MANCHESTER, NH – From the outside, the property at 35 High Street in Manchester looks like an unassuming, typical two-story house of the kind you’d find anywhere. It’s a white house sitting in front of a parking meter near an intersection with Pine Street, close to Bridge Street. From all outward appearances, it doesn’t look like a place where something special is happening.
But what developer Craig St. Pierre has done here is far from the norm.
The reasons are many.
The rental market for apartments in Manchester has been trending downwards for some time. While wages stagnate, in part due to increased costs for local businesses, rental prices have been going up. Workforce housing is calculated at 80 percent of gross median income. Based on 2020 census data, a person would have to gross $5,194.87 dollars a month to qualify for this standard.
New Hampshire Employment Security data places retail workers in the state at 91,700 out of close to 700,000 workers people employed in the private sector. Many of these positions are paid at lower rates than what other states in New England offer for minimum wage.
At any of the 10 Dunkin Donuts locations in Manchester, for example, workers typically experience low pay, understaffing, and other employment difficulties. Low wages, in particular, make it difficult for workers to afford workforce housing which, in turn, would allow them to find stability in employment itself.
Working at 10 dollars an hour for 40 hours a week, a worker at Dunkins would gross $1,600 a month. Ironically enough, the rates for workforce housing price out workers who need it the most. In order to qualify for this standard, workers would need to make $32 an hour.
Nor is there a rush to offer a glut of affordable housing to the market – affordable translating to one-third of a person’s income, or subsidized housing through Section 8. Many developers, who have been appearing before the Planning Board in recent months often propose a majority of their apartments at market rate, with only a percentage allocated for tenants who require affordability.
Meanwhile, recipients who have been approved for vouchers often have to wait months, sometimes years, to find an apartment, filling out applications and making phone calls all the while. In the interim, people have to do their best to find somewhere to live. Some people stay at a shelter for years. Others are chronically homeless, living in tents, moving from place to place as police disrupt camps and confiscate possessions.
In such an environment, a developer willing to spend their own money to create affordable housing is both rare and unexpected. That’s where St. Pierre, who owns St. Pierre Interests, comes in.
The house on High Street he’s renovated out of pocket is ready for tenants, preference will be given to those with Section 8 vouchers.
Interior images via St. Pierre Interests Facebook.
St. Pierre intends to include utilities for his tenants, even as utility companies across the state propose rate increases beginning in August. Nor does he intend to increase rent to compensate accordingly. He does not want people to choose between paying rent and staying warm.
The building makes money right away, it’s just not as much as if he offered them at market value. When touring properties for sale, St. Pierre determined he didn’t want to be part of the problem buying at inflated prices and kicking people out to rent at higher prices. He found this particular property, and created it for the specific purpose of receiving those folks, knowing that it would earn a little less. He felt if he built up with his own hands, he could do so more affordably and pass that along to folks most in need.
“I built it for the people in the system,” St. Pierre said. “I’m happy with where we’re at to take voucher program people. That works for me. It’s enough that it makes it sustainable.”
Initially, St. Pierre sought 79-E tax relief and grant programs through the city. However, because the property is in a commercial district rather than a residential one, he did not qualify for any incentives usually offered for developers of affordable housing. He claims if the property was on the other side of Pine Street, he would qualify.
Despite these setbacks, he’s continued to move forward with the project. St. Pierre plans to open the property for five tenants, each of whom will have their own spacious, roomy, newly-renovated apartment. He describes the property as ADA-friendly, though not necessarily accessible. A set of stone stairs in front of the building preclude the notion of wheelchair users accessing the building; a set of stairs leads to the second floor. No elevator is present.
On-street parking does not appear to be a difficulty, as he is offering five spaces for tenancy. St. Pierre remains hopeful about the impact the property will have on the community as a whole.
“So by trying to bring those people in,” St. Pierre said, referring to folks living in precarious circumstances, “I’m also trying to be mindful of the direction, the upward push. So if I can free up transitional housing, the shelter can put two people there, two people aren’t in the park. So it’s really a goal to try and uplift as many people as we can to the next step.”
Thus far, St. Pierre has been working with Nicole Hudson of the Manchester Housing Authority. Having been homeless in Boston herself, even while she worked and had to take care of two kids, Hudson knows personally what it’s like to face the stigma of being “less than” based on her circumstances in the moment. Her experiences led her to help low-income and disabled individuals find and secure housing of their own.
Now she’s helping St. Pierre find tenants for 35 High Street. Hudson has been able to offer grants through MHA to those interested in providing affordable housing.
“The mission is housing,” Hudson said. “It’s making everything come together. It’s opening eyes. It’s not bashing or degrading the system, but finding the flaws in it and pointing them out and problem-solving.”
She has seen people deal with obstacles to finding housing from a variety of different sources. Income and a lack of availability are factors that play into it at times, as well as transportation or lack thereof. At times, Southern New Hampshire Services helps people who have been taken to court for non-payment of rent. Even that assistance will only go so far.
What is more, other barriers prevent people from finding stable housing.
“Challenges often are credit history,” Hudson said. “Landlords look now for anywhere from 650 to 700 for a credit score. For me personally, when I was looking a year and a half ago, it was 600 or if you couldn’t find the credit, someone to co-sign for you. I don’t know about anybody else, but I don’t have any friends who say, ‘Yeah, I’ll co-sign for you, I have a 700 credit score,’” Hudson said.
“It’s like asking someone to hand you money in guarantees and things that could affect their credit. So it’s a really hard question to ask someone. I don’t have family members that probably could, but I’d feel really bad about going, ‘Yeah, I messed up my credit, so can I borrow yours?’”
Security deposits also play a role in preventing access to housing. With rent being so high, and so many people being rent-burdened (spending more than a third of their monthly income on rent), saving up money can be difficult – especially when costs of daily living increase due to inflation. People looking for affordable housing often have to apply for assistance with security deposits.
St. Pierre plans on making this as little a burden as possible. His goal is not to set up barriers in order to get the right applicant, but to alleviate the housing crisis in New Hampshire, especially when he sees people living in transitional housing for “five to seven years.”
When describing the process and the work she’s been doing, Hudson said, “It’s been amazing. It’s been like Christmas. Every day dealing with this has been amazing. Every day working with this is like Christmas. It’s a new surprise, it’s somebody getting to open a present and it’s shiny and it pops up, and it’s new, and it makes you feel great. The act of giving it is the best part. You know, working with people who need this and don’t have this opportunity. It really fills my good tanks,” she said.
“I always say that we find different things in life that we work with and they fill our good tanks so we can feel good,” Hudson said. “Everybody has something different. Not every one thing fills up a tank all the way, but this helps fill up the tank.”
St. Pierre Interests is currently accepting applications for the 35 High Street property for any and all Section 8 voucher recipients not currently in stable housing. For more information call 603-685-4302.
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