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Photos by Stacy Harrison
MANCHESTER, NH – On a hot and humid August afternoon, Rachel Jones and her husband Glen are sitting on a bed in their air-conditioned room at the Comfort Inn. It has been home for them and their 11-year-old granddaughter for nearly two months, ever since their new landlord hiked their rent and then evicted them for renovations.
They don’t know how long they will be in the hotel. The New Hampshire Emergency Rental Assistance program (NHERAP), through Southern New Hampshire Services (SNHS), is covering the cost. SNHS is the Community Action Program (CAP) for Hillsborough County where the state’s two largest cities – Manchester and Nashua — are located.
They are not alone.
She said there are about 70 other people at the hotel who were evicted as well. “We’re all in the same boat,” she said.
The pandemic and hot New Hampshire real estate market has disproportionately affected the state’s very low income who are being ousted from their homes by current landlords citing the need to renovate the aged housing stock.
In some cases, the buildings are redone, in others, not so much, but the bottom line is apartment dwellers are left scrambling to find suitable and affordable places. The squeeze on housing has left about 600 households – 750 to 900 people – residing in motels with the federal government footing the bill at a cost of millions of dollars a month.
Those funds, doled out through the Emergency Assistance Rental Program, are expected to run out by the end of the year, experts say. When that happens, they say local welfare departments across the state will be inundated with people seeking help. By law, welfare departments have to help the poor and cannot run out of money.
Renovation Eviction an ‘Alarming’ Trend
Todd Marsh, president of the New Hampshire Local Welfare Administrators Association and director of Rochester’s welfare department, said renovation evictions are happening statewide. People in Rochester approach the welfare office almost daily asking for a list of landlords with affordable housing.
“We will give them some landlord numbers knowing that a lot of them have changed because it’s hard to keep up (with buildings being sold),” he said. “We’ll give them what we think we have. But then there’s that look in their eyes. They don’t know where to go. Even people with two people working in the household making what used to be good money, who no matter how much they shuffle their money around, they can’t afford the rent. They’ve never been there before.”
Late in August, he said all of Rochester’s motels were full, but he didn’t know how many of the guests were there because they had been evicted. That is because those costs are being covered by federal funds through the temporary ERAP, the federal emergency program enacted to help tenants affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. When the funds run out, however, he expects welfare offices across the state will be inundated with requests for help.
Grace Lessner, director of communications and marketing for NH Housing, which distributes the ERAP funds, said there were 600 “households” (one or more persons) staying in motels statewide at the end of July. Many of those individuals, like the Joneses, became homeless after being evicted because they couldn’t pay skyrocketing rents and/or their building was sold and the new landlord wanted them out so they could renovate the place. Affordable housing is hard to come by when New Hampshire has a vacancy rate of .5 percent.
Elliott Berry, managing attorney of the Manchester Office of New Hampshire Legal Assistance and director of the Housing Project, estimates those 600 households translates into 750 to 900 people in hotels/motels.
“That’s alarming,” he said.
Jessica Margeson hosts a tenants’ clinic each Wednesday afternoon at the Granite State Organizing Project, 1045 Elm St., Suite 201, Manchester, which sponsors the clinic. In July, SNHS had 400 households on a waiting list for motels, she said.
By Sept. 12, they no longer tally it by households. “I was just told last week it’s a 10-month waiting list now,” Margeson said. “They are not even going by how many (households) are on it.”
She said Hillsborough County applications for federal assistance are growing as well.
“Assistance applications went from an eight-week backlog to closer to 15 to 16 weeks,” she said.
And while a request for the precise cost of hotel vouchers was not answered for this story, Margeson said the cost for a room at the Comfort Inn is $120 per night which is about $3,600 per month – and when multiplied by 600 households, as much as $2.16 million per month.
New Hampshire’s Hot Housing Market
Margeson estimates the hot real estate market and the subsequent ever-increasing rent hikes has eliminated 75 percent of affordable housing in the state’s largest city.
Over the past year, Manchester and Concord have topped Realtor.com’s hottest markets list: Nationwide, Manchester held the top spot for nine out of 12 months and Concord ranked No. 1 in June 2022.
Manchester, with an abundance of 100-plus-year-old multi-family buildings, was just what investors were seeking. Rundown apartment buildings, which are affordable for those with low income, fueled the housing rush for investors, many of whom after buying the properties, upped rents by the hundreds and/or served long-time tenants with renovation evictions.
Marsh said many renters are unable to move money around to cover the increased monthly rents. Tenants report rents being doubled, sometimes $1,500 a month or more. Many who have never been behind in their rent in their lives, quickly fall behind and are served eviction notices. Once evicted, they have an even harder time finding a home because many landlords will not consider someone who has an eviction on their record, no matter the reason.
Most tenants opt to fight the evictions because they discover there is nowhere to go; any apartment they can afford, they are told, has a years-long waiting list. The pricier ones have a waiting list of up to four years, according to Lee Ann Blanchard, 59, another motel resident.
Blanchard won’t say why she was evicted from her Nashua apartment in the Cotton Mill, 30 Front St., where she had resided in a subsidized unit for about six years. A former hair stylist, Blanchard is medically disabled and receiving supplemental Social Security.
She said she decided not to fight the eviction but, at the time, she had no idea it would be impossible to find another affordable place.
After being evicted, she initially stayed in her parents’ finished basement, arriving with trash bags full of clothes and two broken arms, the result of a fall weeks earlier. That didn’t work out and she found herself on the streets, calling SNHS for help.
She was given a voucher for the Manchester hotel room.
“I’m a happy-go-lucky woman but this is tough,” she said. “I’m a 60-year-old handicapped woman facing homelessness for the first time. As a single mom who raised three kids on her own, here I am now having everybody else pretty much dote on me or help me. I don’t like it.”
Both Jones and Blanchard say they are fortunate to have hotel accommodations. Their rooms are bright and come with a television, desk, small refrigerator, microwave and air conditioning. They also may use the motel’s workout room, swimming pool and sauna. They also have access to a function room where they can host birthday parties or other special events.
The hotel also includes maid service, although Blanchard was quick to help the employee making her king-size bed.
Marsh said people with the lowest incomes are the ones being hurt the most by renovation evictions.
“Say, someone’s income on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) is $850 a month. There was a time that $850 a month could house and feed someone. It’s no longer the case,” said Marsh, who has been Rochester’s welfare director for 20 years.
He said people are approaching the welfare office because they were struggling previously to pay the rent and now, they can’t afford it.
And for those who can, he said one major car repair bill or some other unexpected expense is enough to set them on a path to an eviction and homelessness.
No Legislative Relief in NH
In New Hampshire, there is no limit on how much a landlord can raise a tenant’s rent. Tenants also have no recourse when a landlord goes to court and swears under oath that the occupants need to vacate the apartments in order for them to make extensive renovations.
However, there is no penalty if a landlord does no renovations or merely paints the kitchen, calls it a day and brings in a new tenant at a markedly higher rent. In the last legislative session, there was an attempt to give tenants 90 days to find another place when being evicted. In the Senate, the number of days was reduced to 60 days and then passed. In the House, however, it was defeated.
NH State Rep. Pat Long said legislation introduced in the last session failed, in part, because the landlord lobby is so strong.
“We were trying to get a 60- or 90-day extension for evictions because, when eviction is not due to lack of payment you have to give them time,” Long said. “But then it died. The landlord lobbyists are very strong. And also, what is an issue in Manchester is not necessarily an issue in rural parts of the state – yet we know that there are people from all over coming to Manchester for services.
“Until the state, municipalities and landlords collaborate on amenable solutions, this issue will keep on devastating our citizens while they continue as workers in our economy which, by the way, will eventually hurt our economy,” he said.
ERAP has provided the lifeline those displaced tenants need, Lessner said.
“The NHERAP (New Hampshire ERAP) program has been a critical tool in providing NH households a lifeline by providing rental and utility assistance to individuals and families suffering impacts from the pandemic. Over $190 million has been provided to benefit over 20,000 households statewide. In addition, the state has also committed $100 million to impact the availability of affordable housing through the InvestNH program,” she said.
CAPs (Community Action Programs) around the state “are using the NHERAP funds to assist households, get families housed, and provide support services — recognizing that at some point, the federal government will no longer be providing this important resource,” she said.
In some instances, individual CAPs contract with motels/hotels for ease of payment.
At the end of two months, those lucky enough to get the vouchers must reapply for it and prove they have been searching for an apartment.
‘Stressful’ and ‘Depressing’
The Joneses say while the accommodations are nice, it isn’t home. They pay out more than $400 to store their household goods and daily they go online searching for an apartment.
The situation is stressful and depressing, Rachel said. Glen suffered a minor stroke and is struggling with a bout of depression.
Rachel was born and raised in Manchester while Glen moved here from Massachusetts when he was 15, settling into the 191 Beech St. apartment he called home for 24 years. Rachel joined him 15 years ago.
Both worked until they became disabled; he worked construction, she worked in manufacturing.
Their rent was low — $750 a month with utilities included, but Glen was the handyman for the landlord, Charles King of Hudson, taking care of what he calls “stupid stuff.” A tenant loses his keys and can’t get into his apartment, minor repairs, that sort of thing, he said.
“He was a nice guy,” Rachel said of King. But he wanted to retire to Florida to be with his mother who is in her late 80s or early 90s, she said.
The new owner, RNC LLC which is owned by Richard Keyes of New Boston, made King an offer he couldn’t refuse, Glen said. King, who bought the six-unit building in 2000 for $126,000 sold it to RNC in September 2021 for $478,000. Once the sale went through, Rachel said their rent was raised to $1,100 a month and they were handed an eviction for renovations. The new landlord also installed electric meters for each unit so they also were required to pay the utilities.
Rachel said they asked the new owner if they could return to their apartment once it was renovated and was told, no, they wanted “fresh tenants.”
Rachel said wouldn’t a landlord want someone like them, who always paid the rent and took care of the building as well?
“They just kick you out the door like you’re a piece of trash,” she said.
When asked about the Joneses, Keyes said the renovations to the building were necessary.
After he purchased the century-old building at 191 Beech St. he spent about $125,000 on renovating it, which included new electrical, heating, flooring, appliances, doors, windows, paving, etc.
Keyes said Ledgeview Commercial Properties, his management company, notified all the tenants of their intention to renovate the building which he said was infested with bed bugs.
Since the renovations were complete, Keyes said he re-rented the units for $1,250 each, plus utilities. All the units are occupied.
Asked if the Joneses, were told they wanted “fresh tenants,” when they asked if they could return once the apartment was renovated, Keyes said he didn’t know if that was what they were told but said that isn’t a term he uses.
But he did say that there were three adults and a child living in the small, one-bedroom apartment. “It really was just too small for that many people,” he said.
Keyes, 58, said after years of work, first in the U.S. Army, then in the computer field and in sales, decided to find something else to invest in other than the stock market after it crashed in 2008. He initially bought two small buildings in Manchester, sold them and then bought others. He now owns a total of eight buildings – seven in Manchester and one in Milford – with a total of 47 apartments.
Now retired, Keyes said he lives comfortably from the income the rental properties generate.
“I do think there are a lot of people taking advantage,” he said.
‘It’s Out of Control’
Stephanie Savard, chief external relations officer with Families in Transition and director of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness, said she does not know how many people are being left without a home because of evictions but, she said, just hearing from providers “it’s out of control.”
She said NH Housing is helping people hang on to their units but they are being asked to leave. “It’s impossible to find apartments,” she said. “The pandemic, rent increases, substance abuse, mental health all just became this perfect storm. It’s the tip of the iceberg.”
She said it all began with the lack of affordable housing before the pandemic. “It’s frightening,” she said especially with winter coming and the cost of oil, gas and especially electricity all increasing.
Savard, who has worked in the housing field for 26 years, said she never saw a vacancy rate so low. “We’ve had increases in homelessness but undoubtedly this is the worse I’ve ever seen.”
FIT, she said, has no plans to add beds for the homeless because they have no room to expand. Their focus, she said, is on affordable housing.
They have 138 beds at the 199 Manchester St. shelter, with 131 to 135 filled each night at this time of year but which will be at capacity as soon as the weather cools. They have another 11 units available for families which are full.
Marsh said the board of directors of NHLWAA are in contact with Lynn Lippitt, director of Housing Services at New Hampshire Housing concerning what is happening. As of July, he said NH Housing saw no end date to ERAP. NH Housing, at the time, had received another $30 million in federal funds and was expecting more, he wrote the state’s welfare directors on July 19, 2022.
He said NH Housing is monitoring the program closely and “will provide a reasonable notice when they determine funds will be fully expended.” Housing advocates expect that will be before the year ends unless more funding is procured.
Should the funds run out, Marsh said people are expected to turn for help to their local welfare offices. He said the state’s welfare laws are among the oldest and are modeled after the poor laws established during the Elizabethan era circa 1600 in England which provided for the elderly, poor and those unable to work.
The state welfare association, he said, has approved an ethics agreement under which ERAP assisted households in emergency housing are to be referred to their municipality of origin when seeking local welfare assistance.
That means when the funds run out, a person from Derry being housed in a motel in Manchester will be referred to the Derry welfare office for assistance, not Manchester.
So, where local welfare offices caught a break because of the ERAP funds, that may soon come to an end. Under state law, Marsh said, no welfare office can run out of money.
In the 1970s, Elliott Berry, managing attorney of the Manchester office of New Hampshire Legal Assistance and Housing Project Director, led the NHLA’s effort to try and implement rent control. It failed. And as he contemplates his retirement at the end of this month, after spending his entire career in these trenches for tenants’ rights, Berry calls it the biggest failure of his career.