As winter shelter opens for season, housing crisis looms 

  • Kevin Clark enters the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness winter shelter at First Congregational Church on Thursday as he waits to check in for the night.

  • Kevin Clark stands outside the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness winter shelter at First Congregational Church on Thursday, December 2, 2021 as he waits to go in for the night. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • James Predmore stands outside the winter shelter entrance at First Congregational Church on Thursday waiting to get in for the night. Predmore has been homeless for four years but now he says he’€™s sober and wants to find a place. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The homeless line up at the entrance of the winter shelter at First Congregational Church on Thursday evening. The Concord Coalition to End Homelessness facility opened on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Kevin Clark enters the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness winter shelter at First Congregational Church on Thursday, December 2, 2021 and checks in with Connor Spern for a bed in the shelter. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/4/2021 7:22:43 PM

On its first night, 18 people came out of the cold to stay at the emergency winter shelter run by the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness. As the Coalition searches for more staff and volunteers to keep the shelter going into a second pandemic winter, Concord finds itself in the midst of a housing crisis and not just for those who have been sleeping outside.

Increasing rents, an extremely low vacancy rate, high home prices and rising property taxes have made the line between the homeless and the housed razor thin. Affordable housing remains scarce in Concord and its poorest residents, who qualify for housing vouchers, need them for longer periods of time while having more difficulty finding qualifying apartments.

Concord Housing and Redevelopment Executive Director John Hoyt said the current moment reminds him of the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, when he saw a greater need for housing assistance as residents struggled to recover from financial setbacks. But this time it’s different. Instead of suffering from a housing collapse, the city’s lowest-income residents are getting beat up by a boom.

Landlords who live nowhere close to the city are buying up properties and evicting existing tenants so they can fix up apartments and increase rents. Existing landlords are feeling pressure to pass on tax increases to their tenants, which can break their budget. Even those with a job and decent credit looking for a place to live can hardly find anything to rent with a city-wide vacancy rate of less than half a percent.

Hoyt doesn’t see rents going down anytime soon.

“This is a long-term problem,” he said. “This is going to be a problem for years to come. I don’t know if the prices will ever settle backwards.”

Will evictions rise?

Last winter, a federal eviction moratorium prevented landlords from evicting tenants for non-payment of rent, but that ban ended in August. Concord’s district court has since implemented landlord-tenant mediation and an eviction diversion program.

Evictions haven’t climbed significantly in Concord since the moratorium ended, according to court data – at least not yet.

Elliot Berry, housing project director at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said while there seem to be more evictions than last year, the numbers haven’t risen much above pre-pandemic levels because renters are still being propped up.

“The reason the numbers aren’t terrible right now is because of the emergency rental assistance program,” Berry said.

The federally funded New Hampshire Emergency Rental Assistance Program has spent $66 million to help more than 9,000 New Hampshire renters pay utilities or rent during the pandemic.

“The market is still absurdly tight and rents are going out of this world. There seems to be a lot of activity on the sales, and virtually every time that happens there’s a significant increase in the rent,” he said.

Berry has seen tenants paying higher rents after a building is sold, either to pay for new renovations or to subsidize a hefty sale price and new mortgage.

While there are signs that the New Hampshire housing market is slowly cooling off, median sale prices in Merrimack County for single-family homes were still up 10.2% in October from the same time last year, with a median price of $349,350. Sales in the county fell 20% this October from October 2020, according to data from New Hampshire Realtors.

Concord realities

As home values increase in Concord, some landlords are passing costs on to their tenants. Water and sewer bills have gone up, and small landlords say they saw significant increases in their most recent property tax bills.

John Hanna, a landlord and owner of Washington Street Cafe, is not planning to raise rents in reaction to his tax bill. He said he doesn’t want his tenants to live in fear of sudden increases. But he has noticed a jump in taxes this year.

“It looks like it’s a rule that every year, that almost every year we get an increase in taxes, but this year it was much higher because of the market value,” Hanna said.

Concord Human Services Director Karen Emis-Williams assists Concord residents facing financial crises, whether it’s preventing a utility shut-off or helping an evicted tenant find new housing.

“I think the housing issue has been always a problem, but now I think it’s more at the forefront because we have such a low vacancy rate,” Emis-Williams said. A July rental survey from New Hampshire Housing put the vacancy rate at 0.4% for Merrimack County, far below what’s considered a balanced rate of 5%.

Some cases Emis-Williams has seen recently included a resident who owed $7,000 in rent who was able to come to a successful agreement with the landlord, and an individual who went to court meditation but was still evicted and locked out by the sheriff.

Although the city can often help people apply for rental assistance, the problem of finding an affordable place to live remains. Emis-Williams directs people to a list of vacancies from New Hampshire Housing, but she can’t create housing where it doesn’t exist.

“We sometimes say ‘you may have to look outside of Concord,’ but even outside of that, they might be finding a difficult time,” she said. “Not even in other communities are they finding the housing, which is really disheartening, because we don’t have the housing here.”

Even with a voucher

Debbie Muse is one tenant who should have no problem finding a place she can afford. But Muse has been forced to move three times in the last nine years because of rising rents.

Since health issues prevent Muse from working, she relies on a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development voucher distributed by New Hampshire Housing that requires her to pay 39% of her income towards rent. The math involved for the voucher’s rental cap can be tricky, factoring in the size of an apartment as well as the heating source and type of stove.

Now that the one-bedroom she shares with a new roommate – an 18-pound Maine Coon cat named Charlie Bear – will cost $1,050 a month, her rent exceeds the limit set by HUD. She will have to find a way to pay for the difference, or move yet again.

“It gives me a headache and stomachache most days,” she said. “I’m on disability so it’s not like I can make extra money or can go out and get a second job.”

The federal housing voucher program that used to be known as Section 8 is now called Housing Choice. But Muse doesn’t feel it offers her many choices.

“The whole point of the Section 8 program is so that elderly, disabled and poor people aren’t congregated in the same apartment buildings,” she said.

Muse has had a voucher for 20 years and she said it’s become harder to find landlords in Concord who accept Section 8 tenants, either because of the extra paperwork involved or because they associate vouchers with bad renters.

“Often what I hear is ‘we used to rent to Section 8 tenants and that brought an undesirable element to our building’,” she said.

New Hampshire is one of just 19 states with no laws or local ordinances that prohibit landlords from discriminating against tenants for the source of their income, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.

“I’ve had friends say before ‘it must be so nice to have the government cover everything for you.’ I think what people don’t understand is that you’re at the mercy of the government, and that’s not a good place to be,” Muse said.

“A double whammy”for poor renters

Concord Housing and Redevelopment distributes HUD vouchers to Concord residents who qualify, although Muse gets her voucher through New Hampshire Housing instead. Executive Director Hoyt said many people with vouchers struggle to find housing with rent at the level that the federal agency considers fair market.

HUD’s fair market rents are based on nationwide surveys, but they lag about two years behind, meaning that renters with vouchers are searching for housing based on 2019 market values, he said.

According to the HUD website, a fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Concord is $1,237 a month, but according to New Hampshire Housing, the median rent for a two-bedroom in Merrimack County is $1,339.

“We have a ceiling for how much we can pay for an apartment and the rents they are finding are above what HUD allows us to pay,” Hoyt said. Combined with a low vacancy rate, that low rental cap represents “a double whammy” for renters.

Concord Housing’s HUD voucher program is at 100% capacity. The wait list has grown since July, when renters were waiting four years to get a voucher. Now the wait time is about five years.

The public housing units that Concord Housing manages as well as its vouchers are meant to be temporary help until residents can land back on their feet financially. Now instead of the 20% turnover Hoyt might normally see in its program, fewer than 10% of people are cycling out of housing assistance.

“One of the effects of the pandemic is that no one is moving,” Hoyt said. “No one is getting out of the program because they just can’t find jobs that pay enough to make the  rent.”

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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