'Housing is nonexistent'
Low-income people left out in 'landlord's market'
Pick an issue. Addiction and substance misuse? Mental health? Domestic and sexual violence? Abuse? Poverty?
When considering the factors that cause any one person to become homeless, there is no singular path, nor can their stories be lumped into tidy boxes that can be ticked off a checklist. Within the Seacoast’s homeless community, the state of homelessness is often a symptom of numerous interconnected issues.
However, officials say, there is one issue that is continuing the cycle of homelessness more than any other on the Seacoast. That issue is housing — specifically, the inability to find and retain affordable and safe housing in a market that has seen demand and rental prices skyrocket for years.
“Some of the places we’ve looked at say they’ve got 100 people applying for the same apartment,” said Jonathan Leonard, a former Dover resident whose family of seven has been living out of a van as they look for a place to live. “You almost have to be the perfect applicant.”
Rochester Welfare Director Todd Marsh agreed.
“It’s a landlord’s market,” said Marsh, who has previously served as director of the Homeless Center for Strafford County and as residential manager at My Friend’s Place, a shelter in Dover. “They can take the best of the best.”
It’s not hard to see why that is true, according to Lauren Berman, who is Community Action Partnership of Strafford County’s director of program operations. A quick look at local housing market data tells Berman anyone “could easily be homeless.”
Communities throughout the Seacoast are reporting their rental vacancy rates are hovering around 1 percent — and in some cases even less — while the statewide vacancy rate is 1.4 percent. Those figures have continued to fall sharply year over year. The New Hampshire Housing Authority considers the rental market to be “balanced” when the rate is between 4 and 5 percent, but it hasn’t been consistently healthy at the local level since before the subprime lending crash in 2008.
NHHA data also indicates rental prices are on the rise for the fourth year in a row, with the statewide median gross rent for a two-bedroom apartment increasing 4 percent in 2017 from $1,206 to $1,263 (including utilities). Rockingham County's median gross rent has increased 20.8 percent since 2012 and now is the highest in the state at $1,409. Strafford County is fourth at $1,156, which is 18.1 percent higher than it was in 2012.
Factor into those figures the fact that the expanding and evolving Seacoast has become an attractive place for people with expendable income, and one of the results is a staggering waitlist for subsidized housing. Independent housing authorities across the Seacoast reported their waitlists range from one to three years, and in some cases up to seven depending on circumstance and need.
“It’s the perfect storm,” Berman said. “Where are they going to go?”
For the people who are already on the street, the picture painted by those numbers is made more daunting by the challenges they face because of limited access to help for their other issues.
“It just exacerbates the problem for us,” said Martha Stone, who is both the executive director of Cross Roads House, an emergency and transitional housing shelter in Portsmouth, and a board member of the Greater Seacoast Coalition to End Homelessness. “For many people, it’s a real
The Seacoast has a variety of shelters and centers for homeless individuals. They include Cross Roads House, My Friend’s Place and Homeless Center for Strafford County, as well as specialized facilities for women, children, individuals with substance use disorders, and other populations in Portsmouth, Rochester, Greenland, Stratham and Exeter.
Traditionally, most of them are designed as short-term or transitional options, but almost across the board their average lengths of stay have shot up over the last year because clients don’t leave due to a lack of options. To Stone and Susan Ford, executive director of the My Friend's Place, it’s among the many indicators homelessness is on the rise in the Seacoast and New Hampshire.
“I can’t emphasize enough the crisis that is happening with low-income housing,” said Ford, who is also a former director of the Homeless Center for Strafford County. “Housing is just nonexistent right now for those clients.”
Stone said the reaction to shelter statistics shouldn’t be an outcry to add more beds or shelters, but rather to incentivize cities, property owners, landlords and developers to create more affordable and permanent supportive housing. Various organizations, coalitions and groups are currently exploring opportunities and lobbying large developers in the region as part of an ongoing discussion about solutions to the housing crisis.
The big obstacle is a need for return on investment. Seacoast real estate and property taxes were on the pricey side even during the recession and have only increased in the economic upturn.
There are handfuls of landlords and property management companies in the area who participate in subsidized rent programs through local welfare departments and shelters, in addition to those who accept Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers. However, housing experts said they’re starting to see fewer landlords participate in those programs because they can make substantially more by raising rent and targeting the general public.
“I’m probably more of the problem than the solution,” said Peg Purcell, a local property manager who has been involved in affordable housing conversations in Dover. “You can’t afford to rent an apartment to anybody for $500 a month. If you are a landlord, you’re paying your taxes (and mortgage), you have building codes you have to keep meeting, you have to have a certain quality of housing. To meet that, you can’t afford to.”
There are other issues, too, such as the fact Section 8 vouchers come with time limits that can run out before recipients find a house that meets the criteria, according to Stone.
The scarcity of housing is also making individuals increasingly more willing stay in unsafe and substandard units, according to Pamela Thyng, community relations coordinator of Community Partners, a local social service nonprofit. Thyng said those landlords often allow them to slide on rent because they know they don’t have to make improvements to their properties.
That’s why people like Berman are begging for some change before the problem gets worse. Further compounding of the housing crunch could be on the horizon as more of the state’s aging baby boomers retire and enter the rental market in search of something that meets their fixed incomes.
“We are running out of housing stock,” Berman said. “We’ve got to find space to build housing.”
Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program for Renters in N.H.
The goal of the program is to provide safe, decent, sanitary and affordable housing to very low-income households. Through the program, a qualified household pays a portion of their adjusted income towards rent and utilities, and New Hampshire Housing pays the remainder directly to the landlord. The rental unit is selected by the household and must meet certain housing quality standards. Program eligibility and assistance is based upon income and household size. To be placed on the program, applicants must have incomes below 30 percent of area median income. However, New Hampshire Housing is able to accept a limited number of admissions for applicants with incomes below 50 percent of area median income. The estimated waiting time for a voucher is based on the number of people on the waiting list, the availability of vouchers, and an applicant's preference status. For a majority of applicants, this could mean an estimated waiting time of seven to nine years before their name reaches the top of the list (the actual wait time could be longer or shorter).
HOW TO APPLY
Go to: nhhfa.org/section-8-housing for complete information and application.
Call 1-800-439-7247 to request an application.
Source: N.H. Housing Finance Authority