Downtown: Recipe for healthy downtown housing is a hard one to cook up
The 30-odd apartments in the Vegas Block in Concord are empty.
What happens to them next is anyone’s guess – and the city’s dream.
Since the building was declared uninhabitable due to a litany of fire and life-safety code violations earlier this month, the blighted brick building became an even more desolate sight on the corner of Loudon Road and North Main Street. New owner Remi Hinxhia has said he wants to upgrade it, but he is not yet able to discuss his specific plans for the building. The largest housing developments downtown are home to low-income tenants like the Vegas Block was, but Concord officials and others want to see more market-rate apartments open up on Main Street.
“A healthy downtown is one that has a balance of income levels,” said Carlos Baia, deputy city manager for development. “It creates this sort of synergy and equilibrium that a healthy downtown would want and need, and also balances services. It’s sort of the recipe for prosperity.”
That balance, however, is difficult to achieve. The administrators of local housing programs say that’s not because they are subsidizing a growing number of units downtown. Now that the Vegas Block is closed, in fact, one option for low-income people is off the market. But the number of market-rate units in the center of Concord has only grown by 33 in the last 25 years.
“Anecdotally, it seems like (CATCH Neighborhood Housing) and Concord Housing get blamed for building all this low-income housing downtown, and it’s creating this imbalance,” said John Hoyt, executive director of Concord Housing + Redevelopment. “We haven’t built anything since 1974. . . . It’s not like we’ve been putting large amounts of units downtown. It’s been 40 years.”
In Concord’s core, an April survey showed at least 267 units are subsidized in some way. That number does not include voucher or Section 8 housing in privately owned buildings like the Vegas Block. In 25 years, 24 of the 33 new market-rate units opened only during the Endicott Hotel renovation in 2013.
The Endicott used to also house mainly low-income tenants, but CATCH renovated the building in 2013. In downtown, the nonprofit manages that development and 45 subsidized units at Mennino Place on Storrs Street. Both buildings are full or almost full; CATCH President Rosemary Heard said Concord’s vacancy rate is just 2 percent.
“Two percent, really, in the industry is considered a zero vacancy rate,” she said.
CATCH was able to renovate the Endicott as a market-rate development because the nonprofit already owned the building, Heard said. For others, however, she said debt service to buy property for a market-rate development pushes costs too high.
“One of the reasons that we don’t have as much market-rate housing in our downtown on the rental side is that we can’t charge sufficient rents up here to make the numbers work,” Heard said.
Concord Housing manages the 92 apartments in the John F. Kennedy complex on Thompson Street and 105 apartments in Pitman Place on Pitman Street. Those apartments are reserved for elderly and disabled tenants, Hoyt said, and the downtown location serves those residents well because resources like public transportation and medical services are all nearby.
Those residents don’t have a lot of money to spend, but they do spend downtown.
“They’re not going to Bravo, but they are buying sandwiches in the downtown,” Hoyt said.
Elsewhere in Concord, Hoyt said he has 245 clients putting Section 8 vouchers toward their rent. Only two or three of those clients live downtown, he said.
“I think the whole thing is driven, though, on why market-rate developers won’t develop” in Concord, Hoyt said.
That’s a question the city is trying to answer, too.
“At this point, we’re trying to encourage property owners to look at market-rate housing,” Baia said. “We know it’s taken decades, just by looking at the numbers, to have new market-rate housing built in our community downtown, and we’ll take projects one by one.”
One of the ways the city is doing that is through a committee that is studying upper-story development in downtown Concord and Penacook.
“We are anticipating that projects will start coming through the city for approval in the next several years,” Baia said.
The next meeting of that committee is Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in council chambers.
By the numbers
∎ Assisted housing in downtown: at least 267 units. Includes John F. Kennedy Apartments, Mennino Place, Pitman Place and other small developments. Rents at CATCH’s Mennino Place, for example, range from $650 to $925, depending on household income and apartment size.
∎ Market-rate housing developed downtown in past 25 years: 33 units. Includes the Endicott Hotel, the Hill Court Condominiums and a few scattered private apartments. Rents at CATCH’s Endicott Hotel range from $975 to $1,400, depending on apartment size.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)