MANCHESTER, NH – Last Spring Zoey Martin looked out her window and saw surveyors taking measurements in her Kennard Road apartment complex and she knew that was not a good sign.
The past year was not a good one for Martin. Her husband was hospitalized five times during the year, she aggravated an old injury and had to stop working in September, and the cherry on top was a notice from her landlord that her rent was going up from $1,274 a month to $1,510.
“2020 just crunched me. It just sucked the soul out of me,” said Martin
While the calendar moved on, Martin’s bad luck continued when she received a notice from her landlord that they would be renovating her apartment and her lease would not be renewed. She would have to be out by April 30 or her rent would double.
The North East Apartment Community development, where she has lived for 16 years, was sold after the death of her landlord, John Vratsenes, who built the complex in the 1970s. After a short period with a company in Massachusetts, the entire thing was purchased by Brady-Sullivan in 2019.
Brady-Sullivan has been renovating units since the summer, adding vinyl siding on the exteriors, and installing granite countertops and stainless steel appliances on the inside. The property manager has offered the Martins applications for the newly renovated units, which are going for between $1,675 and $2,400 a month. For Martin that is out of her price range. “Nobody can afford that,” she said.
Both she and her husband are on Social Security. Kevin Martin was employed by Aramark as a maintenance worker at Central High School until health problems made it impossible for him to work. Their adult son Paul also lives with them. In spite of all the setbacks, the Martins have never missed a rent payment.
Being told that they must move during the middle of a pandemic and finding a 2-bedroom, first-floor apartment that would be affordable has been a challenge.
And then the Martins’ story took an unexpected turn last month when they received a call from Brady-Sullivan telling them that they can stay for now and that their rent will revert back to $1,274 per month. They are grateful, given that Kevin Martin recently had heart surgery, but they continue to search for a new place.
“In the past I’ve always moved out on my own terms,” said Martin. “I always paid the rent on time because I didn’t want to give anyone an excuse to kick me out, “ she said.
Still, the stress has taken a toll on her. “I don’t need to be this age in this position.”
Their son has started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover their moving expenses, when the time comes.
According to the NH Housing Finance Authority 2020 rental survey [full report can also be found below] the average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Manchester is $1,483 per month. The vacancy rate is about 2 percent, when 5 percent is considered manageable, and more people are staying where they are because of the COVID pandemic.
Bianka Beaudoin, Executive Director of The Way Home, says that the Martins are not alone in their plight. She points to changing economics as a contributor to the problem. Landlords are looking to take advantage of high housing prices by selling out or upscaling their properties and that puts a lot of people at risk of losing their housing through no fault of their own.
Unfortunately, a lot of those impacted are low income and Beaudoin says that the low inventory of affordable units is exacerbating the homelessness crisis.
What can you do if you are being evicted?
Recently the CDC extended the eviction moratorium to June 30. The language of the moratorium specifically mentions renters who are behind on rent due to COVID, but is vague about the Martin’s case, where they were being evicted to facilitate a renovation project.
Many people, when they get that notification from their landlord, think it is a done deal. While Martin did begin looking for a new place to live, she also reached out to other community resources to learn about her rights, where she might find an affordable apartment, and steps she could take to potentially remain in her home.
Beaudoin suggests that renters who find themselves in this situation reach out for help. The Way Home can help tenants with understanding their rights, finding a new apartment and, depending on the case, with financial assistance.
She recommends reaching out to all the organizations that can potentially help, “The Way Home, 211, Families in Transition, Southern New Hampshire Services, NH Housing Finance Authority, and City Welfare. Get connected with as many as possible to see who can get you help the quickest,” she advises.
“City welfare provided us with lists of landlords who rent affordable units and I also found ServiceLink very helpful”, said Martin
The latest COVID relief package includes $20 million sent to New Hampshire for rent relief. The program began taking applications on March 15. Tenants and landlords can apply for these funds through their local Community Action Program. Southern New Hampshire Services manages the program in Manchester. Granite State Organizing Project also has a fund for people who may not qualify for other types of help.
Many people don’t realize that the date given on the initial notice from the landlord, the 7-day demand for rent or the 30-day notice when the building is being sold or the landlord is going to undertake a major renovation process, is not when a tenant can be evicted. Rather it is when the landlord can begin the eviction process in the courts.
Some people choose to avoid going to court, but others decide to use the process to buy time in order to avoid being homeless.
State-level and federal solutions
New Hampshire has been grappling with an affordable housing crisis for years. The shortage of rental units is driving up prices and many renters of modest means are getting displaced. Young people working in low-wage jobs in food service or retail, single parents, and retirees are especially hard hit.
Elissa Margolin, Director of Housing Action NH, sees the solution as twofold. “First, we need to increase the number of units of affordable housing and second we need to protect tenants.”
She looks to the NH State House to enact legislation that encourages construction of affordable units and also removes barriers. Over the last few years the NH Legislature has increased funding to the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund which provides financial support to developers building affordable units.
House Bill 586, which would have enabled extended tax incentives for developers of affordable housing, created a Housing Champions reward program, and provided education to local planning boards about their role in interpreting policy, was narrowly defeated by the NH House earlier this year.
Margolin says that community members can play a role by speaking up in favor of having a range of housing in their towns and cities, including options for people who are retiring, like the Martins, and for those who are just starting out. “People should promote a, ‘Let’s make room for everyone’ attitude.”
When it comes to tenant protections, New Hampshire is a “Just Cause” eviction state. Tenants can be removed for non-payment of rent, failure to comply with the lease, destructive or dangerous behavior, or to rent to a family member. The law also permits a landlord to remove a tenant in order to undertake major renovations, as is the case with the Martins and the other residents of the North East Apartment Community. However, they can’t tell you to leave without a reason.
Elliot Berry of NH Legal Assistance was instrumental in passing the “Just Cause” law in 1985. He has concerns about a bill making its way through the legislature this term. House Bill 227, sponsored by Rep. Robert Lynn, R-Windham, would allow landlords to evict tenants for no cause at the end of their leases. The bill will likely be voted on when the NH House meets on April 7 and then, if passed, it will go to the Senate.
If it becomes law Berry expects to see an uptick in evictions. “More people will be evicted for sure, simply because the landlord doesn’t like them for some reason,” he said.
Berry also thinks that more housing vouchers, which subsidize rent for low-income people, would help. During one of Kevin Martin’s hospitalizations, they were assigned a social worker who helped them apply for a HUD Section 8 voucher to help with rental costs. Currently, there is an 8-year wait for vouchers.
“Paying people a living wage, so they can afford to pay rent, would also help,” Berry added.
John Washington, of Buffalo, NY, is an organizer with People’s Action’s Homes Guarantee campaign. During his years of organizing renters he has seen how much ordinary people who are directly impacted by the nationwide affordable housing crisis can accomplish.
He has been working with members of the Manchester Housing Alliance to develop strategies for increasing their membership and empowering local renters to work collectively to add more affordable housing and prevent the loss of affordable units to gentrification.
He says there are many ways that renters have mobilized to protect housing assets around the country. In some places landlords are required by law to give tenants the right of first refusal when they plan to sell their buildings.
Washington also cites land trusts and cooperatively owned buildings as a way to improve and expand the stock of affordable housing in a community. Land trusts are non-profit entities that acquire and own land and then build or renovate homes to sell to qualified buyers at an affordable rate. When the house is sold, a cap is placed on the amount of profit, so the building will remain affordable to future buyers. This discourages real estate speculation and keeps the homes in a price range that people of modest means can afford.
Above: A community information meeting held in February 2021 by the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust in Buffalo, NY.
In Buffalo, Washington was involved in the establishment of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust in 2017. Residents in the Fruit Belt neighborhood were being displaced by increasing rents and development caused by the expansion of Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
The City of Buffalo owned 200 lots in the area and turned over 50 lots to the land trust for the development of affordable homes. By partnering with non-profit developers, such as Habitat for Humanity, they have already built several homes and have plans to construct many more affordable single-family, and multi-family mixed-use structures in the neighborhood.
Washington has also been involved in creating cooperative housing where tenants own the building and are responsible for the mortgage, taxes, and maintenance. Rents are agreed upon collectively and are based on those costs.
Not all forms of housing are as profitable as others. Washington sees community control as the way to make sure that there is a range of housing for all ages and incomes. He recommends removing land from the market and placing it in the hands of the community whenever possible.
He also believes that community members should hold elected officials and city decision-makers accountable. “You shouldn’t give developers everything they want. The use of tax incentives is often a driver of gentrification and displacement. Community members should play a role in the decision-making process. It leads to more stable communities and everyone benefits,” said Washington.
Renters make up almost half of the households in Manchester. Washington wants them to organize so they can offer each other support and take advantage of opportunities to take control of their own housing, This is why he is working with Manchester Housing Alliance.
Brandon Lemay is the Housing Justice Organizer for Rights and Democracy and the lead organizer for the Manchester Housing Alliance. He describes the organization as a group of Manchester tenants and homeowners united to ensure that everyone has a safe affordable home. “We are using the power of grassroots organizing to advocate for systemic change,” he said.
The Manchester Housing Alliance will be holding an online meeting focused on tenants’ rights on Monday, April 5 at 7 p.m. More information and Zoom link available here.
View the NH Residential Rental Cost Survey Report below: