After sale of apartment building, tenants facing eviction can’t find anywhere else to live

  • Linda McKenna with one of her six cats she owns on the stairwell of the apartment she has lived on Washington Street in Penacook for 30 years on Friday, July 16, 2021. Mckenna is facing eviction after the building was sold. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Linda McKenna with one of her six cats she owns on the stairwell of the apartment she has lived on Washington Street in Penacook for 30 years on Friday, July 16, 2021. Mckenna is facing eviction after the building was sold. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Linda McKenna with one of her six cats she owns on the stairwell of the apartment she has lived on Washington Street in Penacook for 30 years on Friday. McKenna says she is facing eviction after the building was sold. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 7/21/2021 4:28:14 PM

Linda McKenna, 56, has lived in her Penacook apartment for over 30 years with her collection of rescue animals.

Her next door neighbor is Earl Couch, 74, a veteran who walks with a cane and dotes on his three cats.

Upstairs is Janice Pickering, a single mom working nights to support her four school-age boys.

All of them are being evicted by the new owners of their five-unit apartment building and can’t find an affordable place to live.

The building they live in, 29 Washington St. in the Concord village of Penacook, was purchased in March by Derek Lawton and Sean Engel through a company called 29-31 Washington Street LLC. The new Nashua-based owners intend to fix up the building and then rent the apartments again at market rates, Lawton said.

The soon-to-be-evicted tenants are facing a problem familiar to many renters in Concord, and in New Hampshire in general: a shortage of low and middle-income housing.

“I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do,” McKenna said. “Everybody’s in the same boat that I am. They can’t find anything out there that’s affordable.”

Rising rents

Rents in New Hampshire have been rising steadily for the past eight years, according to the 2021 rental survey from New Hampshire Housing. In Merrimack County, rents for two-bedroom apartments have increased 20% over the last five years up to a median rent of $1,339 a month.

Even if a tenant can afford to pay a high rent, there are few units available. The New Hampshire vacancy rate this year is less than 1% (0.9) for all units, which is far lower than the vacancy rate of 6.8% for the country as a whole. The Merrimack County vacancy rate is even lower at 0.4%. According to the rental report, a “balanced” vacancy rate for landlords and tenants is 5%.

Until recently, McKenna shared her two-bedroom apartment with her daughter and granddaughter and six cats, three snakes, a bearded dragon and a chameleon. The rent, without utilities, was $750. She estimates that she has applied for 10 or 15 apartments, but says she can’t find any she can afford. She is worried about becoming homeless, and that she’ll be forced to give up her animals.

To afford the median rent for a two-bedroom in Merrimack County, an individual would need to make $53,600 a year or about $26 an hour, but the median income for renter households in the county is about $44,300. That means only a small share – 11% – of two-bedroom apartments in Merrimack County, including Concord, are affordable for many renters.

Those apartments are virtually unattainable for minimum wage workers, who only make about $15,000 a year working full time and often work more than one job. McKenna earns even less per year from her disability benefits and widow’s pension.

With McKenna facing eviction, her family split up to increase their chances of finding housing. Her 5-year-old granddaughter Maddie is autistic, and McKenna worries she will have trouble adjusting to living apart from her grandmother for the first time.

“My family that lived in this apartment with me is getting torn apart,” she said. “You can’t find a place to live so you’re gonna be homeless, and with everything this year that’s happened to me, I’m at my breaking point.”

Long wait lists

The wait for a low-income housing unit can be lengthy. A Penacook property at 83 Washington St. listed on the New Hampshire Housing list of subsidized housing vacancies has more than 62 people waiting for a unit. Concord Village Apartments in Boscawen has a waiting list of 12 to 18 months. The third option on the New Hampshire Housing list for Merrimack County, Birchwood Apartments, is also full.

Erin Schaick, CATCH Neighborhood Housing’s director of community development and relations, said that her organization has received calls and messages about availability in a Penacook complex called Rosemary’s Way that won’t be ready for tenants until October at the earliest. CATCH Housing has 349 affordable units for low and middle-income renters but no current vacancies, and last month nine applicants were placed on a waitlist.

“There are just no apartments in this city,” said Concord Housing and Redevelopment Executive Director John Hoyt. “This is my 19th year and this is as tight a market as I’ve seen.”

Concord Housing and Redevelopment maintains public housing units for people who qualify. The waitlist for public housing for elderly and disabled residents is about two years; for families, the wait is three years for a two-bedroom apartment and up to seven years for a four-bedroom.

Hoyt’s organization also administers more than 200 Section 8 housing vouchers within Concord and Penacook. Currently, about 900 people are on the waitlist, with a wait time of about four years. A letter McKenna received from New Hampshire Housing said she could wait up to nine years to get a voucher.

The housing shortage has gotten so bad that even building 10 or 20 new units won’t make a big difference, Hoyt said. “It’s going to be a long-term problem,” he said.

Housing vouchers

Even those with vouchers can struggle to find housing. Hoyt said 20 people with vouchers have been unable to find a market-rate apartment as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that subsidizes the vouchers.

McKenna’s neighbor Earl Couch is lucky to have a housing voucher that helps cover his rent, but he hasn’t been able to find an apartment where he can use it.

“Who can afford $1,600, $1,700, $1,800 a month?” he said. “I sure can’t do it, nobody else I talk to can.” Couch has lived in the same apartment for at least 12 years, and relies on Social Security and a Veteran’s Affairs pension for income.

He doesn’t know what he will do if he’s unable to find somewhere to live.

“Anything that I hear about, I call about, but everybody’s got an eight or 10-year waiting list,” he said. He worries about being separated from his cats Meatball, Spiky and Lily, and that a new owner may not treat them as well as he does.

The cats have kept him company after he lost his wife of 22 years two years ago. “They’re the ones who keep me on the straight and narrow because I have no family,” he said.

The looming eviction

Janice Pickering is a single mom of four boys, ages 11, 9, 7 and 5, who works the third shift cleaning TD Banks. Like her other neighbors, she is angry about the eviction.

“I feel like it’s the worst thing they could do to someone,” she said.

Lawton and Engel’s company 29-31 Washington St., LLC purchased the building for $250,000 in March, according to public records. Lawton said the building needs renovations because it’s dilapidated and filthy.

“It was an out-of-state owner from New Jersey and they never took care of the property and the rents were extremely low, way below market rate,” Lawton said. “We’re not these slum landlords. We’re trying to fix up the property and make it a nicer place.”

The new owners initially offered tenants $500 cash payments to leave voluntarily before proceeding with the eviction. Couch turned the offer down. McKenna said she was never offered a cash payment, just the return of her security deposit.

To the tenants, eviction feels like doomsday. For the building’s new owners, it’s part of doing business.

“We’re just trying to make the town of Penacook a better place and sometimes that means people have a hard time finding a place,” Lawton said. “We’re looking to gentrify the communities we invest in.”

For Pickering, finding a new place to live with her credit score has been difficult. Her family is facing homelessness: when the sheriff comes to remove her family, she says she’ll take her kids “camping” until she can find a place to stay.

Tenants received a notice to leave the building by July 6, but McKenna contacted New Hampshire Legal Assistance for help. In a hearing scheduled for Thursday, her attorney will ask the court for more time to stay in the building while she looks for housing.

But when she is ultimately evicted, it will be a black mark on her rental record, making it even harder to find a landlord willing to rent to her.

“I’d like to see the state help more people out who are in my situation,” McKenna said, including making it harder for landlords who buy buildings to evict tenants quickly. “Because right now you can’t find anything, especially with low-income housing.”

In the meantime, McKenna’s worries have multiplied. Now that her household has shrunk, the state informed her that she no longer qualifies for free health insurance. Because of her irregular heartbeat, she is not supposed to be alone for long stretches of time, which is harder now that her daughter is moving out. If she ends up homeless, she won’t be able to refrigerate her insulin, which she needs to treat her diabetes.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” McKenna said. “I don’t know where to go and I’m not getting any help and I can’t get a house because I don’t have a down payment or a closing cost.” She would like a house with a fenced yard where her granddaughter can safely play, but without money for those up-front costs and with the rising cost of real estate, that dream is unattainable.

Lack of affordable housing is a statewide problem that Gov. Sununu has sought to address. The New Hampshire Council on Housing Stability, convened by the governor last year, released a strategic plan last week that calls for 13,500 new housing units to be built over the next three years.

But for right now, the tenants at 29 Washington St. are fighting to avoid homelessness in the short term.

“I’m at my wits’ end right now,” Couch said. “Basically, I’m left out in the cold.”

Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.

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