A new grant aims to help Berlin convert a former elementary school into housing
Berlin has received a $500,000 grant to convert a former elementary school into 20 affordable housing units.
Brown Elementary School shut down in 2019 due to low enrollment. With this new Community Development Block Grant funding, it's on track to be the third school in Berlin transformed into housing since 2012, according to Pamela Laflamme, the city’s community development director.
But, Laflamme said, Berlin used to have the opposite problem: too much unoccupied housing.
“A lot of communities in the southern part of the state were seeking funds to build out housing,” she said, “while we had a much different problem in that we were trying to remove that housing.”
Over the last two decades, the city worked to “de-densify” its real estate, she said, reducing its housing by about 350 units.
Laflamme said the city hoped to see its property values rise after removing neglected houses owned by people who lived elsewhere. But now, due to a combination of that de-densification and changes in housing patterns seen during the COVID pandemic, Berlin is facing the same kind of housing crunch seen across the state.
During the pandemic, Laflamme said, more people moved to the area and competition for housing increased. Plus, according to a 2021 New Hampshire Housing report, many rentals that would otherwise house local residents were turned into Airbnbs during the pandemic.
Berlin has a poverty rate of 16%, according to the U.S. Census. The price of rent in Coos County has risen by 11.3% since 2016, and Laflamme said Berlin houses the majority of the region's rental units.
“Working people need good, quality, affordable places to live,” she said. “So this project is going to fill that gap for sure. There will still be more rentals needed, but this is a good start and heading in the right direction.”
The former Brown School is in the process of being purchased by TKB Properties, a subsidiary of New England Family Housing. TKB Properties also worked to convert Berlin’s former Bartlett Elementary School into housing in 2013.
“Housing is very much needed in Berlin, as well as everywhere else in the state,” said New England Family Housing CEO Kevin Lacasse. “The more the word is spread and different communities approve projects, the better off we'll all be.”
Lacasse estimates the project at Brown Elementary School will cost between $1.16 and $2 million. In addition to the Community Development Block Grant approved last week, he said he hopes to get funding from New Hampshire’s recently approved InvestNH Housing Fund. If all goes as planned, construction begins this fall.