In New Hampshire’s increasingly tight rental market, one area where there’s new development is conversion of industrial buildings. It’s a niche market, but one that’s attracting multiple generations of residents.
In a parking lot in Manchester, surrounded by a maze of early 20th-Century brick factory buildings just south of the ballpark, Mike Bernier explains how he ended up here.
“So my dad says tomorrow morning I want you to sit in the truck and I got a job for you,” Bernier says. “And I’ve been here ever since... Since 1969.”
The buildings date from the early 1900s. Bernier’s dad worked here, first making shoes for the McElwain company. When Bernier got his first job here in 1969, it was manufacturing sunglasses with the Foster Grant company.
For almost half a century he’s clocked-in at this place, now called the Sundial Center. These days people don’t just come here to work, they want to live here, too.
Now Bernier works in maintenance, taking care of these old buildings. A couple floors up, points to a blown up, vintage black and white photo hanging on the wall. It’s a picture of a factory employee party, complete with a band, dance floor and hundreds of workers in their best attire.
Back in the hay days, this was the cat’s meow, this building,” Bernier says. “Everyone wanted to come work here because they took care of their employees, look: they show you how they take care of the employees. They had parties, you had everything.”
It’s clear Bernier’s in love with the history of these old factory buildings, but that doesn’t mean he’s stuck in the past.
“This building has changed a lot and it’s always been changed for the better,” Bernier says.
Part of that change happened in the last few years, a good chunk of this complex was turned into multi-family housing. It’s part of a trend across the state, as a generation of younger renters looking for housing are increasing demand.
Jeffrey Frechette is 34, and as of just last year, he rents an apartment here with oversized factory windows.
“I did know that it was originally a factory building,” Frechette says. “I didn’t know what they did -- I found out later that it was shoes.”
Frechette says it’s that very history Bernier talks about that drew him here.
“I do love the idea of reusing factory buildings, mill buildings,” he says. “I always pictured myself in one.”
People who study the housing market say this kind of re-use can meet a lot of needs in New Hampshire.
“I think converting mill buildings to housing is a spectacularly good idea,” says Peter Francese, a demographer who looks at housing trends. He says these conversions create new rental units for people like Frechette, usually close in to urban centers, where younger people like to be. But Francese sees at least one problem.
“It’s not as affordable as it could be for younger people,” Francese says.
Significant construction costs can drive up what developers charge, but there’s strong demand for these spaces too. Rents at the Sundial? They start at about twelve hundred dollars for a studio.
Eric Chinburg has been converting New Hampshire’s factory shells into housing and commercial property for decades now. His company is behind mill projects all over the Seacoast area, including Dover and Newmarket.
One of his latest projects is at the site of the 19th century Frank Jones Brew Yard on the West End of Portsmouth. Most recently, a company cranked out hot dogs here.
“It had been empty for years,” Chinburg says. “Gravel floor, pigeons, bricks, graffiti -- that was it.”
Chinburg says he hears the concerns about affordability. This new batch of housing will include lower-priced studios, which start out at around a thousand bucks a month.
“It used to be, you know, ten years ago, that we would do apartments that averaged 800-900 SF,” Chinburg says. “Now our apartments are averaging 650 SF.”
These smaller, cheaper, centrally-located mill units that attract millennials draw in a very different age group too.
Barbara DeStefano is getting ready to retire and recently moved in to a completed unit at the Brew Yard.
“I came on a couple of tours before it was ready, and I said ‘Are you sure you got all the rats out and the pigeon poop and everything else?’” DeStefano says.
They did, and now DeStefano lives in one of the smaller units. She says her space makes sense for her for the same reasons it did for younger working professionals I talked with. It fits her budget, and it’s walking distance to everything she needs.
“I just love it,” DeStefano says. “You know, you meet all kinds of people. There are young people, definitely young people here and there are older people who are retired or close to it.”
Experts agree that there just aren’t enough empty mills or shoe factories in the state to meet all of New Hampshire’s housing needs. New construction, they say, is necessary. In the meantime, Barbara DeStefano’s building is fully occupied.