LAWRENCE — This is a city still trying to remake its image as a dangerous and impoverished place, where illicit drugs are easily available on the streets and in the bars, where the state runs the schools and controls spending at City Hall, and where September's gas disaster left many nervous about turning on their stoves.
Now Lawrence has another problem: where to house the growing number of people who want to live here.
The city's population surpassed 80,000 last year, up 10,000 over a decade and the highest since 1950, according to the U.S. Census. Similar growth over the next decade would bring the population close to its historic high of 94,000 residents in 1920.
For most cities, growth like that would be a source of pride. Certainly it is for Lawrence.
But unlike most cities, Lawrence has little room left for growth. Neighborhoods are all but built out, at least under current zoning, and the converted mills are filling up fast.
The result is overcrowded schools, families doubling up in apartments, developers flipping homes, and landlords in search of higher rents evicting tenants and displacing businesses.
There's also the surging rents themselves, which may have reached a record high last year when 169 apartments opened at Pacific Mills, a century-old textile mill that now offers residential tenants an internet cafe, a small private movie theater, a room for washing and grooming dogs, an exercise room and impressive views of the Merrimack River through oversized windows.
The rent for a three-bedroom apartment is just under $3,000 a month.
“We've been busy here,” said Robert Ayars, a leasing agent at Pacific Mills. “We have only a handful of units that are currently available.”
The growing demand for housing is reaching beyond the trendy renovated lofts that are filling up with young professionals beginning their careers in Boston who can't afford the even-steeper rents there. It's also playing out in Lawrence's neighborhoods of one- and two-family homes that attract couples with children.
“It's crazy right now,” said Deborah Carberry, a Realtor who does most of her business in South Lawrence neighborhoods. “When I left my office today, there was nothing in Mount Vernon on the market.”
PERSISTENT AND GROWING PROBLEM
Lawrence's housing shortage has been developing for longer than a decade and was one of the first issues Mayor Daniel Rivera addressed after taking office five years ago, when he hired a Boston planning firm to propose fixes.
The firm, Abacus Architects and Planners, warned that Lawrence “is increasingly approaching build-out with little developable property remaining.” It urged the city to find ways to step-up construction, including by coordinating with nonprofit organizations that build housing, such as Lawrence Community Works.
Lawrence Community Works last year opened 73 affordable apartments in the Duck Mill and is planning a new building with 80 affordable apartments farther down Island Street.
Most other new housing also is at the former mills, where developers are stampeding to capture the demand, sometimes evicting businesses so that the spaces they occupied for decades could be converted to apartments, as happened at Pacific Mills.
At four mills – the Pacific and Newark mills on the Merrimack River, the Van Brodie Mill on Broadway and another former mill on Franklin Street – a total of 796 market-rate and affordable apartments are scheduled to open in 2019.
Even more are planned, including on Merrimack Street, where Sal Lupoli said he will open 200 apartments in the last unfinished section of his Riverwalk development; and on Essex Street, where the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council plans to build 39 apartments in an empty building at the lot next door.
But the housing shortage persists as the city's population growth outpaces the new housing and as older housing – more than half the city's housing was built before 1939 – is abandoned, lost to fire or otherwise comes off the market.
The city lost a net of 1,065 housing units between 2010 and 2017, even as developers were beginning to convert the mills, according to the U.S. Census. That helped drive the occupancy rate for owner-occupied homes to more than 99 percent last year, according to Census data. For rental apartments, the rate was 96 percent.
High occupancy rates are better than low ones, but they come with their own set of problems. When they get too high, they push up housing costs and cause other headaches for communities, including at the schools.
The value of a single-family home in Lawrence grew an average of $27,300 last year, to $240,300, a 7.8 percent increase that came on top of a 10.8 percent increase the year before, city Assessor Alexcy Vega said in a report to the City Council last month. In all, the value of residential property in the city increased $33 million last year as new housing came on the market and the prices of existing homes jumped.
The median monthly rent in Lawrence increased 16 percent between 2010 and 2017, from $922 to $1,067, according to the Census. People who track the data locally, including Juan Bonilla, deputy director of Lawrence Community Works, say the increase has been much greater. Bonilla pointed to Zillow.com, a website that lists rentals.
On a recent day, the website listed 78 rentals in Lawrence. All of them rented for between $1,000 (for a one-bedroom apartment on Salem Street) and $1,856 (for a three-bedroom on Marston Street).
James Nyette, who owns a three-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of the two-family home where he lives on Sunset Avenue in North Lawrence, fetched $1,500 a month for it in the lease he signed in November, up 36 percent from the $1,100 he had been getting.
“I'm surrounded by multifamily homes, owner occupied two-, three-family homes,” Nyette said. “There's nobody not getting at least $1,500.”
SHORTAGE TENTACLES HAVE REACH
In April, then-acting Superintendent of Schools Mary Lou Bergeron threw a bucket of cold water on anyone cheerleading the increased property values brought on by the growing demand. She warned that the city's already overcrowded schools will be pushed further beyond their limits by the 1,083 new students she projected would enroll over the next two years as more housing developments opens.
The increase since 2012 would be 26 percent, over a period when no new schools have been built or existing ones significantly expanded. Some classrooms already have 30 students, Bergeron said.
Traditional neighborhood school boundaries are being shifted to shuffle elementary and middle-school students to wherever space remains. Classrooms devoted to arts and other extra-curricular subjects are being converted to traditional instruction spaces.
Some relief for the schools will come over the next several years, when the city will rebuild the Oliver and Leahy elementary schools at a cost of $77 million. The expansions will double the capacity of the two buildings to 1,000 students each, but the rebuilt Oliver won't open until 2021 and the Leahy won't open till 2024. In the meantime, Bergeron asked the council to rethink the city's housing policy to one less stressful on the schools.
“We've seen a huge growth over the last decade or so and we know we have more students coming,” Bergeron warned.
Other headaches and mixed blessings brought on when housing construction can't keep up with demand include families that subdivide their apartments and subdivide them again to move in relatives and friends or to make the rent affordable. The overcrowding can overload antiquated wiring installed in the days before air conditioners, microwaves and computers.
Jessica Andors, executive director of Lawrence Community Works, said the extent of the doubling-up became apparent after the Sept. 13 gas disaster, when overpressurized gas lines caused explosions and fires all over Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. She said many families were denied grants from the $10 million relief fund Columbia Gas set up for victims because they could not show the leases needed to prove they were living in Lawrence and displaced by the disaster.
“It threw into sharper relief the existing vulnerabilities and fault lines in the city,” Andors said. “If you didn't have a lease or were renting a room from a cousin, you're displaced but you couldn't file a claim because you were renting (from someone else who held the lease to the apartment you shared).”
The gas disaster exposed another fault line in Lawrence's housing when the city abandoned plans to provide space heaters to homes and apartments left without heat, after inspectors found that the wiring in many of the homes was too outdated to support the added demand for power. Andors said the finding showed that many landlords aren't investing in their buildings even as they raise the rents.
Vilma Martinez-Dominguez, the city's director of housing and community development, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
DIVERSE SET OF NEW RESIDENTS
The new arrivals are coming from several directions, including the influx that arrived from Puerto Rico last year after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. No estimate on their total numbers is available, but 171 boys and girls from Puerto Rico enrolled in Lawrence schools in the months after the hurricane, according to Bergeron. A year later, 85 remain.
Nyette, who immigrated from Kenya 30 years ago, said he's seeing more Central Americans arriving in his neighborhood near the Methuen line, including the Salvadorians and Nicaraguans he said he sees playing volleyball in Howard Park on Sunday afternoons. He predicted that some of the Central American refugees lining up at the Mexican border will end up in Lawrence.
“Lawrence is a welcoming city,” said Bonilla, the LCW deputy director. “Because you have Latinos here, other Latinos want to come.”
It's much more than refugees, said Lupoli, the Riverwalk developer, and Steven Chapman, the developer of the former Newark mill, which he's renamed Washington Mill phase two.
Lupoli and Chapman said many of the people filling their apartments and lofts are 20-somethings beginning their careers in Boston but pushed out by the even more explosive rents there. Last week, the on-line rental site zumper.com listed 959 apartments in Boston and its immediate suburbs where landlords are seeking monthly rents of at least $5,000.
Other tenants filling up housing in Lawrence are Lawrencians returning from college, after decades when high school graduates who left for college never came back, Lupoli said. The infusion is fueled by the improving economy and the growing number of jobs in the region.
Lawrence's unemployment rate dropped to 6.6 percent percent in 2018, about a third of what it was a just seven years earlier.
“What you're starting to see is more millennials moving into the city for various reasons,” Lupoli said. “As Boston and surrounding suburbs become more expensive, they're looking for quality space close to transportation.”
Rents at Riverwalk, which is directly across Merrimack Street from an MBTA commuter rail station, range from $1,500 for a studio to $1,900 for a three-bedroom apartment.
“You used to drive by those buildings that were all boarded up,” Lupoli said about other neighborhoods in Lawrence. “They're not boarded up anymore.”
Chapman cited three more reasons why Lawrence is becoming popular: location, location, location.
"We were attracted to Lawrence because we though it was time to be on the (Interstate) 495 loop," said Chapman, who owns 2,000 apartment units in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island and is about to break ground for a building with 240 more in Lowell. "For a while, all the activity was around the 95 loop. Now it's on the 495 loop."
When it opens next month, a two-bedroom apartment in Chapman's Washington Mills phase two will rent for $1,850 a month.
Andors, the LCW director, agreed that the escalating real estate prices in Lawrence are part of a statewide trend, especially in Boston and its surrounding suburbs. But she said she's not concerned – yet – that the demand will drive out locals and gentrify the neighborhoods.
“Gentrification is when upper-income whites from outside cities move in and displace people of color. That's not happening in Lawrence neighborhoods,” Andors said. “I've been living in the North Common neighborhood for 20 years. I'm still one of three whites in my area. There are no rich yuppies moving in, buying houses, fixing them up. It's not like all these hipsters are strolling the streets and that bodega on the corner is now a wine bar.”
She wasn't going to make predictions either.
“But what's happening is that there's a lot of hard-working immigrant families who are in the city and still coming in," she said. "That's what's driving demand up.”
Census data confirms that.
In 2010, Latinos made up 74 percent of Lawrence's population, according to the Census. By 2016, the last year for which data on that demographic is available, Latinos' share of the city's population had grown to 82 percent.