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Housing Advocates Propose Alternative Solutions To N.H.'s Housing Crunch

George Goslin/Public Domain

Housing and rental prices continue to climb in New Hampshire, and it’s getting harder for people to find any place to live, let alone something they can afford.

Brandon Lemay is a grassroots organizer for Rights & Democracy NH, and his focus is on affordable housing. NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Lemay about how members of his community are coming together to help people find stable and affordable housing.

Rick Ganley: Brandon, your work is statewide, but you spend a lot of time organizing in Manchester where you were born and raised. You oversee the Manchester Housing Alliance, which is an offshoot of Rights & Democracy NH that's focused on affordable housing issues. How does this group work to improve living conditions for people in Manchester?

Brandon Lemay: Yes, so a core belief of Rights & Democracy is members coming together and collectivizing their power. There's strength in numbers. If we're just individuals talking to our aldermen or our mayor, that's great. But if we're unifying as a voice, there's actual power behind that. So we do things like we develop relationships with our aldermen. I call it the adopt an alderman program where you talk to the alderman in your ward. And at first it kind of just starts off with like a one-to-one with them, kind of get biographical information with each other, kind of really get to know each other as human beings. And when you establish a rapport, the next conversation that you have with that alderman is all that much easier.

Rick Ganley: You've also been trying to form a renters union in Manchester. Speaking to that idea of there's strength in numbers, what would that look like in Manchester?

Brandon Lemay: Yeah, so this is an incredibly new concept. As far as I'm aware, there's only really been one renters union in the entire country with some sort of success that you could say in like a legislative victory, and that's in Kansas City. So right now, I'm going door to door in some of the neighborhoods with the highest amount of rentals and the lowest amount of voter participation. And essentially what I'm trying to get people to realize is that this is a systematic problem, not the combination of individualistic failures.

And when you're dealing with landlords who are less than optimal -- I'm saying that nicely -- sometimes as much as just talking to your neighbors and addressing grievances with your landlord as a building can get you what you want, whether it's garbage piling up in a hallway, or maybe some faulty wiring or maybe none of the appliances work in any of the units. My ambitions going forward are to get a big enough group of renters together where we can really start combating things like rent rising every time your lease is up. Me personally, my rent has gone up 20 percent since I moved into my apartment in 2018. And I can tell you that my apartment hasn't gotten 20 percent better. My landlord has just gotten 20 percent more in rent every single month.

Rick Ganley: There is a small movement of people in Manchester and across the state that provide mutual aid for those who are struggling to make ends meet. One example of this is a relief fund organized by local Black Lives Matter chapters for Black and brown people who are struggling to pay their utilities and their rent. What are some of the examples that you would have of this kind of work that you've seen?

Brandon Lemay: There's the [NH Mutual Aid Relief Fund] that goes by MARF for short. They do a free store in, I believe, three different locations across the state that I'm aware of right now.

Rick Ganley: We should explain the concept of a free store.

Brandon Lemay: Oh, yeah. So a free store is essentially a store that you set up somewhere in public that is accessible to the houseless community. They will usually provide things like clothing, basic food, and if we can get any sort of like medical professionals, we can try to get them medical help as well.

Rick Ganley: Traditionally, communities have provided support for people struggling with housing through extended family, maybe religious or other groups. What's different about the interventions that we're seeing now?

Brandon Lemay: So the idea of mutual aid is radically different from charity or a government service. It's just a group of individuals in a community coming together to provide services in gaps where we think that the traditional maybe nonprofits or city services fail to provide. And the idea is equality, really. The idea of charity to some can kind of seem hierarchal, right? To say, oh, you poor, wretched individual, I'm so moved that I have to help you. But the ideology behind mutual aid is that I could be you easily, or I was you, or maybe I will be you. So therefore, I'm helping you as a neighbor, as an equal.

Rick Ganley: It seems like the idea of community.

Brandon Lemay: Yeah exactly. It is.

Rick Ganley: What are some of the other solutions the city has yet to explore that you think maybe they should be looking at?

Brandon Lemay: Yeah. So keeping this on housing itself, we at the Manchester Housing Alliance have discussed the idea of community land trusts and cooperative housing. And the idea behind a community land trust is that a nonprofit would buy up either a building, a block or an entire neighborhood, and they would essentially become the stewards of that. And the community land trust owns the land underneath the buildings, while the individuals still own the buildings themselves. And with this comes stipulations saying, hey, if you buy a house for -- I'm just going to throw this out here -- $300,000, when you go to sell it, you can only profit X amount on this. This can vary by community to community, because as we know, communities have their own needs around housing. But essentially it takes some of the profit motive out of housing while still keeping it in private hands without, you know, the government necessarily controlling it.

Rick Ganley: The idea being that you wouldn't have landlords coming in and trying to flip houses or trying to buy up large amounts of stock and then reselling it just two years down the road and making a big profit.

Brandon Lemay: Yeah, exactly, because most apartments are at market rate and market rate is becoming increasingly unaffordable. So this would ensure that there would be some perpetually affordable housing.

Rick Ganley: What more can the city do about its homeless population?

Brandon Lemay: Personally, I would like to see more options than the shelters that we currently have. We currently have a huge need for women who are escaping domestic violence. I think we need to have dry and wet shelter -- so shelters where you can use, but also shelters where maybe if you're in recovery or you want to stay away from that. There's just not a lot of options. The city says, you know, there are X amount of shelter beds that no one actually uses when they clear an encampment. So I would really like the city to reassess its strategy, if there is one, when it comes to homeless encampments.

Rick Ganley: So you say it's not the number of beds. It's the fact that they're just not meeting the needs of the people that should be interested in using them.

Brandon Lemay: Yeah, and personally, I would like to see some sort of designated outdoor camping area, which has met a lot of resistance from the mayor and board of aldermen.

Rick Ganley: What can people do in their own communities to help out their neighbors in need?

Brandon Lemay: Specifically in Manchester, we can receive donations at Veterans Park around like 1 p.m. every Sunday. In general, I would just advise you, if you see someone setting up a tent in your neighborhood, instead of calling the police get a friend with you and try to see if you can talk to that person in the tent. And really try to understand why they're in that situation and ask yourself, what can you do to try to help this person.

Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR. She manages the station's news magazines, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can email her at mmcintyre@nhpr.org.
For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.

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