Dave Vespucci has fantasized about one thing for the past year: to relax in his reclining chair in a home he doesn’t have to worry about leaving.

For more than two decades, Vespucci, 75, was able to do that in a sky blue duplex in a quiet residential neighborhood in Worcester. He was a good tenant, who always paid his rent on time and helped maintain the property. But around late 2021, with housing values and rents across Worcester surging, his landlord decided he would renovate and sell the duplex for a profit. Vespucci had to move out.

Vespucci, who’s diabetic and has a bad back after working decades in the construction industry, then spent over a year looking for a new apartment he could afford. He had a February 2023 deadline to leave the duplex, and feared homelessness as he struggled to find apartments within his budget — about $1,300 a month, split with his daughter.

Finally in January, just three weeks before the deadline, Vespucci found a unit in a three-decker. Although about 90 other people applied for the apartment, the landlord sympathized with him and agreed to lease it to him.

“I’m thankful for sure. It was a godsend,” he said. “You don’t hear of these kinds of things.”

GBH News has followed Vespucci for the past year as part of the series “Priced Out: The fight for housing in Massachusetts.” His journey exemplifies a worsening problem in New England’s second largest city, which used to be affordable for local workers but now is a hotbed for rising housing costs.

A man stands in his apartment
Dave Vespucci walks around his new apartment in Worcester.
Sam Turken GBH News

A shortage of affordable apartments

Typical monthly rents in Worcester are up more than $600 since 2016, according to Zillow, and about half of all renters are cost-burdened, paying more than a third of their income on rent and utilities. Housing advocates say the problem stems from Worcester’s dearth of apartments affordable for low- to moderate-income households.

Although thousands of new rental units have hit the city’s housing market in recent years, they’re too expensive for many people who work in Worcester. Instead, they tailor to higher-earning people with jobs based in Boston and MetroWest.

Despite its hot market, Worcester’s monthly median rent of $1,850 is significantly less than that of Boston — $3,250. As a result, Worcester is an attractive place to reside for people who work in the Boston area but don’t want to pay to live there. Worcester is just over an hourlong trip from Boston on the commuter rail.

“It’s very excruciating,” said Yvette Dyson, executive director of Worcester Common Ground — a nonprofit that builds affordable housing. “We see the tradeoff of people coming to Worcester.”

Worcester officials acknowledge the city’s affordable housing shortage is pricing out local workers and have taken steps like creating a trust fund to address the problem. Another policy that would mandate that all new housing complexes include a certain percentage of units affordable for lower-income households, known as inclusionary zoning, is mired in debate.

A frantic apartment search

Around the time GBH first profiled Vespucci in June 2022, his landlord had just agreed to give him an extension until February 2023 to move out. Vespucci was relieved but knew what he was up against.

He had already spent six months scouring through online apartment listings trying to find something he could afford. The stress of the ordeal caused him to lose 20 pounds, which destabilized his diabetes and brought on dizziness, sweating and fatigue.

“All this is too much for people who are in my position,” Vespucci said in May. “It’s not right.”

A man stands in front of his apartment before he moved out.
Dave Vespucci stands in front of his now-previous apartment in May.
Robert Tokanel GBH News

Over the next four months, Vespucci continued looking for apartments but his luck with the housing search and his personal life only worsened. First, he caught pneumonia, then his brother died.

In October, he secured an apartment in Southbridge, a half-hour’s drive from Worcester. His lease would start in February after some renovation work on the unit. Although he preferred to stay closer to Worcester — where his doctors are — he concluded the apartment was his only option.

But in January as he began boxing up his belongings and preparing to move to Southbridge, he learned the renovation work was delayed and the lease fell through. His deadline to move out was now three weeks away, and he started panicking.

“I can’t live on the street,” he said at the time. “I’m just frazzled. I haven’t slept.”

At that point, Vespucci and his daughter went into “desperation mode,” frantically calling services that help seniors with housing. His son, Nick, who lives in Maryland, joined the effort, cold-calling landlords with online apartment listings and telling them Vespucci’s story. But all of the listings either were scams or had long waitlists.

“I was losing sleep over it,” Nick said, “just kind of thinking, ‘What are we going to do if the day comes,’” and the sheriff evicts him and he has nowhere to go.

A sympathetic landlord

Finally, Nick reached Pam Kirk, a landlord with an open apartment in a Worcester triple-decker. Although about 90 other people had already applied for the unit, Kirk decided to give it to Vespucci after hearing about what he’d been through.

“I felt bad,” Kirk said. “I could put myself in [his] position and think, ‘Wow, what would I do?’”

Kirk is charging Vespucci and his daughter $1,300 a month in rent. The unit features polished wood floors, new appliances, a balcony with views of much of Worcester and a swimming pool in the backyard.

The triple-decker is Kirk's only rental property, and she and her husband live on the first floor. Although she knows she can charge more for Vespucci's apartment, she wants to provide housing that’s affordable for people. She also prefers to have the same tenants living in her two rental units for multiple years so she can avoid the process of having to find new tenants. Vespucci is thankful for that mentality.

“[She] saved me from the street,” he said.

Today, he can finally sit in his navy blue recliner, knowing he has a home he doesn’t have to leave anytime soon. Still, he’s in disbelief he came so close to homelessness.

“This is the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Commonwealth. And it should be a priority [to have housing] for women with kids, old people, the infirmed,” he said. “It shouldn’t be like this. It’s a crisis.”

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.