As winter shelters open for the season, housing crisis looms

On its first night, 18 people emerged from the cold to stay in the emergency winter shelter run by the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness. As the Coalition seeks more staff and volunteers to maintain the shelter in a second pandemic winter, Concord finds itself in the midst of a housing crisis and not just for those sleeping outside.

Rising rents, an extremely low vacancy rate, high house prices and rising property taxes have narrowed the line between the homeless and the housed. Affordable housing remains scarce in Concord and its poorer residents, who are entitled to 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 an increased 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 lower income residents are booming.

Landlords who live far from the city buy properties and evict existing tenants so they can repair apartments and raise rents. Existing landlords are feeling pressure to pass tax increases on to their tenants, which can cause their budgets to explode. Even those with a job and decent credit looking for housing can hardly find anything to rent with a citywide vacancy rate of less than half a percent.

Hoyt doesn’t see rents going down anytime soon.

“It’s a long term problem,” he said. “This is going to be a problem for years to come. I don’t know if prices will ever stabilize upside down.

Will evictions increase?

Last winter, a federal moratorium on evictions prevented landlords from evicting tenants for non-payment of rent, but that ban ended in August. Concord District Court has since implemented a landlord-tenant mediation and eviction diversion program.

Evictions have not increased significantly in Concord since the moratorium ended, court data shows – at least not yet.

Elliot Berry, director of the housing project at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said that while there appear to be more evictions than last year, the numbers haven’t greatly exceeded pre-pandemic levels, because tenants are always supported.

“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 tenants pay utilities or rent during the pandemic.

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

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

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

Concord realities

As home values ​​increase in Concord, some landlords pass the costs on to their tenants. Water and sewer bills have gone up, and small homeowners say they’ve seen their most recent property tax bills go up dramatically.

John Hanna, owner and owner of Washington Street Cafe, has no plans to raise rents in response to his tax bill. He said he didn’t want his tenants to live in fear of sudden increases. But he has noticed a tax increase this year.

“It seems like it’s a rule that every year, almost every year, we get a tax increase, but this year it was a lot higher because of the market value,” Hanna said.

Concord Director of Social Services Karen Emis-Williams helps Concord residents facing financial crises, from preventing a service outage to helping an evicted tenant find new housing.

“I think the housing issue has always been a problem, but now I think it’s more in the foreground 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, well below what is considered a break-even rate of 5%.

Some cases that Emis-Williams saw recently included a resident who owed $ 7,000 in rent who managed to make a deal with the landlord, and a person who went to court for meditation but was still evicted and put on trial. lockout by the sheriff.

Although the city can often help people apply for rental assistance, the problem of finding affordable housing remains. Emis-Williams directs people to a New Hampshire Housing list of vacant units, but she cannot create units where there are none.

“We say sometimes ‘you might have to look outside of Concord’, but even outside of that they might have a hard time,” she said. “Even in other communities, they can’t find housing, which is really discouraging, because we don’t have housing here.

Even with a good

Debbie Muse is a tenant who should have no problem finding accommodation that she can afford. But Muse has been forced to move three times in the past nine years due to rising rents.

Since health issues prevent Muse from working, she relies on a voucher from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development distributed by New Hampshire Housing that only requires her to pay 39% of her rent. The calculations involved for the voucher’s rental limit can be tricky, taking into account the size of an apartment as well as the heating source and type of stove.

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

“It gives me a headache and stomach ache most of the time,” she said. “I’m on disability so it’s not like I can make the extra money or go out and find a second job.”

The federal housing voucher program, which was previously called Section 8, is now called Housing Choice. But Muse doesn’t think it gives him much to choose from.

“The point of the Section 8 program is to ensure that the elderly, the disabled and the poor are not gathered in the same apartment buildings,” she said.

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

“A lot of times what I hear is ‘we used to rent to tenants in section 8 and that brought an unwanted element to our building,’” she said.

New Hampshire is one of 19 states without local laws or ordinances prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants based on the source of their income, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.

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

“A double whammy” for poor tenants

Concord Housing and Redevelopment distributes HUD vouchers to qualifying Concord residents, although Muse obtains his voucher through New Hampshire Housing instead. Executive Director Hoyt said many people with bonds find it difficult to find housing with rent at the level the federal agency sees as a fair market.

HUD’s Fair Market rents are based on national surveys, but they are around two years behind, meaning tenants with good deals are looking for housing based on 2019 market values, he said. -he declares.

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

“We have a cap on what we can pay for an apartment and the rents they find are higher than what the HUD allows us to pay,” Hoyt said. Combined with a low vacancy rate, this low rental ceiling represents “a double whammy” for tenants.

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

Social housing managed by Concord Housing and its vouchers are meant to be temporary help until residents can get back on their feet financially. Today, instead of the 20% turnover that Hoyt would normally see in his program, less than 10% of people are forgoing housing assistance.

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

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