O P I N I O N
Stand up. Speak up. It’s Your Turn.
Manchester is the largest city in New Hampshire and all of Northern New England. It is a hub for commerce, finance, higher education, culture, and it drives much of the state’s economy. There is one thing glaringly absent from the Queen City though; Manchester does not have a plan for housing.
Home to approximately 112,000 residents, about half of Manchester’s population is made up of renters. With a rental vacancy rate of under 1 percent, housing in the city is scarce, and the housing we do have is expensive. Manchester has recently become more expensive than 94 percent of all HUD Metro Areas. According to NH Housing, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city is $1,406, representing on average a $3,600 increase of the total yearly cost to rent over the past five years alone.
Wages, however, have not kept pace. The National Low Income Housing Coalition calculates that the salary needed to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the Manchester area without spending more than 30 percent of income on rent is $23.62. The estimated renter salary in the city is $17.75.
Manchester’s vibrant restaurant scene is dependent on thousands of food service workers with a median wage of $11.58 an hour. South Willow Street brings a billion dollars worth of commerce into the city every year, but the median salary of area retail workers is $14.88.
It is estimated that New Hampshire’s population of residents 60 and older will grow by 29 percent in the next 20 years. We’ll need more people to take care of our aging population. Currently, the median salary for a nursing assistant is $15.95. The people in these jobs are critical to Manchester’s economic health and vitality as a city. They need decent, stable, affordable housing. So will those aging residents who will be unable to afford to stay in their current housing once they are living on pensions and social security.
The shortage of affordable housing in the city has created an imbalance of power between renters and landlords, and tenants have very few protections. Low vacancy rates have emboldened landlords to repeatedly raise rents to the point that long-term, reliable tenants are forced out. Rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city has increased by 26 percent over the last five years.
In addition, Manchester has a lot of older housing stock and some of it is poorly maintained, to the point of being unsafe. Renters are afraid to press landlords for repairs for fear of being evicted, blacklisted, and ultimately left homeless. This has become more common practice as the demand for housing has reached critical levels.
When the Amoskeag Mills were built, the owners began constructing worker housing at the same time, because they understood that safe, affordable housing was key to attracting and maintaining a reliable workforce.
Manchester needs to put housing in the center of any conversation, and more to the point, affordable housing. While there is currently a task force focusing on the homelessness crisis facing the city, we need to take a long-term approach to the overall issue as well. A broader housing task force focused on the challenges of providing a diverse supply of housing for all residents, of different ages and income levels, would be a good start.
The task force will incorporate the findings of the consultants working on the city’s master plan, hear testimony from tenants, landlords, builders, nonprofits and employers, and study best practices from other communities having overcome similar challenges.
Ultimately the report produced by the task force will identify the types of housing needed in the community, clarify what affordability means in our current economy, make recommendations on changes to policies and practices that are barriers to construction of more affordable units, look for opportunities to increase the supply of housing, and identify the best course of action to keep current residents from being displaced.
The community focus on the city’s housing stock should not end with the task force report. Most cities our size and many smaller communities in the state have a permanent housing coalition that monitors trends, seeks opportunities to increase the number of affordable units, and advocates for beneficial housing policies at the local and state levels.
The time has come for Manchester to take housing seriously.
People who are interested in learning more about renter’s rights are invited to attend a Tenants’ Rights Forum hosted by Progressive Manchester and featuring a presentation by NH Legal Assistance on Thursday, March 5 at 6:30 PM at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 669 Union Street.
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Marcus Ponce de Leon is a Candidate for State Representative in Hillsborough District 12 in Manchester (Ward 5), and a Community Advocate working with local organizations Progressive Manchester and the Manchester Housing Alliance on advancing issues surrounding safe, stable and adequate housing in the Queen City.