New or existing housing for homeless proves hard to acquire in Concord
|Published: 09-26-2023 6:03 PM
Karen Jantzen has been busy lately.
She’s been to the Concord Planning Board to defend her project to build low-barrier apartments on Pleasant Street.
She’s been worried about the number 40, which is the maximum capacity of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness emergency winter shelter. At times last year, 50 or more people sought refuge from the cold in a shelter across the street, which has since been sold to a private developer.
She’s directed her staff to travel to all corners of the city to meet individuals at encampment sites to complete intake forms, apply for support like housing vouchers and complete wellness checks.
With nearly 500 people experiencing homelessness across Merrimack County, agencies like the coalition are taking different approaches to solving the problem. These efforts aren’t always quick or even effective in a tight real estate market, as the number of people who have been unhoused for more than a year remains steady.
Recently, the coalition has become a landlord itself to house its clients, but many more units are needed. Renovating old proprieties into one-bedroom apartments is a slow and expensive process.
In another effort, the coalition is trying to provide incentives for other landlords to consider their client’s applications – one of many paths towards a “housing solutions plan” – with little success.
“This goes right back to the housing crisis and not being able to get people housed quickly,” Jantzen said, adding that health, addiction and mental health issues only increase the longer they stay outside. “The longer that goes on and the longer we can’t provide that basic shelter people need, it just gets worse.”
One way to provide housing is to build it. In 2020 the coalition purchased a building on Green Street near downtown that was converted into four apartments to provide permanent supportive housing.
Since then, a triplex on West Street was added to their housing stock and most recently the purchase of a house on Pleasant Street will add six apartments, as well as two additional units in a carriage house on the property.
Construction complications forced the coalition back to the Concord Planning Board this week for another amendment to their application.
In the original structure on Pleasant Street, two chimneys sat atop the main house, with a cupola over the carriage structure. In demolishing the interior, however, all three elements were removed.
The chimneys were lined with asbestos and the cupola consisted of deteriorated wood covered in lead paint. To save costs on further construction, the coalition asked for an amendment to their original plans so that they would not have to replace those features.
“We only have so much money and all this money comes from government funding. We are not a bank, we don’t have reserves,” Mark Fagan, the chief operating officer for the coalition, told the planning board. “This is a lot of money for an organization that lives from year to year on donations and grants that just provide enough to provide services to people who really need services.”
But without the historic features of the house – which sits at the start of the neighborhood – residents argued it would mismatch the area.
“That building should meet the requirements and the look and feel of the neighborhood,” said Fred Hagedorn, a neighbor who lives across the street. “The character of this neighborhood is changed by this decision.”
Almost a dozen neighborhood residents, including Hagedorn, signed a letter to the planning board about their concerns with the project changes. The coalition must stick to the original agreement to replace the chimneys and cupola and maintain a window size similar to the original house structure, they argued.
The cost of construction for these exterior features would be better directed to work on the inside, Jantzen argued. With that funding, sturdier countertops and other necessities could be covered in each unit.
Despite acknowledging the mission of this project – to provide housing for residents most in need – planning board members reiterated that their role is to serve as stewards of neighborhood character and code compliance. A motion passed to require the coalition to install a chimney on the main home, replace the cupola on the carriage house and maintain a window size that is similar to the previous panels, with a requirement that they do not shrink by more than four inches in width and height.
In the small building behind the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness’s Resource Center, 20 sets of bunk beds will house people experiencing homelessness this winter. It’ll be tight quarters, especially in the low-barrier shelter, where older individuals vie for bottom bunks. For those who arrive with mental illness, it’s harder to provide them more space if needed.
The switch back to the former space comes after the coalition sold the First Congregational Church on North Main Street – where they housed individuals in the winter during the pandemic with ample beds and space. The coalition purchased the building in 2020, with the vision to use it as an expanded winter shelter, and eventually a site they could convert to apartment units for permanent housing.
This spring the non-profit sold the building to developers who plan to convert the space into 33 market-rate apartments. Plans brought in front of the Concord Planning Board, outline a $5 million renovation. Construction costs to create its own apartments proved to be too costly for the coalition.
It’s not only a loss of potential housing for people experiencing homelessness – it also means the transition back to the winter shelter across the street, behind the resource center, come December.
“It will be tight in there,” said Jantzen.
On average last winter, 33 individuals slept at the Coalition’s winter shelter. From December 1 through March, individuals could arrive at the shelter at 6 p.m. and stay until 7 a.m. the following morning. On some nights, the coalition staff would house 50 individuals if needed.
“We will do the best with what we can but there’s a need for more beds if there’s a way we can come up with it,” said Jantzen.
In Merrimack County, outreach agencies – meaning employees who spend time building a name-by-name list of those experiencing homelessness and bring services directly to them – have identified 448 unhoused people. Of that, 294 are considered chronically homeless, meaning they have remained unhoused for over a year.
The challenge for the coalition is finding space to house people, either on a temporary basis like the winter shelter or for permanent supportive housing, which is always the end goal.
“It’s tough. I don’t think there’s a lot of empty space that the city has or the county has,” said Jantzen.
To remain inside throughout the coldest days of the winter, the resource center and Friendly Kitchen are the two common spaces that provide consistent shelter and meals. But it also means extended periods of time in a group setting, where one person’s habits could be another’s trigger.
“As the winter goes on, these are individuals that are in tight quarters all night. They’re at the resource center all day,” said Jantzen. “We’re taking individuals in a very stressful situation, and we’re just increasing that stress.”
Renting an apartment to an individual who has a Housing Choice Voucher, more commonly known as Section 8, means complying with federal mandates of inspections and fair market rent, based on area guidelines. An application for a tenant who formerly experienced homelessness could mean lengthy gaps or inconsistencies in their rental record. In an effort to encourage landlords to provide housing for these individuals, incentive programs offer benefits and safeguards.
On the Seacoast, the Affordable Housing Incentive Program has successfully provided permanent housing for over 150 individuals, since its pilot in 2021. When the program was expanded to include Merrimack and Belknap counties in 2023, the Concord Coalition hoped this would be a solution to increase housing options.
The program offers a one-time sign-on bonus, funding to cover any damages, and grants to ensure the units pass the HUD inspection. It also provides up to one month’s rent to hold the apartment during a transition period and provides all tenants with a case manager for support.
When the coalition hosted a recent open house with Granite United Way to introduce the program to landlords, no one showed up.
“Inviting landlords to a seminar-workshop doesn’t seem to work,” said Greg Lessard, the director of real estate and asset management for the coalition. “One-on-one having a cup of coffee with landlords explaining the program is probably a better direction in the future.”
Granite United Way, the parent organization of the program, is also currently seeking a full-time employee to help run the landlord incentives out of Concord.
For many of the individuals the coalition works with, it’s not a matter of finding a voucher that then could lead to housing. Instead, it’s finding housing that will accept their voucher. New Hampshire is one of few states that allows for landlords to discriminate based on sources of rental income.
The coalition has 19 clients who either currently have a voucher, or are going through an intake process to get one, but still have no housing options. With landlord participation in an incentive program, these individuals could transition into long-term housing tomorrow if an apartment was available.