With Rising Rents in Downtown Apartments, Tenants Worried About the Future | Local News

The notice Laura Tobin found on her doorstep on July 2 was categorical: Her monthly rent will drop from $ 800 to $ 1,200 next month if she wants to stay in her second-floor apartment in Keene’s central plaza.

For Tobin, 38, who has lived in the building since 2016, rising rents come at a particularly bad time: the marketing work she did for several years as an independent contractor has recently dried up, leaving her largely dependent on another on a part-time basis. work at the Toadstool Bookstore in downtown Keene. Without public assistance, she will probably not be able to stay in her apartment, where she lives alone.

The notice asked Tobin to tell the owner of 1-3 Central Square – the Salem-based Commonwealth Collective real estate company – by July 5 if it plans to sign a new lease at the higher rate. By Wednesday, however, she still had not responded.

“It’s embarrassing to say that I don’t make enough money to afford an apartment,” she said.

Many tenants in the Central Square building – which has 25 rental units, mostly studios, and a Rock, Paper, Scissors hair salon – expected their rents to rise after the Commonwealth Collective bought the building. for $ 1.8 million in April, according to Tobin.

The company, which owns several apartment buildings in Manchester and also owns residential properties in Maine, is rehabilitating 1-3 Central Square, including installing a keyless entry system, repainting hallways and installing new appliances in some units. Commonwealth Collective co-owner Michael Ketchen, however, told The Sentinel in May that he had no plans to replace the residents or the living room on the first floor.

“We are trying to maintain the tenant base in the building,” he said at the time. “We love people.”

Ketchen confirmed on Tuesday that her company was increasing the rent on Central Square apartments, saying the increases were aimed at bringing these units – with large stained glass windows and views of downtown Keene – to their fair market value. Studios in the area typically cost at least $ 1,000 a month, he said, explaining that the building’s former owner, Dorrie Masten, charged much less than that.

“The problem is that the existing rent for some of them was way below market value,” he said. “[The increase] Sounds like a lot, but it’s only really a lot if you were the $ 700 guys.

The lack of affordable housing in New Hampshire and locally has become a major concern for many advocates and officials. The median rent including charges for a two-bedroom apartment in Cheshire County has risen by more than 5% to $ 1,100 in the past five years, according to a new report from the independent state agency NH Housing. The county’s vacancy rate fell from 4.5%, which experts say is healthy, to 1.7% during that period, the data shows.

The ongoing rehabilitation work at 1-3 Central Square is also contributing to the increase in rents, according to Ketchen, who said eight people left the building shortly after the purchase from the Commonwealth Collective. The filling of vacant homes, he said, showed demand for that real estate – even at a significantly higher rate than before.

“I have a waiting list,” he says. “I can’t physically get people into these apartments fast enough. “

Ketchen said his company plans to raise the rent for all Central Square tenants when their respective leases expire, though he doesn’t know how many will be affected at the end of this month on Tuesday, when a moratorium national law on evictions will expire. . The company is also not sure whether residents will leave instead of paying the higher rent, he said, adding that people could stay after realizing they had the units well below the rate. market.

Tobin isn’t sure that’s an option, however.

A resident of Elm City since graduating from Keene State College in 2006, she worked at a local bank before “stumbling” into part-time marketing work, which included brand promotion and marketing. web design, several years ago. That, combined with her job at Toadstool, where she earns a $ 10 hourly wage while working about 20 hours a week, generally covered her bills, Tobin said.

But with the lack of marketing opportunities recently, this arrangement could be in jeopardy.

“It doesn’t pay for what you would need to afford an apartment,” she said of her work at the bookstore.

Tobin, who said the Commonwealth Collective told tenants it would wait for late rent payments “as long as a plan was in place,” contacted Southwestern Community Services after receiving the rent notice earlier this year. this month. The organization, which provides social services to area residents, encouraged her to seek financial assistance from the Keene welfare office and a $ 200 million rent relief program that New Hampshire manages with federal funds.

City staff were “sympathetic” about her situation, she said, and offered a monthly loan of up to $ 650 which Tobin says requires a long application. She hadn’t filled it in on Wednesday.

She applied to the state’s rent relief program, but noted that those requests – which are almost all approved – often take weeks to complete, and the program will expire before her new lease. Even if she got this help, Tobin argued that it would essentially help fund renovations to her apartment that “would end up forcing [her] to leave.”

Her options are even more limited as she suffers from epilepsy, which prevents her from driving a car, which means she has to live within walking distance of the city center.

“I don’t have a plan,” she admitted. “Basically I’m trying to figure out if I can stay and if I can go. Because at this point I can’t do either.

Ketchen admitted on Tuesday that the rent increase could force some tenants out of the building, saying “moving is a headache.” But he called the decisions the “unfortunate side” of the real estate industry and said the Commonwealth Collective – which also recently bought Centerfold Laundry on Vernon Street and the apartments above Masten – needs additional income to avoid losing. money in its central plaza. property.

“No one will be happy,” he said. “… It’s a tough part of the business, but at the end of the day, it’s the deal. You have to do what the market dictates.

Another tenant at 1-3 Central Square, who wished to remain anonymous, said he knew at least three residents, including Tobin, whose rents “go up dramatically” in August. Residents expected a monthly increase of around $ 200, he said, adding that while recent improvements to the building have been positive, the new rates are too high.

“Some apartments are quite small and $ 1,100 is a lot for the size of the apartment,” he said.

Rock, Paper, Scissors co-owner Heather Fish said a rent increase would be “damaging” for the salon, which has been in Central Square for more than six years. She was not told the rate would increase, but said the company could look for new space if it does.

“I imagine if this happens for some of the residential tenants, it will also happen for us,” she said.

Several of Tobin’s friends have offered to host her if she can’t afford her new rent, she said, but she fears being forced to leave Keene.

Between asking for rent assistance, researching alternative housing options and researching her epilepsy medications, which she says often don’t pass from the dispenser to the pharmacy, she doesn’t know when she will be able to find another job. to supplement his income from the bookstore. Other tenants are probably facing the same problem, she said.

“I’ve gotten pretty good at advocating, but it’s a full-time job. And everyone ?


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