For Cathie Keets, Meredith is the epitome of New Hampshire. It’s beautiful in autumn when the leaves are reflected in the water. In summer the lake is packed with boaters and families enjoying the warmer months. In winter, anglers accompany hockey players onto the ice, with the vast frozen surface serving as a winter playground.
For Keets, living near the lake means experiencing these seasons through long motorbike rides along its shores. It leaves Meredith, up to Center Harbor, around the tip of Winnipesaukee, down to Wolfeboro and back through Laconia.
Keets has lived in Meredith, a few miles from the tourist heart of the city, for 30 years. She worked for the State Treasury Department before retiring two years ago.
Almost two decades ago, Keets moved into a prefab house in a housing association on the outskirts of town. For a while it was all hers. Recently she shared it with her son who is disabled and needed a place to stay for some time.
In her three decades in the city, Keets still doesn’t consider herself a local. But she has learned that summer traffic to Hannaford car park can back up the road. She has watched as the view of the lake shore she enjoys from her motorbike succumbs to the development of a private home. And she knows there’s limited affordable housing nearby for residents like her son.
In a city where the average home value is about $350,000, million-dollar lakefront properties still appear with some normalcy in real estate reports.
These houses usually surround the waterfront. The median home value of the top 1% of properties is $3,483,300.
In the wake of the pandemic, new number plates and neighbors were added. Signs for a hot real estate market up for sale rose as fast as they fell.
The city’s annual report noted that 2021 was a record year for property sales in the area in terms of volume and cost. The median selling price rose to $559,000, up almost 20% year over year.
“Lack of inventory and the pandemic have resulted in record selling prices,” the report said.
As of September of that year, home sales in Meredith totaled $87 million. That’s a 27% year-over-year increase, according to the New Hampshire Realtors Association.
With record selling prices, the question of affordability begs – what happens to the city’s low-income and middle-class residents when million-dollar developments come to town?
Deer Run, a residential building on Pleasant Street in Meredith, provided designated affordable housing in the city for four decades. Just off Meredith’s downtown loop, the building contained 25 units in a prime lakefront developer location.
The owners had one condition when they wanted to sell the home a few years ago – the units would remain dedicated to affordable housing in Meredith. So they turned to the private, non-profit Lakes Region Community Developers, who have been developing affordable housing in the area for 25 years, to buy the property.
In 2016, the organization bought the building. They then spent the next five years raising funds for a renovation project to refurbish the apartments while pledging to keep rent affordable.
This ongoing $5 million project began in January with hopes that tenants will move into the new homes by the end of the year, according to Carmen Lorentz, executive director of Lakes Region Community Developers. Upon completion, the building will be renamed Harvey Heights.
The need for income-restricted affordable housing is unquestionable, Lorentz said. There is also no doubt that if the Lakes Region had not purchased the property, low-income residents would not have been targeted for the development it replaced.
“Given the housing situation and the preservation of these 25 units, we felt it was critical,” she said. “We knew it would definitely be converted into something marketable or maybe even demolished.”
To rent a unit in Harvey Heights, tenants must earn 50 percent or less of the median income for the area. This is a typical tool for determining income thresholds for affordable housing, although the percentage may vary between developers.
Renters in Harvey Heights — many of whom work in retail, hospitality and healthcare — contribute just 30 percent of their income towards the rent and receive a subsidy to cover the rest.
“These are the people we need to keep the economy going,” Lorentz said. “I think it’s really important to provide these families with nice housing options.”
The amount tenants pay varies based on income, Lorentz said. The idea of this tiering allows tenants to build up credit while paying rent, but also save money in the process.
“These are people who live and work in the community and have very limited opportunities,” she said.
For Erica Green, a single mother of two living in Deer Run, this model offered her a second chance to start a new life with her children in the city.
When Green joined Meredith, she was freshly sober and working as an assistant manager at Burger King. When she rented a unit from Deer Run, it was a chance to start fresh, she said.
“You give people a second chance. If they can show that they have received treatment and that their lives have changed, they give families a chance to start over,” she said.
She joined AmeriCorps and volunteered at a local recovery organization. She helped others find their way to sobriety while continuing to work with her own recovery coach.
Green now works as a certified Recovery Support Worker. She saved money while living in affordable housing and recently moved to a new place that didn’t require rent subsidy.
Harvey Heights fills a clear need in Meredith, but 25 units solves only a small part of a larger problem.
This is the kind of housing opportunity that Keets wishes her son could find.
“Affordable housing is nowhere in sight,” Keets said. “There is nothing for people I care about, people who can’t afford these high rents, these high-end apartments.”
Her son has a case manager who is helping him find a new place to live. She hopes it will be close, but due to lack of availability, that’s not a guarantee.
Developments in the lake town present Keets with a dilemma. She knows it’s good for the economy and that more units can provide greater availability for a thin rental market.
But when many are selling at market price — $1,500 a month or more — she worries about people skipping those new properties.
Autumn is her favorite time to ride her motorbike around the lake. She watches the leaves change. She can smell people’s burning wood stoves.
But on recent trips, she’s also noticed condominiums being built on the lake shores. Lot by lot, she fears public access to the waterfront will be restricted, her view blocked and people like her son will continue to struggle to find a place in Meredith to call home.
“Sometimes I wonder how big this city is going to get,” she said.