NH is getting older, but its housing supply isn't keeping up. In Rochester, two new projects are filling that need.

Low-income seniors pay between around $350 and $1,400 a month for apartments in Champlin Place, a new affordable housing property in Rochester run by Easterseals.

Low-income seniors pay between around $350 and $1,400 a month for apartments in Champlin Place, a new affordable housing property in Rochester run by Easterseals. SARAH GIBSON—NHPR

By SARAH GIBSON

New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 06-17-2024 10:58 AM

When her husband died in 2021, Lorraine Blanchard didn’t know what to do. It had been a while since she’d lived by herself, and she ended up getting sick and landing in a hospital. When she was released, she moved into a shared room in an assisted living facility.

“I felt it wasn’t my home," she said, "and I really need to be in my own home."

Then, Blanchard learned about Champlin Place, a new 65-unit building in Rochester. The low-income independent living community, run by Easterseals New Hampshire, is designed for seniors like her. Blanchard applied and moved in this year.

Blanchard, who has secondary Parkinson’s, gets visits from a home health aide a few times a week, catches rides to an adult day center down the street, and receives deliveries from Meals on Wheels. She can navigate her apartment with her walker. She spends time doing art projects, listening to music and hosting friends.

“This is the place to come,” she said during a recent interview in her apartment, surrounded by boxes of family photos. “There’s no discrimination — everyone accepts each other for who they are.”

But there’s a lot of demand for this kind of living. At Champlin Place alone, the waitlist is more than 100 people long. Across New Hampshire, about one in five people are above age 65, and the population is steadily growing older. But with rents soaring and vacant housing in short supply, seniors with limited incomes face a particular challenge: finding an apartment that’s safe, affordable and aging-ready.

The shortage of affordable housing for older adults reflects the state’s larger housing crisis. Over the last five years, median rent has increased by 36%, according to New Hampshire Housing. Marie Poole, who manages properties and facilities for Easterseals, says some people’s rents have spiked by $400 to $600 a month.

“There are lots of people in the state of New Hampshire that are paying over 50% of their gross income in rent,” Poole said. “It's a disastrous train wreck about to happen, if anything goes wrong in their lives.”

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Before moving into Champlin Place, Rodd Hersey was living in a mobile home in Nottingham. He heated it with firewood that he split and stacked himself. But he was also living with lung cancer, and the wood smoke was becoming dangerous. When his family first suggested Champlin Place, he hesitated.

“You know when you're an old horse, you don't like new things,” Hersey said. “But I learned to adapt.”

Hersey requested an apartment with a view onto the woods. In his living room, he’s set up his painting easel by the window.

Rent at Champlin Place costs between $1,100 and $1,400 a month, including utilities. Some residents, including Hersey, receive rental assistance and pay even less.

“I could never have dreamt that I would be in a place that is as nice as this for what I pay,” Hersey said, gesturing towards the kitchen’s granite countertops and new appliances.

Like many senior housing properties, Hersey’s apartment is designed for easy modification in case he starts using a walker or wheelchair. The cabinets under the sink are removable; the doors, windows and cupboards are easy to open. There are communal lounge areas indoors and outdoors to relieve social isolation, and paved walkways to accommodate wheelchairs.

Poole, who manages the property, said many people tell her that worrying less about how to pay medical bills and rent frees up time for the things that give life meaning.

“There are a lot of people here who have commented about how – not only have their lives become easier, they feel a sense of calm here that they did not have before,” she said.

The scarcity of housing like Champlin Place is prompting some seniors to move prematurely into assisted living facilities and nursing homes, which can be five times as expensive as monthly rent. Others stay in their houses even when it’s no longer safe, exposing themselves to health risks and their properties to decline.

Betsey Andrews Parker, the CEO of the Community Action Partnership of Strafford County, said she has seen this firsthand: some seniors live out of one room because they can’t afford to heat their large homes, others can no longer reach second-floor bathrooms and resort to using a bucket instead.

“There are really thousands of residents in New Hampshire who are living this way,” she said, “and people don’t know.”

New Hampshire Housing Director Rob Dapice said some seniors are ready to move into more accessible and affordable units, but it’s not always easy — due to high interest rates, and a shortage of smaller homes and apartments.

“In many cases, downsizing would be prohibitively expensive,” he said.

Thus begins a vicious cycle, Dapice said. Seniors have nowhere to move, so their larger homes and apartments never become available for younger families. Those younger families continue to rent, rather than buy, which puts more pressure on the rental market. As a result, rent for everyone continues to rise.

Efforts to address New Hampshire’s housing shortage have been slow to take shape at the State House. As advocates push to modify zoning rules and make it easier to build from the ground up, some organizations have turned to another strategy: retrofitting existing buildings into senior housing.

In Berlin, developers recently converted a shuttered elementary school into affordable housing. In Laconia, a historic inn became affordable housing for seniors. In Rochester, the Community Action Partnership (CAP) of Strafford County is turning a Victorian mansion called the Gafney Home into 21 small apartments.

Converting a historic property into apartment buildings is often more expensive than a new build. At the Gafney Home, preserving the historic character — oversized windows, ornate fireplaces, stained glass windows — came at a cost. And there were other hurdles: supply chain delays, and retrofitting areas to make them handicap-accessible. The project has run $2 million over budget.

But Andrews Parker, who’s overseeing this work, says the ordeal is worth it.

On a recent tour of the project, she stood inside a two-bedroom apartment that already has a long list of applicants. She teared up imagining who might move in next month: a senior who needs a live-in caregiver, or someone who is still caring for a grown child or grandkids.

“This is exactly the kind of housing we need,” Andrews Parker said. “We need housing that's beautiful, that's safe, that people can really age in place in.”