Editorial: Vegas Block presents an opportunity
Continued occupation of the dilapidated Vegas Block presented a threat to the lives of the building’s residents and the firefighters who would, should a conflagration occur, come to their rescue. Thieves had torn into the walls to remove and sell piping, rendering the sprinkler system inoperative. The building’s vermin infestation was severe. The state fire marshal and city officials were right to quickly declare the building uninhabitable and order its tenants to leave, but the situation probably could have been handled with a bit more sensitivity.
Vegas Block residents, and notice we say residents not tenants, since a significant percentage of the people living there were apparently squatters, should not have been rendered homeless.
City officials soon did the right thing and agreed to cover the cost of temporarily housing the residents. The human services department issued vouchers for clothing, kitchen supplies and furniture free of bedbugs.
Nonprofit agencies stepped in to offer what help they could, but housing those evicted from the Vegas Block will not be easy. There is a near-absence of truly affordable housing in Concord, especially housing that’s within easy walking distance of downtown or public transportation.
The vacancy rate for apartments in Concord is roughly 2 percent, which means scarcity has raised rents beyond the ability of low-income residents to pay. Though federal guidelines for subsidized housing say that no family should pay more than 30 percent of its income in rent, it’s not unusual to find households paying 40 or even 50 percent. Waiting lists for subsidized housing are long: five years for a two-bedroom apartment through the Concord Housing Authority, nine years through the New Hampshire Housing authority.
Only a handful of the Vegas Block’s 32 apartments were subsidized units, but most of its tenants had limited incomes. The building is in dire need of repair and renovation, something its new owner, Remi Hinxhia, said he plans to undertake.
Carlos Baia, the deputy city manager for development, hopes the apartments will be turned into market-rate housing. Though the need for affordable housing is critical, we share that hope.
Downtown housing is skewed in favor of low-income units, Baia said. At least 267 are subsidized in one fashion or another, while only 33 market-rate units have been added in the past 25 years.
Many of those are in the former Endicott Hotel on Main Street, which filled quickly. The demand for market-rate, and even somewhat upscale, downtown housing is there. The state’s population of senior citizens has nearly doubled. Many of them are looking to exchange a large home for an apartment or condominium within walking distance of the kind of amenities downtown Concord offers.
The city is working on ways to encourage the conversion of the empty upstairs floors of downtown buildings to condos and apartments. Building owners, however, need a financial incentive to do so, one subsidized housing can’t provide. But the twin goals of having subsidized and market-rate housing downtown are not contradictory.
In fact, adding market-rate housing to the mix would make it easier to overcome objections to adding still more subsidized units downtown.
The upcoming Main Street improvement project will make living downtown an even more attractive proposition. The city should do what it can to make it possible for residents of all income levels.