‘The ball is rolling’: Housing and homelessness hot topics at ‘State of the City’

Concord City Manager Tom Aspell speaks to the crowd at the Holiday Inn on Thursday morning at the State of the City address.

Concord City Manager Tom Aspell speaks to the crowd at the Holiday Inn on Thursday morning at the State of the City address. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Mayor Byron Champlin emphasized new housing on its way to the city and fielded questions about the city’s role in addressing homelessness in his ‘State of the City’ presentation Thursday morning.

Mayor Byron Champlin emphasized new housing on its way to the city and fielded questions about the city’s role in addressing homelessness in his ‘State of the City’ presentation Thursday morning. Catherine McLaughlin Monitor staff

By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN

Monitor staff

Published: 04-11-2024 5:47 PM

After stumbling briefly with the accompanying PowerPoint in the first minutes of his remarks, Mayor Byron Champlin poked a little fun at his mistake.

“And now I’m going to turn things over to former Mayor Bouley,” he quipped.

Eliciting laughter from the audience and some responding banter with his 16-year predecessor, the moment set a tone of levity for the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce’s annual “State of the City” forum. In his first year at the post and ahead of the city’s upcoming budget process, the new mayor, presenting alongside City Manager Tom Aspell, said he hoped to convey optimism about the city and his role.

While noting several challenges before Concord, including homelessness and city employee retention, Champlin focused on laying out what he sees as setting the city up for success: investments in public safety, large volumes of upcoming housing development and the promotion of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice and Belonging at city hall and in the community. 

“Our greatest strength as a city, in my estimation, is the sense of community that we have here,”  Champlin said. “I hear that from people who are newly arrived and I hear it from people who have been here all their lives, that Concord is a strong community where people care about each other and where people support and sustain each other. And that's a strength which can get us through quite a bit.” 

While the city currently has more than a dozen police officer vacancies and is short six firefighters, Champlin pointed to major recent investments in both departments that could continue to draw experienced candidates in a tight labor market. 

Last month, City Council approved more than $300,000 to replace the primary set of gear for city firefighters with newly developed PFAS-free equipment. The International Association of Fire Fighters has since confirmed that Concord is the first city in the United States to make such a purchase. PFAS chemicals, used in fire equipment as a heat and water barrier, have been linked to certain types of cancer, among other health issues. 

This week, councilors gave the green light for the city to close on a $4.1 million property that will house a new police station. The proposal from city staff to renovate and expand the existing building on the property would cost an additional $41.5 million. Police leaders have described the current station, less than half the size of the proposed new one, as too small to house the department at its current size and unable to accommodate growth. 

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Champlin also spotlighted the more than 500 new housing units currently under construction and more than 2,500 in the pipeline. While questions about the price point of many of these new units linger among residents — especially as the city aims to draw in young families and connect those experiencing homelessness with stable housing — Champlin stated how more high-end housing is a good sign for the city, indicating its ability to attract new residents.

“Ten years ago, when I first joined City Council, who would have imagined that people would be willing to pay almost $3,000 a month to live in downtown Concord?” he said. 

To support the ongoing and anticipated growth on the east side of the city, Aspell also described investments to update and strengthen city sewer infrastructure on the Heights. 

Champlin and Aspell also fielded questions from the audience on homelessness, both about what the city can do to help connect people with permanent housing and how it is managing public safety concerns by some businesses downtown. 

“The city is constrained in many ways in what we can do,” Champlin said towards the latter topic. While the police department works in collaboration with local organizations, he said, there are also limits on law enforcement and what can be prosecuted. “It's a complex problem which we're approaching on a variety of fronts and working hard to try to address — but it's not going to be solved tomorrow.”

When it comes to ensuring available, accessible housing the area, the pair were also asked about what the city can do to encourage new projects to include affordable units.

“The city has to be very careful about putting the arm on people,” Aspell said. Instead of pressuring the development of affordable housing, he continued, the city has prioritized getting involved with projects choosing to pursue it, for example, by helping to secure grants. 

Champlin added that the city can be a facilitator between developers and advocacy groups, making sure organizations know when new projects come up and where affordable housing is still available. He also issued a call on landlords to agree to take on tenants with housing vouchers. 

“We need willing landlords to work with organizations like the Friends Program, like the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, like Belknap-Merrimack CAP to get these people into apartments with supportive housing, with caseworkers who work with them and interface with the landlord, and will deal with any issues.” Champlin said. “That's how I think city government can can be most effective and that's how I plan to be effective as mayor.”

Glenda Leon, director of Emergency Housing with the Friends Program, who asked the affordable housing question, praised those efforts.

“It's never going to be an easy fix, but I'm glad that the city's at least stepping in with allowing grants to be put out and advocating for affordable housing for families,” Leon said. “The ball is rolling.”

The presentation also teed up the city’s upcoming budget discussions, with Aspell set to present the proposed budget for next year on May 16. City Council is scheduled to complete deliberations and vote on the budget at the beginning of June.