On Jan. 15, we celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday and Civil Rights Day here in New Hampshire. On that day a new billboard was put up outside my office. The billboard is advertising soon-to-be “luxury mini-units, and 1 and 2 bedroom apartments” here in downtown Concord.
On that day in particular, when we celebrated someone who reminded us of the value and worth and importance of each and every one of us, no matter our color or creed or economic status or health status, I paused to think about our own community. Concord has undergone a tremendous and admirable rejuvenation and transformation. It is beautiful. Of this there is little doubt.
However, I can think of three buildings right downtown that have already gone from lower-income housing – albeit dilapidated in some cases – to “luxury” housing. Now there are several more buildings or empty lots slated for a similar rejuvenation.
Moreover, I hear there are waiting lists of potential renters/condo owners for all these buildings. Fantastic! In fact, the vacancy rate for all rental housing in Concord is reported to be barely 1 percent. A staggeringly low number. But I wonder, what is to happen to the people who can’t afford those rents for “luxury” units of $1,200 to $1,500 per month? I fear that we are not paying attention as a community to their needs.
Martin Luther King would tell us they are also a part of our community and have equal worth as everyone else. The Declaration of Independence tells us “all men (and women) are created equal.” Many who work hard at modest paying jobs cannot afford rents like that. The staff my organization employs cannot afford those kinds of rents. Are the restaurant workers and service workers who help make this city go and hum able to afford those rents? I fear not.
At Fellowship Housing Opportunities, we attempt to provide safe and affordable housing to those in our community who are challenged – through no fault of their own – with mental illness and behavioral challenges. We provide housing services for about 60 people, and receive about 20 more calls a month from people seeking affordable housing, but we thus far have no more space to offer. Fellowship is able to offer affordable rents thanks to assistance from Housing and Urban Development, New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, tax credits, grants, donations and other financing assistance.
Most of our tenants receive disability payments, as they are unable to support themselves. The average disability check for our tenants is approximately $950 per month, which needs to provide rent and utilities and food and clothing and all other needs of life. Our tenants choose to live in Concord if possible as this is where their treatment/rehabilitation services are, public transportation is, resources such as groceries and shopping are located within walking distance, and where their connections and roots are. NHHFA reports that the average rent in Concord for a one-bedroom apartment is about $1,100 a month in Concord. A big difference between $950 and $1,100. Thus the need for Fellowship Housing and others like us.
Some of our tenants dress funny, talk to themselves and may act differently. But they are still humans, often with tremendous senses of humor, and are kind and affable and with a spark for life. One of our tenants, who has lived with us for years, pays about $500 for his small one-bedroom apartment. Nevertheless, he loves his apartment and it is his home. He proudly decorated for the holidays modestly, and enthusiastically told me the other day he is slowly working on regaining his driver’s license. He had a license, but after becoming seriously ill in his early 20s – as is very common and thus was hospitalized on and off for several years – his license lapsed. At this time, he is comfortable in his own home, and is engaged in treatment and doing well. Once he has his license again, he hopes to buy himself a small used truck and get a part-time job to support the truck. He has goals and ambitions and dreams, as we all do.
In an article for the Atlantic in September 2015 about gentrification, Richard Florida wrote, “the most crucial task ahead: creating more inclusive cities and neighborhoods that can meet the needs of all urbanites.”
All members of our community need homes to call their own, that they can afford, in which they can build stable lives and receive support when needed. In so doing, Martin Luther King would ask that we as the community of Concord offer all people in our community dignity, freedom to live closer to their full potential and to be full members of our community – including having a home they can call their own and afford.
A noble vision. I hope in our zest for gentrification we do not forget that.
(Nancy A. Egner is executive director of Fellowship Housing Opportunities in Concord.)