New Hampshire cities and towns need help with rent crisis, lawmakers say


CONCORD, NH — Some lawmakers want to give local officials tools to counter skyrocketing rents, but landlords say the solution is to build more homes, not create more regulations.

The state’s housing crisis isn’t just unaffordable homes, but a rental vacancy rate of less than 1 percent in many communities and investors buying multi-family homes and increasing rents, often by 50 to 100 percent or more, has created an emergency, proponents said at a public hearing on Tuesday.

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House Bill 95 would allow local or city councils to pass emergency ordinances that do not require voter approval to address the issue by capping the percentage of rent increases or giving tenants a longer notice period before rent increases. The bill would only apply to properties with four or more units.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Ellen Reed, D-Newmarket, said the rent crisis has worsened in recent years as huge rent increases have forced many people out of their long-term residences and forced them to relocate to another city or region or even abroad.

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“We’ve heard a long time about the graying of New Hampshire,” Reed said, “how we can’t keep or attract young people to the state. It’s the casing stupid.”

It’s impossible to attract young people to the state if they don’t have anywhere to live or afford rent, she said.

In Newmarket, a developer has bought much of the town center apartment building and paid about 50 percent above market price for the buildings, she said, with the express aim of raising the rent by two-and-a-half times, in some 100 people from Newmarket last year expelled.

“It’s predatory to do business to evict people from their homes for profit,” Reed said.

She said her city is trying to deal with this crisis, but there is very little she can do, but her bill would give them the tools they need to try to balance the situation.

Cities have an incentive not to overuse the emergency tools because they need the revenue from rising property values, she said.

Rep. Kathy Staub, D-Manchester, said her city is in dire straits with a two-bedroom apartment costing between $1,500 and $1,800 a month and a 0.3 percent vacancy rate.

She said the impact is at all levels of society, not just among young people, as long-time residents are being driven from their homes.

“We have 250 people living on the streets in Manchester and hundreds more in cars or hotels,” said Staub. “It is a huge crisis that is devastating our city and affecting all of us, not just those who are unable to find housing. It’s the scale of the human suffering.” She said people would say the market should take care of the problem, but that takes time to resolve with new housing in a year or more while people are on the streets and die in cars.

“We need to give our elected officials an opportunity to do something,” Staub said, “because right now there’s nothing they can do.”

Nick Norman, director of legislative affairs at the Apartment Association of New Hampshire, said the rent cap is not the answer and has been rejected from city to city as a failed concept.

“It’s a huge problem across the country,” Norman said. “You have the fundamental problem of supply and demand, there’s not enough supply and too much demand.” He said if you want to solve the so-called housing crisis and not look to increase supply, you’re looking in the wrong place.

“You have to increase housing supply,” Norman said, “if you do anything else, you’re exacerbating the problem.”

Joanie McIntire, president-elect of the NH Realtors Association, also said the problem is not enough housing, not more regulation.

She said the bill would result in a patchwork of different regulations statewide that would drive developers away, and she said some communities would use this bill to discourage developers from coming into their communities.

“The answer to expanding housing supply isn’t more government regulation, it’s less about faster approvals,” McIntire said. “The problem is a lack of inventory and this (bill) makes things worse.”

But longtime New Hampshire legal aid attorney Elliott Berry, who is now retired, challenged claims that rent controls aren’t working.

He noted that in recent years, Portland, Maine, like the state of Oregon, had implemented rent controls. New York and California have millions of renters sheltered under rent controls, often seniors and people with disabilities, who would be priced out of the homes they’ve lived in for ages, Berry said.

He listed some of the rent increases for people he helped while working for Legal Aid, with some doubling and others increasing three times.

“They were scattered to God knows where,” Berry said. “These are very terrible times.” He said the rent cap was not just one thing, but a multitude of options, and he called on the committee to approve the bill.

Jessica Margeson, of the Granite State Tenants Association, said she had seen firsthand how the bill would help people facing rent increases, but noted the situation in Manchester was different than in Salem.

Margeson said the bill would also help deal with the fraud that occurred when the federal government provided rental assistance.

She works with a woman whose rent was $2,500 a month, but her landlord increased it to $3,800 to get the extra money, telling her it would go down after the program ended, but it wasn’t fast enough.

Kerstin Cornell, a housing attorney, said the issue isn’t just about a place to live, some people have no choice but to live on the streets.

She said at least two people have died from the cold in recent weeks.

Cornell also said she recently spoke to two tenants who couldn’t find affordable housing and are leaving the state.

“If (you) want the state to develop diversity, you have to make sure there are places to live,” Cornell said. “You have to look at what someone pays, what is affordable and how people are supposed to live.”

The electronic filing system shows that 75 people supported the bill and seven opposed it.

The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.

Garry Rayno can be reached at [email protected]

This story was originally published by InDepth NH.