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Monitor Board of Contributors: At housing complex, a sign of the need for better options

  • Hindus in Concord sing and dance outside of the Royal Gardens Apartments celebrate Diwali, a holiday that celebrates the goddess Lakshmi; November 13, 2012.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)

    Hindus in Concord sing and dance outside of the Royal Gardens Apartments celebrate Diwali, a holiday that celebrates the goddess Lakshmi; November 13, 2012.

    (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)

  • Carol Burch, left, and Reginald Bilodeau, stop for a portrait after returning to their homes at Royal Gardens in Concord following a trip to get lunch down the road on Friday afternoon, June 29, 2012. During the nice days, the two meet and ride on their scooters around the neighborhood. Carol, who is named after A Christmas Carol because she was born on December 21, has known Reginald since the 1970's. "He's like a part of the family," she said. Reginald who is retired, moved to Concord 14 years ago from Berlin, New Hampshire.<br/><br/>(John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

    Carol Burch, left, and Reginald Bilodeau, stop for a portrait after returning to their homes at Royal Gardens in Concord following a trip to get lunch down the road on Friday afternoon, June 29, 2012. During the nice days, the two meet and ride on their scooters around the neighborhood. Carol, who is named after A Christmas Carol because she was born on December 21, has known Reginald since the 1970's. "He's like a part of the family," she said. Reginald who is retired, moved to Concord 14 years ago from Berlin, New Hampshire.

    (John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

  • Hindus in Concord sing and dance outside of the Royal Gardens Apartments celebrate Diwali, a holiday that celebrates the goddess Lakshmi; November 13, 2012.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)
  • Carol Burch, left, and Reginald Bilodeau, stop for a portrait after returning to their homes at Royal Gardens in Concord following a trip to get lunch down the road on Friday afternoon, June 29, 2012. During the nice days, the two meet and ride on their scooters around the neighborhood. Carol, who is named after A Christmas Carol because she was born on December 21, has known Reginald since the 1970's. "He's like a part of the family," she said. Reginald who is retired, moved to Concord 14 years ago from Berlin, New Hampshire.<br/><br/>(John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

A Monitor article a few weeks ago announced good news of upcoming physical improvements at the large Royal Gardens apartment complex on Concord Heights. In the same article, however, was a reference to adding a police outpost at that same complex. Such an addition reflects the fact that for decades this concentration of hundreds of low- and moderate-income families in one large rental development in Concord has caused that section of Concord to have the highest crime rate in the city.

This should come as no surprise since it has been known for decades that a concentration of lower-income people in one place is not good for its inhabitants or for the community at large. Back in the 1960s, there were riots in urban areas all across the country. President Lyndon Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Urban Disorders to look into the causes, and it concluded that there was a need to build much more new housing across the country that would be affordable by lower-income households. But the commission also recommended that such housing be scattered throughout the urban areas instead of concentrated in one or two sections.

Concord Gardens, and its second phase, Royal Gardens, built in the 1960s, are examples of how the federal government first tried to accomplish that goal. (New owners have recently renamed the entire complex Royal Gardens.) They were built to have only 20 percent of their units affordable by low-income families, using deep federal subsidies, and the remaining 80 percent restricted to moderate-income families, people with low-paying jobs, through a 1 percent mortgage loan on the entire apartment development.

But this complex was the largest housing development for low- and moderate-income families ever built in Concord, and thus it concentrated a large number of such families in one part of the Heights. By 1977 it already had a reputation for poor maintenance and bedraggled appearance. Some of this could be blamed on the residents, but the owner, an out-of-state group, could be assured of 100 percent occupancy, regardless of the upkeep.

Concord has had a public housing authority since 1961 and that locally controlled agency has had the authority, and the access to federal financing, to develop housing for very-low-income people since it started. Over the past 50 years it has developed two large apartment buildings for elderly and handicapped people, the last one being the Crutchfield Apartments built in 1975. In 1971 it developed a complex of 50 rental units for low-income families, the Haller Apartments, just north of the center of Concord. Since then it has developed only one 9-unit complex for families with low incomes.

Over that same 50-year period, some other public housing authorities across the country have developed numerous scattered site rental housing units for lower-income people, owned either by the Authority or in partnership with local developers.

Other than those two family developments, the Concord Housing Authority has channeled its efforts for low-income families into providing them with subsidy vouchers, called Section 8 certificates. Through this national program started in 1975, the authority is currently helping low-income households to live in landlord-owned market-rate apartments in various neighborhoods around Concord and Penacook, their rents made affordable for low-income people through those Section 8 certificates. But the authority is helping only 224 families and individuals through this program. It has been restricted, like all local housing authorities, by the steadily decreasing funding for Section 8 certificates coming from the federal government since 2000.

Need exceeds supply

So the need for affordable housing for lower-income families in Concord has always exceeded the supply of Section 8 certificates, and over the years there have been complaints by families with those certificates of poor apartment maintenance or disdainful treatment by their landlords. There are only a limited number of rental units in Concord and Penacook that have rents at or below the amount allowed under the certificates. This means that the families and individuals with the certificates can not afford to be very choosy, so they are sometimes forced to put up with conditions that middle-income renters would not.

Since 1975, private developers have been given the opportunity to compete for federal financing that would provide subsidies for a small percentage of units in regular, market-rate apartment complexes. But Concord has never created sufficient incentives or requirements that would cause such complexes to be built in Concord. Without such incentives or requirements, profit-motivated developers have seen no benefit in trying to mix low-income residents with market-rate paying residents since they could rent up all the units with market-rate tenants and have less red tape or tenant issues to contend with.

In Massachusetts, however, the state government passed a law in the early 1970s that caused quite a controversy in many communities. That law required localities to allow a developer to build such a mixed-income complex if that city or town was not already providing its pro rata share of affordable housing, based on the demand in each section of the state. Local zoning was superseded by the state law, state subsidies were provided to the developers, and a number of such developments were completed without local approval.

As a result, very attractive apartment complexes were built in a number of suburban Massachusetts communities that appealed to regular, middle-income families and individuals. But 20 percent of the units were reserved for low-income families who paid what they could toward the rent, with the difference paid by the state government. It was impossible to distinguish from the outside which units were lived in by subsidized families and which ones were not.

In one wealthy Maryland county near Washington, D.C., public incentives were offered to developers to encourage inclusion of a small percentage of lower-income affordable units in market-rate single family subdivisions and apartment complexes. Developers that did so were allowed to build somewhat more housing units than zoning would normally allow. In a wealthy Virginia county next to Washington, D.C., developers of some large residential communities were required to include a small percentage of houses or apartments that were subsidized by the state or federal government.

In all such mildly mixed income developments across the country, the children go to the same schools as the middle-income children and play in the same playgrounds. As a result, the apartment complexes or single-family neighborhoods don’t build up a reputation as having higher crime or poorer repair than any other market-rate apartment complex or neighborhood in that community.

But no profit-motivated developers have been successful in getting local approvals for such a guaranteed mixed-use development in Concord. Had such a project been approved by the city, it would have gone to the top of the list of developments competing for the subsidies and long-term low-interest rate loans offered through the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The CATCH solution

It took a nonprofit organization, the Concord Area Trust for Community Housing (now called CATCH Neighborhood Housing), to get the local approvals and take advantage of the available state and federal financing mechanisms to develop rental housing for lower income families in this city. Created by the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund, CATCH has developed new or existing buildings into more than 200 rental units for families in our community. They are scattered across Concord and Penacook in 13 different sites, from four units on Elm Street in Penacook, to 11 units on Perley Street in Concord, to 48 units on Old Suncook Road off Manchester Street. None of these locations has a reputation for a high crime rate or poor upkeep.

Meanwhile, Royal Gardens serves a large number of lower-income households that couldn’t find affordable housing elsewhere.

Unless and until sufficient affordable housing is built elsewhere on scattered sites around Concord, the city’s residents will have to deal with the decision of well- intentioned people 50 years ago to create a large complex of below-market rent apartments on one site.

The soon-to-be-built police outpost is needed and probably will be welcomed by most of the residents. But the need for such an outpost in one housing development in Concord should encourage city officials to find ways to get even more affordable housing to be developed in scattered sites around Concord.

(David Woolpert of Henniker previously worked in a variety of organizations developing or financing low-income housing developments throughout New Hampshire and New England before starting his own investment advisory business in Concord.)

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