The Housing Crunch Has Hit N.H. Hard. Three Stories Show Just How Bad Things Are.
No matter where you look, New Hampshire’s housing landscape is pretty brutal. Across the state, home prices are at record highs, apartment vacancy rates are low and the pandemic has exacerbated many aspects of a pre-existing housing crisis. In tourist communities like Conway, the situation is especially bleak.
Rents are outpacing what many local workers can afford, short-term vacation rentals have chipped away at a limited supply of housing and an influx of residents during the pandemic made a red-hot real estate market even more competitive.
Harrison Kanzler leads the Mount Washington Valley Housing Coalition, where he gets calls from lots of local businesses struggling to find places for their employees to live — including the hospital, which is struggling to recruit more specialists to meet community needs. “But there is nowhere for them to live,” Kanzler says. “They're making good money, but they can't really get into a home.”
The apartment vacancy rate in the Conway region was zero percent in 2020, lower than Manchester, Nashua or Portsmouth. Median home prices in this county reached nearly $400,000 in May, far above what’s considered affordable for working families. A little under half of homes in Conway are owned by out-of-towners, according to town tax records, and about 8 percent of residential properties are believed to be short-term vacation rentals — though it’s unclear how many of those would otherwise be on the long-term housing market.
Tom Holmes, Conway’s town manager, worries the lack of housing will affect the search for a new planning director, a position that pays $75,000 plus benefits. And he’s concerned that finding a place to live is even harder for workers in the tourism industry, even as their positions in restaurants and resorts are central to the success of the region’s economy.
Perhaps the best way to really understand the consequences of the lack of housing in this area is through the people who’ve been caught in the middle of it, struggling to hang onto their homes and their place in this community. Here are a few of their stories.
Are you also struggling with housing in New Hampshire? No matter where you live, we want to hear from you. Help us report on the state's housing crisis by sharing your story at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow along with all of our housing coverage here.
A Twentysomething Struggling to Find a Safe Place
Kristen Phillips grew up in Wolfeboro and moved to Conway for the same reason lots of people do: the scenery, fond memories of childhood vacations and a job in health care. But she’s learned that renters have little power in the community’s super competitive rental market.
“It's been a heck of a journey, and that's really putting it lightly and kindly,” she says.
Phillips felt unsafe in each of her last few apartments. She’s biracial, and one of her property managers made racist comments the first time they met.
“The first words out of the property manager’s mouth after looking at my first apartment last year was, ‘I would have never known you were African American,’” she recalls. “He’s like, ‘You speak very well for an African American woman.’ And I’m like, what does that mean?”
She says she was nervous about how to respond and ended up brushing it off, because she didn’t want to jeopardize her spot.
“I kind of made a joke of it because I was looking for housing, you know, panic mode,” she says.
She’s dealt with untreated mold, missing belongings and other hostilities that made her feel especially vulnerable.
“It's terrifying to wake up like, hey, I locked my door and now it's not locked,” she says. She’s also woken up to unlocked windows and noticed things being thrown at her sliding door.
She decided to leave her most recent apartment for her own peace of mind and has been staying on a friend’s couch since April. She’s still searching for another place she can afford or jobs that will pay her enough to be able to stay.
“I don't think anybody honestly wants to leave this area,” she says. “But it [comes] to that point financially, if you can't afford it and if you're struggling then, you know, you've got to move.”
She recently found a new job a few towns away. But she’s still looking for an apartment, and not feeling too optimistic.
An Essential Worker, Essentially Out of Options
Amanda Hebert grew up in the Mount Washington Valley, and she really wants to be able to stay here, close to her parents and her job at a local grocery store — but that seems more and more out of reach, each day.
Her last place fell through in February. She’s been looking for a permanent place for her and her daughter since then, but she keeps coming up short. She figures she can afford up to $950 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, but she says a lot of places are too expensive.
“They want an outrageous amount of money for a one-bedroom apartment,” she says. “Or they want to do a credit check, and not everybody has any kind of credit score.”
For her, finding an apartment in the Conway area is about more than staying close to home. It’s about knowing she won’t have to eat up time or gas money on a long commute. And she wants to ensure her daughter, who she’s raising on her own, will have a more stable childhood.
“I want to know that she's going to be in the same school for a good amount of time and not have to be bounced around and making new friends and being picked on because she's always the new kid,” Hebert says. “I want to know that she will always have a roof over her head and a pillow under it, in just one spot where she can be comfortable.”
For the last few months, Hebert and her daughter stayed a vacation chalet owned by a client of her mom’s cleaning business. But that was stressful because they could be asked to leave at any time. For the next few months, Hebert and her daughter will live in a camper, hoping they can find something else before the weather gets cold.
“We have this valley that keeps building new hotels and restaurants and all these beautiful places for people to come up and visit,” she says “But nobody’s here to work and take care of them, because you have to travel for hours to find a place to live.”
A Family That's Sacrificing Stability to Survive
Jason and Holly Fougere and their two young sons were forced to move twice since 2018.
First, their rented condo was put up for sale, and they couldn’t buy it. They downsized to a smaller apartment, because it was all they could find.
“We lost about 40 percent of our stuff, you know, we weren’t prepared for that journey,” Jason says. “All the baby shoes, baby clothes, the memories we put together.”
Then, earlier this year, they received notice that their apartment — which used to be a vacation rental — was turning back into one. Now, they’re in an even smaller apartment, but they’re grateful to have at least something to fall back on.
Before each move, the Fougeres expected these homes to remain theirs for the long-term. But Jason says he doesn’t blame their previous landlords for making what seemed like sound economic decisions, whether to sell a condo in a hot real estate market or to make room for more tourists.
“The sacrifice on our part is that we have to be sort of nomadic to be able to survive right now in the valley,” he says.
The family considered themselves model tenants, which is part of why their recent housing instability has caught them off-guard. Jason has worked in management in the service industry and retail, and Holly is a teacher at the local high school.
“I think that's the hardest part, just not knowing when you're going to be kicked out,” Holly says. “And then knowing that there's no rentals is a scary, scary thing.”
Even scarier? Realizing how big a problem this is for other families who also have stable, steady jobs.
“When we found out we were being kicked out, there were three other teachers just in the high school who were in the same exact situation,” Holly says.