SOMERVILLE — Around 1 a.m. on a rainy night in July, Manuel and Teresa came home after an exhausting day of work to find their lives upended once again. Their couch, some of their mattresses, and even the empanadas Teresa had prepared lay on the pavement outside their apartment. Everything was a mess.
Calling it “their apartment” would be generous. For a month, the couple and their four children had been crammed into a single room of a three-bedroom unit in Somerville, with barely enough room to walk to the pair of beds the children shared.
They recently had learned they would have to leave after a city inspector discovered that the apartment’s official tenant, acting as a kind of landlord, was subletting the 1,247-square-foot space to more people than legally allowed. Twelve people were living in the apartment, Manuel and Teresa said.
Days after the inspector’s visit, the pair said, the tenant flew into a rage at being cited by the inspector. Manuel and Teresa were at work when he threw their belongings off of the first-floor balcony as their children — who told their parents they witnessed the act — cowered in the room.
The tenant confirmed to the Globe that he had been subletting to 12 people but denied tossing out the family’s belongings.
“We were praying to God, hoping something would change, telling him we had no place to go,” Manuel said. “Because, truthfully, there was no place to go.”
It would be the blended family’s fifth move, a collection of short, disruptive stays with friends and relatives, since Manuel arrived in Boston in June 2021 after fleeing violence in their native El Salvador. His 21-year-old son migrated to Boston in 2020. Teresa, two of her children, and Manuel’s teenage daughter followed in February, dreaming that here they would finally find a safe haven. Somewhere to call home.
Instead, they landed in the middle of an acute housing crisis, one in which sky-high rents and stagnant wages on the bottom economic rung make it increasingly difficult to gain a foothold. For some, that means evictions and homelessness. And for an untold many, it means doubling up, crowding more people into less space, or renting a single room for what it once cost to rent an entire apartment.
“When I left El Salvador, I was saying, ‘Wow, the United States,’” said Manuel, who requested that the family’s last names not be published because he is unauthorized to be in this country and Teresa and the children have pending asylum cases. “I said to myself that everyone who comes here is successful, that they have the good life. But the reality for those just getting here is you have to suffer for it.”
Overcrowded housing has long been a fact of life for this region’s immigrants and students. But estimates suggest that the number of overcrowded units in the region has soared in the last decade, with conditions in some reminiscent of the tenements of Boston’s distant industrial past or a Dickens novel.
In Suffolk County, the number of rental units with more than one person per room, the federal definition of overcrowding, has jumped by nearly 90 percent between 2010 and 2021, according to US Census Bureau estimates.
In Somerville, the number of overcrowded units has tripled to about 1,100 since 2010, according to the bureau. In immigrant-heavy Chelsea, more than one in 10 units is overcrowded, as families fleeing gentrification in East Boston and other places branch out in search of affordable housing.
Norieliz DeJesus, an organizer with the Chelsea-based advocacy group La Colaborativa, said she frequently encounters three for four families squeezed into two-bedroom apartments. Once, DeJesus said, she worked with 15 people in one apartment. In another, a family rented a boarded-up, second-floor porch for about $700 a month and paid $400 more a month to stick a bed in the pantry.
“It’s really sad,” DeJesus said. “But it’s been a survival mode for most folks, to be able to at least have a roof over their heads.”
The lack of affordable apartments isn’t the only factor. Many recently arrived immigrants, especially asylum seekers and the undocumented, aren’t eligible for most forms of government assistance and don’t have credit histories required to rent an apartment. Frequently, that forces them into under-the-table arrangements with family or informal sublease agreements with a tenant.
The vast majority of overcrowded units violate state square-foot minimums for living and bedroom space, according to Paul Williams, an assistant commissioner in Boston’s housing division. Additionally, Boston, and many other Massachusetts municipalities, have zoning code regulations, aimed mainly at college students seeking cheap off-campus options, that ban renting to five or more unrelated individuals without a special permit, Williams said.
The plight of Manuel and Teresa, as described by them in a series of interviews over the past two months — and confirmed by documents and case workers — encapsulates the range of struggles many face just to keep a roof over their heads.
The couple found their Somerville apartment through friends. The tenant, they said, wrote out a crude sublet agreement by hand on a sheet of printer paper ripped in half. “I RENT A ROOM TO MANUEL ... FOR $900” a month, it read.
The problems began as soon as they arrived, according to Manuel and Teresa. They were supposed to sublet two rooms, but two women already occupying one of the rooms refused to leave — or pay their share — leading to constant disputes.
Relations grew increasingly tense between the family and the other occupants, especially after the city inspector’s July 7 visit. Someone was stealing their food, Manuel said. The children were afraid and began spending almost all of their time inside the room in silence, Teresa said. The girls only went to the bathroom in pairs.
For Dr. Megan Sandel, such stories are all too familiar. As a lead researcher at Children’s HealthWatch, a research group at Boston Medical Center, Sandel has heard about the steady rise in overcrowding over the last few years in interviews with thousands of parents of young patients.
About 30 percent to 40 percent of the parents interviewed by doctors say they live in overcrowded apartments, Sandel said. Such conditions are associated with food insecurity, elevated anxiety for parents, and diminished academic performance for children, she said.
“If there’s literally no place to put the tablet or the computer they sent home with your kid or to be able to do the worksheets, it can be extremely difficult,” Sandel said.
Despite the clash with the official tenant, and the looming threat of a follow-up inspection, the family managed to stay at the apartment through August as Manuel and Teresa looked desperately for an alternative. They both work at a laundry and a restaurant in Somerville. Manuel also works at a grocery store.
Together they earn about $3,000 each month. At that income, a monthly rent of about $1,000 would be considered affordable, said Tim Reardon, the director of data services at the Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Commission.
“Apartments at that rate are practically nonexistent,” he said.
That mismatch between need and cost puts social services agencies serving these tenants in a bind. They don’t want clients to live in overcrowded apartments, but they caution people against reporting them to the city for fear they might be forced to leave, said Catherine Porter, Teresa’s case worker at the Community Action Agency of Somerville.
“[We] have to work with slumlords … because the other option is that the clients are on the street,” Porter said.
As they were being forced out of the Somerville apartment, the couple connected with Porter. But due to their immigration status, there was little the agency could do to help the family find a new place, she said.
Then help came from an unexpected source. The Somerville tenant told the family about an available three-bedroom apartment just around the corner. Manuel and Teresa leapt at the opportunity, but the landlord was asking for $3,500 a month, more than they earn.
Community Action does not normally advise clients to move into something unaffordable, but the situation had become so desperate there was little choice, Porter said. “I’m honestly amazed they were able to find this place,” she said.
The agency used federal relief funds to pay the family’s rent for six months and put down a deposit that might cover a seventh month.
“We all feel good,” Teresa said as she sat around the table in the family’s new spacious dining room on a recent afternoon.
Manuel and Teresa’s long journey began in San Vicente, El Salvador, a provincial city in the country’s center. But by late last year, they said, life had grown more dangerous for them both.
Manuel’s son, who was in college, ran afoul of a powerful drug gang and fled to the United States. Manuel feared he was the next target.
Meanwhile, Teresa’s home life with her husband had become unbearable, she said.
“The children no longer wanted to live with me,” she said. “They saw the problem in the house.”
Manuel and Teresa, who lived in the same neighborhood in San Vicente, had become friends years earlier. In spring of 2021, Manuel embarked on a harrowing journey north to join his son. Separately, Teresa left with her two children and Manuel’s teenage daughter in January this year.
Mostly, Teresa and the three children made the 27-day journey on foot, often under the cover of darkness to evade Mexican police, or worse, the cartels.
Several nights, Teresa said, they spent 12 or 14 hours trekking through the jungles or mountains to reach the next stop. During the days they hid in the woods or in leaky cellars.
They were constantly hungry, she said. The traffickers mostly brought them cookies and whey. Sometimes they brought nothing. The children would plead with Teresa.
“With God’s help, we were able to go without eating,” she said.
They swam across the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas, and were detained by US authorities. Filing for asylum claims, they were released and took buses to Boston where Manuel met them.
Here, they thought, they would finally find respite. But they would have to wait.
Late on the night of Aug. 31, Manuel and Teresa returned from work to Somerville, where, this time, their belongings could be seen neatly packed inside their room. Because of the adults’ work schedules and the start of school, midnight was the only time they could all be together.
So the six family members gathered up their things in bags and bins and headed for the door. Manuel and his son carried mattresses on their heads through the deserted streets, catching the glow of the streetlights, as the family made trips back and forth from the old apartment to the new one around the corner.
When they were all finally settled, around 1:20 a.m., the family gathered in a half circle. They closed their eyes and clasped one another’s hands. Manuel led them in prayer.
“We have a roof, for six months,” he said. “We have a place to sleep — so now everyone who wants to sleep can sleep. And, thank God, we’re together.”
Alexander Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AlMThompson Camilo Fonseca can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @fonseca_esq. Kate Selig was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @kate_selig.