Vanessa Vela has lived in the same Somerville apartment since her son was born 17 years ago. A year ago, the apartment building was sold. Vela said her new landlord plans to renovate the building and offered to help her relocate. But Vela, who works as a veterinary technician, says she's been unable to find another place she can afford.

“He can pay the first and last month, but what about all the other months?” asked Vela. “I looked in Springfield, Newton, I looked everywhere — even Chelsea. People in Chelsea are getting kicked out left and right.”

Vela remembers when people in her Winter Hill neighborhood could rent a room in a shared apartment for $300 a month. Now she says the price for a single room is closer to $1,000. She said it's not uncommon for people she knows in Somerville to spend well over half their income for housing.

That question of affordability and the impact of staggering rent hikes is at the heart of a travelling exhibit housing advocates have brought to the Somerville Armory called “Evicted,” which includes a photograph of Vela and her mother standing in their kitchen. Based on Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book of the same name, it includes eviction data from every state and a section highlighting stories and photographs of Somerville residents at risk of eviction.

A woman wearing a jean jacket looks into the camera, standing in front of a series of black-and-white photos
Vanessa Vela is a tenant rights activist in Somerville, photographed on Sept. 9, 2022.
Stephanie Leydon GBH News

A quote attributed to a unnamed tenant in 2018 reads: “My family has been through eviction more times than I remember. I struggled in school because I was always worried about whether my mom was stressed and whether we would have a place to stay.”

One wall is entirely covered with a photograph of a family outside a home carrying their possessions; another wall is blanketed with moving boxes sized to illustrate the number of evictions in each state.

Gentrification has long driven up rents in Somerville, but two new MBTA stations have heightened the city’s appeal and housing values. While these factors can lead to evictions, they are also pushing many to move away — even those with higher incomes.

Sam Polk received notice of a $700-a-month increase for his two-bedroom apartment steps from the new Magoun Square T stop.

“The proposed [monthly] rent was $4,350,” he said. “We really didn't expect anything close to that.”

But Polk, who works as an engineer, had options. Instead of paying a mortgage-sized rent, he and his fiancée, a nurse, are moving next door to Arlington where they bought a house. His concern is for the neighbors he's leaving behind.

“I definitely do not think anyone should be shedding tears for us,” Polk wrote to GBH News. “I do think that our experience illustrates how difficult it can be to be a renter in Somerville given current renter protections in Massachusetts. If we — a nurse and an engineer — are getting pushed out of Somerville, then who do we expect it to be affordable for?”

Kate Byrne, who spearheaded the effort to bring the “Evicted” exhibit to Somerville, said a lot of low-income people and people of color have moved out.

Byrne is on the board of the Community Action Agency of Somerville, which works with tenants at risk of eviction. She calls the effort to keep people housed in Somerville “a struggle” and points to data on display in the “Evicted” exhibit that indicates condo conversions in the city have reduced the overall amount of available rental units even as demand has gone up.

Somerville kept a COVID-related ban on evictions in place until the end of last June — longer than any other community in the state. But according to a coalition of tenant rights organizations, there were 226 evictions within two months of the ban being lifted. Byrne predicts that number will continue to climb.

“I really hope people [will] understand the depth of the housing crisis and the depth of the destruction on families, in particular children,” she said. “Moving people out of their homes, where are they going? Are they double bunking with other family members? Are they living in their cars?”

Cardboard moving boxes of various sizes are fixed on a wall across an outline of the United States.
The exhibit features boxes representing evictions carried out in each state in 2016, photographed on August 26, 2022, at the Somerville Armory.
Stephanie Leydon / GBH News GBH News

Vela has become a tenant activist with CAAS, leveraging public protests and legal support to remain in her apartment. She hopes to remain there at least until the spring when her son will graduate from Somerville High. Ultimately, though, she sees eviction as “inevitable.”

Walking through the "Evicted" exhibit and seeing the stories of other people from around the country — many of them women of color — she said was like “looking in a mirror.”

“Most of those women there are single women, single households,” Vela said. “And I know that some of them put their stories publicly, and they still got evicted.”

“Evicted” is on display at the Somerville Armory through Nov. 4.

You can share your Priced Out story or ask a question you’d like answered by filling out this Google form. Find more from the series at Priced Out: The fight for housing in Massachusetts.