts' highest rate of overcrowded housing, and by far its highest rate of COVID-19 infections, much more than in cities such as Somerville and Cambridge that have similarly dense populations but far less crowded housing.
The reason was clear, said Rafael Mares, chief executive of affordable housing nonprofit The Neighborhood Developers.
“Doubling and tripling up becomes a really dangerous situation,” said Mares, who noted that infection rates, even in Chelsea, are significantly lower in traditional affordable housing where occupancy limits are enforced. "When you’re living with your whole family in one room, the virus can really spread.”
That spread is what he and other housing advocates worry will happen if a much-feared wave of evictions hits this winter. Renters pushed from their apartments over unpaid rent will move in with relatives and friends, and crowding would only get worse. Subletters — who are common in crowded apartments — lack the same legal protections as regular tenants, making them even more vulnerable.
With the state’s eviction moratorium ended and housing courts back open, counselors and legal aid clinics are gearing up to advise tenants facing eviction. Community groups like La Colaborativa are offering help with the complex application process for state rental relief. And Chelsea is readying another $1.25 million in aid of its own; the first time the city offered cash to tenants this spring, it received 1,500 applications, five times what they could give out.
“There’s just an immense amount of need,” said Alexander Train, the city’s director of housing and community development. “This dwarfs any single municipality’s ability to address it.”
Some in Chelsea are thinking longer term, too. Along with the rent-relief program, the city is taking applications for a $1.25 million program to help out homeowners and small landlords — many of whom are struggling to keep their buildings with tenants unable to pay the rent. Investors and developers have been circling Chelsea for years, and many here look at neighborhoods such as East Boston ― where new landlords are scooping up buildings and pushing out working-class immigrants ― as a cautionary tale.
“Gentrification was already happening in Chelsea. This is just accelerating it,” said Colaborativa chief operating officer Dinanyili Paulino. “This could tear apart the fabric of what makes us a community.”
Long term, part of the solution could be more homeownership. More than 75 percent of the housing in Chelsea today is rental, according to Census data. Creating more opportunities for people to buy would stabilize the city, and help people put down roots, said Roy Avellaneda, president of the Chelsea City Council and a real estate agent.
“We need people to be able to own something and stay here and not have to move to Lynn or Lawrence,” he said. “We’re losing our working class.”
Vidot agrees. She’s been pushing for affordable housing of all kinds, and the sort of jobs that help people pay for it. But all that takes time and the crisis in Chelsea is happening now. She worries about what the city might look like when it’s over.
“Either we’re going to become a ghost town,” she said, “Or we’re going to be super gentrified and no one who looks like me is going to live here.”
Read more about Chelsea and explore the full On the Street series.