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Nowhere to go: Family searches for new home after mid-pandemic eviction

  • Melissa French and her family were evicted from their Peterborough home so their landlord could renovate. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton

  • Melissa French and her family found a new home about a month after being evicted. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton

  • Melissa French, of Peterborough. Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021 Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/1/2021 2:47:57 PM

Melissa French’s family never quite bounced back from the 2008 housing crisis.

They spent the past decade in tenuous housing situations before finding an affordable place to live in Peterborough in 2015. The stability allowed French to put down roots for the first time in years, even joining the Monadnock Area Transitional Shelter (MATS) board in 2018, but she was forced to face the region’s grim rental market once again this year when she received an eviction notice from their landlord, who wanted the house empty by April so he could renovate and sell.

It took an exhaustive month-long search and crowdsourcing funds to move and pay down some credit card debt, but she finally secured a rental in Dublin to move to in April with her husband, three kids, and a cat. To French, her experience highlighted the serious consequences of the Monadnock region’s lack of affordable housing.

“I just think that it’s gotten worse and worse and worse – we’re at a breaking point,” she said.

It was hard enough to find any place to rent that would accommodate the five of them, she said, before factoring in competition with other renters, fair credit, and not a lot of income.

“I can’t afford to rent anything in New Hampshire. According to the New Hampshire Housing and Finance Authority, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Hillsborough County in 2019 was $1,456. The vacancy rate in Hillsborough County for 2019 was 1%. These numbers have not improved since the pandemic hit, in fact it’s much worse,” she wrote, with two-bedroom apartments in Rindge advertised at $2,000, and still too small for her family at that. “I was on the board for the transitional shelter, and now I need to call them,” French wrote in a plea for help on GoFundMe at the end of January.

French left her MATS position, backed away from freelance graphic and web design commissions, and cut back on volunteering earlier this year in favor of pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration, in addition to working part-time as an administrative assistant and taking care of her children. “In two and a half years I’ll have a degree, and the plan was to get a full time job,” she said. “In theory, we’re not going to have this issue again.”

French last knew middle-class stability prior to 2007, when her husband became disabled and they lost their house to foreclosure. They were forced to move a lot and became homeless several times, she said. The family made it back to New Hampshire in 2013, just to get evicted from their rented home in Rindge when the owner underwent foreclosure. It was two more years before they secured their Peterborough rental.

The moves took a toll on French’s children, she said. “My third had to skip through three different towns in first grade while homeless,” she said. “Emotionally, she’s a little more worried about things now.” By French’s estimate, the Dublin home they’re set to move into was their only option in the nine towns comprising the ConVal school district.

Stability for her children was just one reason why French wanted to stay in the area: the Peterborough area was the first place French felt connected to since her family was uprooted years ago. “So many people have gone above and beyond for my family. I don’t know if it took me finally being in a place where I can be vulnerable, to make those connections that stick, or if the people here are just that exceptional,” she said. “I feel valued.”

Community support related to the eviction mattered too, French said. A woman who took some old cookbooks French wanted to give away saw her search for housing unfolding on the Peterborough community page on Facebook and alerted her to the Dublin rental, which was still occupied at the time. Community members ultimately donated $6,500 to the family, which covered the $1,700 they needed in order to move, as well as storage fees and delinquent bills that French fell behind on when she learned they were going to have to move.

“It seems like everything always piles up,” French said, and that even with the help the family received, an emergency car repair or another surprise expense could tip them back into trouble. It feels “always so close to the edge of everything falling apart,” she said. Although her family managed to find a place to go, the effort combined with pandemic-related difficulties was grinding, she said. The process could be insurmountable for other Peterborough area residents in very similar situations, she said.

The Centers for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium is currently active through March 31, aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 by allowing tenants to remain quarantined. French didn’t believe the moratorium protected her family, since they were able to pay the rent, and the landlord wanted them to move out in order to renovate and sell.

“We’re seeing a lot of that,” New Hampshire Legal Aid (NHLA) attorney Elliot Berry said. “Obviously there’s plenty of times that’s legitimate, but I don’t have any doubt that, at times, it’s a way to get around the moratorium.” Tenants in such a situation may, in fact, be covered by the moratorium, Berry said, so long as other “tenant fault” situations don’t apply, such as criminal activity, threatening the health and safety of others, or damaging the building.

So far this year, there have been 412 landlord-tenant writ cases filed in New Hampshire, and 328 writs of possession. Tenants do not have to leave their homes until the sheriff brings a writ of possession to them, according to NHLA materials used in free, weekly online eviction clinics. New Hampshire’s civil legal aid network helps low-income people, older adults, and people with disabilities by providing free legal information, advice, and representation.

French saw an outpouring of local support for affordable housing initiatives during last year’s Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, but little action, she said. “People said the young people would leave,” for lack of affordable rentals, she said, “We’re losing whole families now.”

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