Upper Valley renters face a tight market and rising prices, and it’s likely to get worse this summer

  • Susan Rogers steps outside her Enfield, N.H., apartment to grill dinner Saturday, June 12, 2021. Rogers moved from Plattsburgh, N.Y., in fall 2020 for a nursing residency at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and has found the Upper Valley's rental housing market difficult. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

  • With the clothes washer in her apartment broken, Susan Rogers takes her laundry to use her landlord's machine in Enfield, N.H., Saturday, June 12, 2021. Rogers signed a six month lease for the apartment and intended to renew, but her landlord told her they have other plans for the apartment. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Susan Rogers prepares dinner in her Enfield, N.H., apartment Saturday, June 12, 2021. With her lease set to expire this summer, she plans to rent a room in a Wilder, Vt., house. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Susan Rogers walks her dogs Mika, left, and Velvet, in Enfield, N.H., Saturday, June 12, 2021. When looking for housing, Rogers found the rent outside her price range for most apartments that accept pets. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Debbie Spittle is in the process of moving with her husband from Bethel to a new Twin Pines Housing Trust building in Wilder, Vt., on Friday, June 18, 2021. Spittle learned about the building when she drove past and saw it under construction. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Debbie Spittle, right, hands off a stack of cookware to her daughter Kiana Neily, 17, left, while unpacking boxes in her new apartment in Wilder, Vt., Friday, June 18, 2021. Spittle moved from Bethel to be closer to work, family in New Hampshire and the shopping and services located in the heart of the Upper Valley. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2021 9:55:20 PM
Modified: 6/19/2021 9:55:20 PM

ENFIELD — When Susan Rogers stepped into an apartment in Thetford she was touring earlier this spring, the first thing she noticed was the wood on the windows and the door. It was rotting.

There were more issues, too: mousetraps in every room painted a grim picture of the challenges living there might bring, and the 30-minute drive to her job as a nurse at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center didn’t sound pleasant.

On top of that, the $1,400-a-month rent started to climb above her budget once Rogers factored in a few hundred dollars per month for heat and other utilities in the winter. She estimated the final sticker price would be closer to $2,000.

But Rogers had been looking for a place to live for months because the lease for her apartment in Enfield expires this summer, and the Thetford unit was the only available dog-friendly apartment that she’d been able to find in the Upper Valley for under $2,000.

“I really wanted to cry,” said Rogers, whose search was complicated by her two miniature Pinschers, Mika and Velvet. “I was in a state of panic. I thought, ‘Am I going to be homeless?’ ”

Throughout the Upper Valley, Rogers’ experience is becoming increasingly common as the demand for rentals grows and the stock of available apartments continues to dwindle. And housing experts warn that as programs meant to help people find shelter amid the COVID-19 pandemic come to an end or are scaled back, the problem will only get worse.

“This appears to be one of the tightest rental markets that I can remember during my time here,” said Twin Pines Housing Trust Executive Director Andrew Winter. The White River Junction-based nonprofit develops and helps residents find affordable housing. It recently completed a yearlong renovation of the 100-unit Village at Crafts Hill housing complex in West Lebanon, which Twin Pines said will provide “much needed affordable housing” for families in the area.

Still, Winter said the waitlists for rental units at Twin Pines properties has continued to grow; the organization’s Gile Hill apartment complex in Hanover, which has 76 units, currently has a waitlist of 15 families, which Winter estimates will take over two years to address.

Frederick Moe, a housing specialist for the Upper Valley Haven, who works to find people temporary housing in Vermont, also said the rental options are few and far between.

“On a scale of zero to impossible, it’s nearly impossible” to find rental housing, Moe said. It’s even more difficult for many of the families he works with, who are not able to afford high-end apartments but don’t qualify for affordable housing.

The number of people clamoring for apartments has given landlords the ability to be very selective in whom they rent to, Moe said.

“There’s a fierce competition for existing housing,” Moe said. Some families he’s working with have told him they’ve tried to contact landlords and have learned that they’re the 10th family to speak with the landlord that day.

Growing demand

Housing experts are split on the reason for the growing rental crisis, but several say the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue.

Winter said over the last year, many people have moved from cities like New York and Boston to Vermont and New Hampshire, buying homes and further straining the market. A property transfer data analysis published by the Vermont Department of Taxes shows an increase of over 1,000 property sales to out-of-state buyers in 2020, which is about 38% higher than it was in 2019.

“All that really has done is made it harder for people who lived here already to purchase a home and that’s pushing people into the rental market,” Winter said.

At the same time, some property owners who would be renting out their properties are instead putting them up for sale, Winter said.

Elissa Margolin, the director of the advocacy group Housing Action New Hampshire, also pointed to the number of people moving from out of state to the area as part of the issue. She said many people who owned second homes in Vermont and New Hampshire moved into them amid the pandemic, meaning those spaces could no longer be rented out.

And as the demand for apartment units grows, the ability to build those new units has slowed, Winter said. Because of soaring national demand, the cost of simple materials used to build affordable homes and apartments — including lumber, plumbing materials, sheet metal and copper — has risen and the materials have become more difficult to get.

Winter pointed to a four-unit project his organization is working on in Woodstock which is delayed because crews have to wait 20 weeks for vinyl-clad windows. Additionally, the construction price for that project has jumped by 26% in the last year.

But Margolin said the roots of the problem go even further back than the pandemic. The 2008 housing crisis led to a lot of foreclosures, which pushed people in New Hampshire into the rental market.

Since then, other factors have played a role; millennials coming into the workforce overwhelmingly opted to rent rather than buy, and retirees who needed to downsize have gone from permanent homes to rental properties.

“You had this perfect storm. … What we ended up with was a really crowded rental market,” she said.

Despite the increasingly tight rental market, relatively few new homes or apartment buildings have gone up in the Twin States over the last decade, said Margolin, who is based in Concord.

“The tough part about housing is you can’t snap your fingers and make a change. It takes a little while to develop housing units,” she said.

An uncertain future

The anticipated end to the COVID-19 pandemic brings new challenges to the rental market, according to experts.

Several programs put into place in Vermont and New Hampshire that helped people find shelter are wrapping up or changing in nature, such as moratoriums in both states that halted evictions amid many renters’ pandemic-related financial struggles.

In New Hampshire, the statewide eviction moratorium comes to an end on July 1, according to Alex Fries, communications director for the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief & Recovery. In Vermont, a similar eviction moratorium ends in mid-July, 30 days after Gov. Phil Scott lifted the state of emergency after Vermont reached an 80% vaccination rate.

Along with the end of the eviction moratorium, New Hampshire as of Saturday ended extra federal unemployment benefits put in place during amid the pandemic.

“I think there’s no doubt the moratoria kept people housed for a long time,” Margolin said; once the programs end, she predicted, the state will see another wave of people who have been evicted and need housing, a problem exacerbated by the low number of affordable rentals. “Eviction plus lack of affordable housing equals homelessness.”

Moe said he’s concerned about what the end of the moratorium in Vermont will bring as well. In an already tight market, he said he’s heard from some hopeful renters that the end of the program will mean more people will be evicted and thus, more apartments will be made available.

“That’s not the right way to look at it. It means more people hurting and more people without housing,” Moe said. “The reality is it’s going to mean more people out of a home.”

Even as housing experts worry about the end of the moratorium, another state program in Vermont is changing, which could add to the problem.

During the pandemic, the state expanded criteria for its long-standing motel voucher program, which gave Vermonters in need of shelter a chance to stay in motels rather than homeless shelters for social distancing purposes. In that time, the number of people who used the program rose from 2,500 pre-pandemic to 6,000 during the pandemic, according to Scott spokesman Jason Maulucci.

The criteria is narrowing starting July 1, he said, but would still aim to serve people who need housing in the pandemic. Two-thirds of the group will be able to get an 84-day extension, and people who are no longer eligible for the program can apply for $2,500 in state funding to cover moving expenses, VtDigger reported.

Still, experts in the Upper Valley say the narrower criteria, and the number of motels opting out of the program in recent months, will likely have a detrimental impact on hundreds of people. Upper Valley Haven Director Michael Redmond said he estimates around 40% of the people currently using the voucher program in Vermont motels will no longer be eligible once the program and extensions end. The program will still be open to most seniors, families and people with disabilities, meaning those most affected by the shift will be single adults under 60.

On top of all that, Dartmouth College last week said it is offering $5,000 payments in a lottery to encourage as many as 200 returning students to live off campus this fall in order to ease a housing crunch for dorm rooms, which is likely to further stress the rental market in the Hanover area.

Moe said the majority of people he works with to find housing have spent the past few months — or in some cases, up to a year — living in motels around the state. Once the voucher program changes he said he’s not sure what they’ll do.

“Some folks will be going to find family and friends to couch surf with. Under the new rules, some will continue to stay in motels, and some will be camping,” he said.

Looking for solutions

Though housing experts in the Upper Valley have been looking to address the rental market crunch for years, the difficulties posed by the last year in the pandemic has pushed those efforts into overdrive.

Three Upper Valley planning commissions this spring published a Keys to the Valley report, which says that the region needs around 10,000 new housing units by 2030 in order to meet the growing demand. The report also details a number of steps to address the housing shortage including spreading awareness about the issue, making it easier to build homes by eliminating some regulatory barriers, and creating more homes that are affordable to middle-income residents.

Part of the solution, Winter said, comes with looking for “new sources for capital,” to secure additional funding for affordable and workforce housing. Some federal funding, like that from the American Rescue Plan, may be put toward creating affordable housing, Redmond said.

“The answer isn’t one thing, the answer is many things. ... It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s going to happen over years,” Redmond said.

Another potential solution is renovating existing rental properties and adding accessory dwelling units, aka in-law apartments, to increase the rental stock without building entirely new apartment buildings.

“We’re not going to be able to build our way out of it with one or two large projects,” Winter said. “It’s going to take a collaborative effort.”

Margolin said that adding more accessory dwelling units and establishing more incentive programs for landlords to take on at-risk tenants are two ways to begin addressing the issue. But, she added, a large part of tackling the Twin States’ rental crisis comes from making a “cultural shift” in how Vermont and New Hampshire residents think of new construction. More residents need to be open to the idea of new development near their homes.

“We can advocate for new resources and policies, but if neighborhoods continue to say, ‘Not in my backyard,’ it’s not going to happen,” she said.

As for Rogers, the DHMC nurse, she has since found a small room in an apartment in Wilder, rented by a woman whose son is away at college, and will move there in August. She knows that she likely won’t be able to stay there permanently, but said the place buys her a little time to keep looking.

“It’s dismal here,” she said of the rental market.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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