Bill would give tenants evicted for renovations an extra 30 days

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Linda McKenna, pictured last July with one of her six cats, on the stairwell of the apartment she lived in on Washington Street in Penacook for 30 years. Mckenna is facing eviction after the building was sold. Photo/Concord Monitor

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CONCORD, NH – Six months after she was evicted from her apartment because the building’s new owner wanted to renovate, Linda McKenna still hasn’t found a permanent place to call home.

A New Hampshire Senate bill making its way through the legislature would increase the amount of time that tenants in her situation have to find new housing, even though it’s too late for her. 

McKenna and her adult son, plus three cats, are now crashing in a friend’s two-bedroom apartment in Concord after a fall spent sleeping in their car or in motel rooms. To keep warm on October and November nights, she would create a cocoon around the front seat with a cold-weather sleeping bag and invite a cat inside to keep her warm.

Meanwhile, the new owners of McKenna’s former two-bedroom apartment at 29 Washington Street in Penacook are seeking a new tenant willing to pay $1,500 a month, twice the amount of rent she paid. When building owners Derek Lawton and Sean Engels sent tenants in all five units eviction notices last summer, the federal pandemic eviction moratorium was still in effect. Because non-payment of rent wasn’t at issue, Lawton and Engel could legally evict McKenna and her neighbors

The Senate bill now before the House Judiciary Committee would extend the notice that landlords must give tenants being evicted for renovations from 30 days to 60 days.

Prime sponsor Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka worked with Elliot Berry, an attorney at New Hampshire Legal Assistance and director of NHLA’s Housing Justice Project, to draft Senate Bill 217, which has passed the Senate Commerce Committee. The Senate amended the bill to decrease the days a tenant is given from 90 days to 60 days.

Berry testified at a public hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 6 that the current rental market, with a vacancy rate under 1 percent across the state, is the worst he’s seen in more than 40 years as a New Hampshire housing attorney.

“We have seen a major, major spike in evictions, where the reason is that the landlord wants to renovate the property or the landlord wants to sell the property,” he said.

SB 217 would do nothing to address property owners who claim they plan to renovate as a ruse to get rid of a tenant but never intend to make significant changes, something that can be hard to prove in court. 

“This is not about bad landlords,” Berry said. “It’s simply about giving people a little more protection, a little more time, so that extra day or an extra week or an extra month might enable them to avoid going to a homeless shelter.”

Nick Norman, director of legislative affairs for the Apartment Association of New Hampshire, argued that more delays to the eviction process would hasten the replacement of mom-and-pop landlords with large corporate property owners. 

“Anytime that you extend notices, it’s going to cause pressure on driving up the rents; it would delay repairs,” Norman said. “It doesn’t cure the issue: The issue is a shortage in supply.” He called instead for a focus on increasing inventory by building more rental housing, particularly workforce and affordable housing. 

Norman also said the extension for renovations would prevent landlords from evicting nuisance tenants, who fall under a different provision in state law, within 30 days. That includes tenants who pose a threat to the safety of their neighbors, are trafficking drugs or perpetrating domestic violence. 

“It’s very hard to win an eviction case for that kind of thing,” Norman said, in part because other tenants are afraid to testify in court. “But what you can do, and so one of the only things that the state allows, is you can say, ‘OK, for business reasons, I’m going to renovate that apartment.’ ”

New Hampshire Legal Assistance attorney Sofia Hyatt said that what Norman described – claiming a renovation to evict a tenant for another reason – was a manipulation of the court process. 

Hyatt said she had a client who was evicted for renovations and saw his former unit painted and rented out for $50 more a month. 

“This is regularly used by landlords to circumvent the legal eviction process, and you should not be making your decision based on supporting what you know to be manipulation of that process,” she said.

McKenna thinks the bill is a good start but not enough to help tenants in her situation. When a judge granted her an extra 30 days, it wasn’t long enough

“It would help a little bit more, but for people who live on a fixed income, it’s still going to be hard to find a place,” she said. McKenna’s son works at a gas station, and she relies on disability assistance. The affordable housing waitlists in the Concord area can stretch for years. 

Another problem for McKenna is that the eviction has sullied her rental record. When the property owner began the court process for her eviction, it was entered into the landlord reporting system. Potential landlords don’t know that she was evicted for reasons outside her control, not for being a bad tenant. 

“It doesn’t seem fair,” she said. “If people want to renovate, and you get evicted for renovations, I don’t think that should count against you.”

For now, McKenna’s current plan is to stay with her friend long enough to save up money to put toward a downpayment on a house. “That way, I don’t have to worry about evictions anymore,” she said. 

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Cassidy Jensen

Cassidy Jensen is a reporter for the Concord Monitor.