With limited options and steep costs, housing a barrier for new Americans in NH

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Concord Monitor

Published: 04-10-2023 10:07 PM

When Eugene Mutegetsi left Kenya, he thought he’d arrive in New Hampshire and find an apartment. Once he found a place to live, he hoped his wife would be able to move to the United States as well.

Instead, he last saw her eight months ago. Since arriving in Concord last July, he been living at a family member’s apartment — a small, two-bedroom unit that is shared with their two children.

In the living room, a picture window and floor-standing lamp provide the only light. Toys fill the small closet, with a plastic shopping cart and a bin of colorful balls packed away. On the wall hangs a wooden cutout of Africa, with the words “dream” printed above, next to wedding photos.

He hoped for a space of his own, where he could hang his own wedding pictures and start a new life in New Hampshire. But in a tight housing market made more difficult by language barriers and complicated lease agreements, finding an apartment can be trying for New Americans like Mutegetsi.

He and others living in Concord try to make ends meet with low-wage and limited options. But now, many are debating if leaving the state will give them a better chance of starting fresh.

Tight budgets

When Emmanuel Kanagawa’s landlord told him his rent was going to increase, his car insurance was the first to go. Working full time to support his wife and newborn baby, the couple extra hundred dollars per month for rent was not in his budget.

Kanagawa has seen friends in similar situations. An increase in rent means they’re packing up from their apartments and moving, either within Concord or even out of state, in hopes of more affordable housing. Since arriving in Concord in 2017, Kanagawa has already moved three times, chasing lower costs.

When Kanagawa first moved to the United States, he landed in North Carolina — far from home and any familiarity.

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Two months later, he moved to New Hampshire to live closer to family.

He first lived with his parents in Morning Star Condominiums, an apartment complex on the Heights in Concord, which is home to many New American families.

After 18 months of close quarters, Kanagawa decided to get a place of his own.

He thought life in New Hampshire, or the United States more generally, would be a chance for new opportunities and change. He didn’t expect finding his own place to live would lead down a path of housing trouble and financial strain, rather than the independence he sought.

Since moving out of his parents’ house, Kanagawa, who is now 31, has gotten married and welcomed a newborn son. These are the things to celebrate.

But that’s also come with the financial difficulty of providing for his growing family — working full-time while struggling to keep up with rent increases he can’t control. Lower-income households are generally hit harder by rising inflation as they already spend more of their income on necessities such as food, gas and rent— leaving few ways to reduce spending.

“It’s very, very hard,” he said.

With Kanagawa’s first move, he found an apartment in Pembroke, where he lived for two years. But after getting married, and in hopes of starting a family, he knew he wanted more space. So he landed back in Morning Star, renting a two-bedroom apartment.

He watched his rent increase each year as he worked to earn as much money as he could. He was previously employed at Watts Water Technologies in Franklin. Now, he drives for Uber and Door Dash full-time. And with the increasing cost of utilities, not to mention day-to-day expenses, the $1,300 a month he pays for rent became harder and harder to hit.

Despite the financial stress for Kanagawa, the median rent in Merrimack County for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,318 a month. If he wanted to move, it’s unlikely he’d save much.

“We try to keep up but we can’t afford to find other houses because rent is too high and pay is too low,” he said.

At the end of each month, he knows making rent is his number one priority. But it often feels like a vicious cycle trying to stretch out each paycheck, with no end in sight.

“It’s a test and we have failed,” he said.

Looking elsewhere

Six months ago, Kanagawa watched his brother and family pack up and move out of state. In Indiana, he found a bigger house for his family at a lower cost.

Although neighbors hardly talk about the cost of living, Kanagawa said he watches as people bid farewell to family and friends at church each Sunday, as they leave the state for greater prosperity elsewhere.

Now that he’s built his life in New Hampshire over the last six years, the thought of packing up and moving away is daunting. Instead, he wants a solution in-state, but he feels more and more isolated here trying to stay out of poverty.

“I have to fight,” he said. “But we feel no longer welcome in the community because of our situation.”

For Mutegetsi, however, the struggle to find housing in New Hampshire is a harsh introduction to the state — and fueling a desire to move elsewhere.

“I tried to find a house and it is impossible,” he said. “I don’t expect to get a house.”

Mutegetsi is wondering if moving to Maine would be easier. In Portland, the Immigrant Welcome Center is a model for what he hoped he’d find in New Hampshire. The non-profit focuses on supporting the immigrant community in the area — by emphasizing civic engagement through citizenship classes and voter registration, and providing English language support and application assistance for federal programs.

But most importantly to Mutegetsi, the organization helps New Americans launch businesses, and provides a working space to do so.

In Kenya, Mutegesti left behind a business of his own that provided leadership conferences and other resources for young people. When he first arrived in New Hampshire, he envisioned recreating something similar for young New Americans. Now these ideas seem further out of reach as he debates whether or not to remain in the state.

It’s this sense of community that Kanagawa wants to cultivate here, as well, but that’s difficult to accomplish when day-to-day financial stress never fades.

“I love New Hampshire. I feel like I should be involved in my community,” he said. “But I am struggling, and struggling to take care of my family.”

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