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‘A dire situation’: Surging rents and housing shortage spark homelessness in Lawrence

Natividad Dulyx became homeless when she moved to Lawrence in 2019 from Puerto Rico. She has since moved into the Lazarus House Ministries transitional housing apartments with her two children Victor and Nailys.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

LAWRENCE — Natividad Dulyx is in command as she works the floor at the Lazarus House Ministries soup kitchen, weaving between long tables lined with hungry patrons, toting trays of steaming rice, beans, and stewed meats.

“¿Cómo está la comida?” “How is the food?” she asks a young mother, who is seated with two children at a corner table.

“Very good,” the woman replies in Spanish. “Reminds me of home.”

For just a moment, Dulyx pauses. Home. The word stirs anxiety in the 47-year-old mother of five, who herself lives at Lazarus House’s temporary transitional housing program while working full time in the soup kitchen.

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Dulyx was homeless when she first moved to the continental United States in 2019, and she can stay at Lazarus House for only two years. Now, it seems, market-rate units in the city have become too expensive for her income, and there simply isn’t enough subsidized housing to meet demand.

“I am always thinking about where we will go after this,” Dulyx said. “I worry we will be back where we started, with nothing.”

There are many more people like Dulyx in Lawrence, by some measures the poorest city in the state and one where a regionwide housing crisis is taking a particularly steep toll. Housing instability has long gripped the city, where people from surrounding Merrimack Valley towns often go in hopes of finding affordable housing and social services, and rent increases fueled by a lack of supply and a growing population have pushed hundreds to the brink of homelessness, or the streets.

Natividad Dulyx spoke to patrons at the Lazarus House Ministries soup kitchen on a recent afternoon.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Mayor Brian De Peña said in July that the situation had come to a head, appealing for state aid as he announced the city would begin clearing out a pair of homeless encampments beneath bridges that cross the Merrimack River.

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Today, those encampments are mostly gone, save for a few stragglers, but signs — and stories — abound of the city’s poverty and housing struggles. The seemingly endless line for prepackaged bags of food at Lazarus House. The tent tucked behind a warehouse, its residents’ belongings strewn in the grass. A woman in a tattered white shirt asking for change at an intersection.

“We have never seen anything like what we’re seeing in Lawrence right now,” said Kelly Townsend, who spent two decades working in Lawrence homeless shelters. “We still have our chronically homeless folks, but there’s this new wave of people who are becoming homeless for the first time, who work full time but can’t afford the rent anymore. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s overwhelming.”

A onetime manufacturing powerhouse that fell on hard times as its mills closed, Lawrence has seen its population rebound since the 1980s, thanks largely to a steady influx of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. In recent years, residents of the Boston area have increasingly turned to Lawrence, too, as rents near the city have ticked up. In 2020, the census counted 89,000 residents, 25,000 more than in 1980 and nearly back to the city’s 1920 peak of 94,000.

Housing production, meanwhile, has not kept pace. A 2015 city report found that in the prior two decades, Lawrence’s population had grown by about 20 percent, while housing production had increased by only 2 percent.

“This is something we’re seeing across the state: there is a significant deficit in the number of units we’re creating,” said Jerrard Whitten, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission. “Then you look at somewhere like Lawrence, which is one of the few areas in the state that has a growing population, and you can understand how you end up with an acute [housing] shortage.”

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To be sure, the city has seen a new wave of development over the past decade, particularly in the old Mill District, a historic textile hub that was rezoned to allow for residential use. Several mixed-use and affordable housing developments have since sprouted up there.

But enough to match the city’s burgeoning population?

“Not even close,” said Jessica Andors, executive director of Lawrence Community Works, a local affordable housing group.

Even before the pandemic sent housing costs soaring across the state, “doubling” and “tripling up,” or packing two to three families in a two- or three-bedroom apartment, was commonplace, Andors said. The city has long had one of the poorest populations in Massachusetts, with 18 percent of residents reporting income below the poverty line in 2020. And a Boston Foundation report that year indicated Lawrence had the third-highest rate of “crowded” housing — defined as more than one occupant per room — in the state.

And for years, market-rate construction has lagged for simple reasons of economics. The rents a landlord can fetch in Lawrence are lower than points closer to Boston, but construction costs are comparable, meaning a developer gets a higher return on investment by building elsewhere.

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Lately, though, that lack of supply has caused the cost of housing to balloon. The average three-bedroom apartment rents for $2,270 a month, up from around $2,000 this time last year and $1,790 in 2020, according to the rental website Zumper.

“Now that landlords have incentives to jack up rents or sell their properties, we’re seeing many of these people who were extremely close to homelessness being displaced,” Andors said. “It has created a dire situation for our residents. We cannot build more housing fast enough.”

The dynamics here ring similar to those in other poor, largely immigrant cities in Massachusetts like Chelsea and Lynn, where the populations, especially of Latinos, have swollen in recent decades and development has not kept pace.

But in Lawrence, the housing shortage is particularly profound, and it has created a homeless population that is wide-ranging in its demographics and experiences.

Joey Lagasse, 63, had lunch at the Good Shephard Center Community Kitchen in August. He is on Social Security and lives in a rooming house in Lawrence.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The most recent official count by the city — conducted in January 2020 — estimated Lawrence’s homeless population at around 230. Advocates say that figure is likely higher now, though it is difficult to gauge how much.

And there are hundreds more who have a place to stay, but are “one life event away,” said Carmen Vega, Lazarus House’s executive director. “You lose your job, or you lose your child care, and you can end up at our shelter the next day.”

There are other challenges that contribute to rising homelessness in Lawrence. Some residents are still struggling to recover from the gas explosions that rocked the city four years ago, displacing thousands and sparking a new wave of economic instability. Others wrestle with addiction. Townsend, the former Lawrence shelter director who is now a health services worker in Methuen, meets people who came to Lawrence from Mass. and Cass, the pocket of Boston that has become the center of the regional opioid epidemic.

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And some contend that Lawrence’s abundance of resources for those without housing exacerbates the problem, by attracting people in need from neighboring Merrimack Valley communities that lack robust services of their own.

“Why is it that it is only the city of Lawrence dealing with this?” City Councilor Marc Laplante told the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in July, arguing that surrounding communities should step up their efforts.

Regardless, the city’s resources are being pushed to their limits. Each of Lawrence’s three shelters is at capacity, with dozens of people on waiting lists. Demand for affordable housing is immense.

A new building with 39 affordable units on Essex Street received more than 3,000 applications, said Evelyn Friedman, executive director of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, the housing group that owns the units.

All of that demand ultimately compounds on people like Dulyx, who slipped into homelessness when she moved to Lawrence from Puerto Rico in 2019, after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, and the father of her children, a Lawrence resident, urged her to bring her two youngest kids somewhere safer.

Three years later, she has a job and a place for her and her children, 11 and 13, to live. The kids just began the school year last week. But still, she fears she will end up on the street again.

“They love it,” she said of Lawrence. “But I don’t know if they’ll be able to stay.”

An aerial view of the mills along the Merrimack River in Lawrence, with Route 495 in the foreground.Jim Davis

Andrew Brinker can be reached at andrew.brinker@globe.com. Follow him @andrewnbrinker.