DOVER, N.H. - Sixty-four-year-old Mary Cameron's belongings are currently collected in brown boxes stacked in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment.
She spends a lot of time with local organizations that provide resources for houseless people in the community, often donating and helping pack personal hygiene bags and volunteering with Waypoint. Now, she finds herself in need of help as the uncertainty and pressure builds to find a new place to live before she finds herself without a roof over her head.
"I knew all along that I was only one step away from being in their shoes, that there wasn't much separation between our situations," Cameron said, referring to people who are houseless. "I don't know what's next, I don't know what more I can do."
On Aug. 1 she and the eight other tenants in Dover received eviction notices in their mailboxes from the building's new owner, Commonwealth Collective LLC, which bought the property earlier this summer.
Cameron said tenants were told they were being evicted so the apartments could be remodeled and put back on the market with increased rent prices.
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Cameron's rent has been $850 per month, but her voucher would pay a landlord up to $1,136 per month, the capped amount per the rules of the federal program in the area where she lives.
The new rent after the planned renovations will be priced much higher than Cameron and the other tenants can afford, she said. Some tenants have to be out by the end of August, but some, like Cameron, were given until the end of September.
"In two weeks, we went from a closing of the property in July that we didn't know about until the last minute, to an eviction notice in our mailboxes. I'm trying to find another place, but there's nothing within my means," Cameron said.
As the deadline quickly approaches, Cameron hasn't been able to find an apartment with a landlord who accepts a Housing Choice Voucher (formerly known as Section 8 voucher) as payment. She's anxious about what happens next for her and her support animal Hailey, an African grey parrot that has been her companion for 26 years. She said because she is disabled she relies on the voucher and Social Security, along with the help of local food pantries to make ends meet.
Housing Choice Voucher Program is a lifeline
The program assists low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The vouchers are administered locally by public housing agencies. Most of those who qualify are applicants whose incomes do not exceed 30% of the area median income.
Cameron has been a tenant of her current residence for seven years, and she has a glowing recommendation from the prior landlord, but she can't find a new apartment. Cameron said her neighbors are experiencing similar challenges, with some forced to sleep in their vehicles or move in with family until they find housing. Cameron isn't the only tenant with a housing voucher, and they are all scrambling to find a new home.
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"I've looked around everywhere including well outside of Dover, and I have not been able to find anything out there, even with a portable housing voucher that I can take with me wherever I go," Cameron said.
Commonwealth Collective LLC, the company that now owns the building where Cameron is about to depart, lists its founders as Michael Ketchen, Hannah Ketchen and Matthew Hitchcock on its website. They did not reply to multiple attempts to reach them for comment on this story, including emails and phone messages. The company's website states it specializes "in revitalizing and increasing the value of neglected, distressed, or underutilized properties" and "optimizing the property management process, increasing the ultimate return on investment."
The company currently owns and operates residential and commercial rental properties in Maine and New Hampshire. According to its website, this includes a five-unit residential apartment building on Park Street in Dover. The company states that after completing upgrades and increasing all five units to market-price rental rates, the property's value "nearly tripled from the original purchase price of $300,000."
'Crisis' on the Seacoast
Cameron isn't alone in her struggle to find housing as a voucher holder. According to the Dover Housing Authority, the wait list for its elderly housing is 20 years. Within Dover, there are about 880 units of government owned or managed affordable housing, with 347 occupied by Housing Choice Voucher holders.
Those who apply for vouchers may be on the waitlist for two to three years before being selected, after which they have 120 days to find a unit. When tenants are evicted in situations that are no fault of their own, they are given extensions up to 120 days to search for a new place.
Ryan Crosby, executive director of the DHA, said it's common for housing authorities in the Seacoast area in New Hampshire to have more people with vouchers in hand than available units. In an already tight housing market, voucher holders are at a disadvantage and find their options even tighter than the average renter.
Crosby said the current market is worsening these challenges. As people who bought into the market three to 10 years ago can turn properties around now to recoup their investment for top-dollar profits, he said.
"Landowners assume that they are passing their tenants on and the new owners will rent to them, too," Crosby said. "Except that everyone that's buying in this market is buying at an inflated market price, which means in order to have rents sufficient to justify the mortgage that they took out, they're probably going to have to leverage higher rents. The units that currently offer HUD rents are not being preserved if there's no obligation to maintain those HUD rents."
According to a study published by the nonprofit National Low Income Housing Coalition, the fair market rate for a one-bedroom apartment is around $1,000 in New Hampshire and fair market value for a two-bedroom is $1,286. The New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority in its 2021 rental survey report said the median rent of a two-bedroom apartment in Strafford County is $1,394 per month and that in the five-year period from 2016 to 2021 rents have jumped by 28.7%. Meanwhile, the vacancy rate in the county is just 0.9%.
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Crosby said the Seacoast is "in a real affordable housing crisis" and has been for some time. He said the intensity of that crisis is ramping up. Crosby said simply that chances are, those with the money to invest in real estate and rentals right now, are out of state investors hoping to make money through passive income streams as owners; and those are the harder owners to convince to rent at HUD rates.
Since the rental market is increasingly expensive and competitive and some landlords are reluctant to work with voucher holders, recruiting and retaining landlords has become more difficult, according to Cathy Gallagher, a Housing Choice Voucher specialist at the Dover Housing Authority.
"When we pull from our waitlist up to 20 to 30 households waiting for a Housing Choice Voucher, we may issue seven out of that pull, and one or two might actually find housing with it," Gallagher said.
Gallagher said when trying to reach out to new owners of apartment buildings that formerly took vouchers, like in Cameron's situation, they are often shut down. The Dover Housing Authority and other organizations do a lot of work to educate current and prospective landlords of the benefits of accepting the vouchers.
The Dover Housing Authority is aware of Cameron's situation, but said conversations with the new owners to keep the tenants on vouchers were unsuccessful, noting that the price of rent for that building will significantly increase upon completion of its remodeling project.
"We're always encouraging landlords to preserve what affordable housing they have by whatever method we can, even if it's asking: 'Can you accept the voucher for another year, can you extend the lease just a little longer.' Beyond that we're vigorously advocating and engaging with legislators, cities, Seacoast partners, regional partners and national partners," Crosby said.
There are incentive measures in place that try to encourage more developers to have some HUD rate rental apartments, through things like tax breaks or density bonuses. Every private housing development that promises to have a percentage of HUD- restricted rents and adds to the affordable market is considered "a success story" Crosby said.
"Even 20% of units at HUD rates are a huge advantage for us, but it's only a small percentage of the Seacoast," Crosby said. "We're losing affordable apartments faster than we're gaining them. When you say HUD rents, people assume it's a crazy low amount, but we pay up to 110% above fair market rate. If you ask a landlord if they charge fair market rent and look at the fair market rates, we see some charging 150% to 200% above fair market value."
Recruiting landlords to help
Donna Marsh, executive director of Home For All, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based housing and homelessness prevention coalition, is among the area organizations working to match voucher holders with landlords, in addition to recruiting new landlords.
She notes they've seen similar success with a program to incentivize landlords to set aside a small percentage of units for voucher holders. Marsh hopes to scale the program up in the future, but right now they are nearly maxed with having matched all of their units with tenants.
"We have partnered with landlords who are interested in helping solve this problem and are willing to devote a certain percentage or portion of their properties to help low-income tenants," Marsh said. "We have generous landlords that have been willing to take voucher holders in a market that doesn't necessitate that, but they do it because they know that it's best for their communities and the people that live there."
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Marsh is also a board member of the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. Marsh says that homeless shelters across the area are at capacity, which leaves many with nowhere else to go.
Crosby said that it's frustrating seeing properties that accept vouchers be sold, because the voucher-holding tenants were the ones able to consistently pay their rent as the nation suffered massive layoffs during the coronavirus pandemic that led to many being unable to pay rent. He said it feels like those tenants were taken advantage of during the pandemic as a source of steady income to pay the mortgage, but when new owners come in and take a different direction, those tenants are left in the dust.
Uncertainty on the horizon
If Cameron doesn't find a place to live, she will continue the search. In the meantime, she plans to move all her belongings into a storage unit and live with her children for two weeks, which is all their landlords allow. Cameron doesn't want to think much past that, noting stress and fear are having a physical impact on her health.
Cameron hoped to be able to use the rent moratorium to keep a roof over her head for another month, but was told it was only for tenants that couldn't afford to pay rent and she didn't qualify. She is hopeful that when the moratorium ends, more units will go on the market, but she is skeptical that will happen.
"We did everything right. We are steady tenants that always pay their rent on time, and they came in here like this was nothing, like we were nothing," Cameron said. "What else can we do?"
While there is no clear cut solution as to how to address these issues facing the Seacoast and beyond, Crosby and Marsh said, it starts with making a small dent in the affordable housing market where you can, and working closely alongside landlords.
"If we could see a greater collaboration between landlords, the community and community agencies that work with low income clients, I think in the future we may be able to find more creative and collaborative housing solutions," Marsh said.
Follow Megan Fernandes on Twitter: @Meg_Fernandes.
This article originally appeared on Fosters Daily Democrat: Eviction notice left N.H. woman with housing voucher nowhere to go