Tenants scramble for housing after West Lebanon building condemned

Rosemary, who asked to be referred to be her first name out of concerns for her safety, pets her five-year-old cat Twister in her room at the Residence Inn where she is living temporarily in Lebanon, N.H., on Monday, March 25, 2024. Rosemary, who is in the process of searching for permanent housing, has been at the hotel since March 8 after the apartment building in West Lebanon where she had been living for nearly nine years was condemned. The transition has been difficult, Rosemary said, but she has had a lot of help. “I know there’s something coming,” she said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Rosemary, who asked to be referred to be her first name out of concerns for her safety, pets her five-year-old cat Twister in her room at the Residence Inn where she is living temporarily in Lebanon, N.H., on Monday, March 25, 2024. Rosemary, who is in the process of searching for permanent housing, has been at the hotel since March 8 after the apartment building in West Lebanon where she had been living for nearly nine years was condemned. The transition has been difficult, Rosemary said, but she has had a lot of help. “I know there’s something coming,” she said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

A six-unit apartment building on the corner of Maple Street and Seminary Hill Road in West Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, March 22, 2024. The building was declared unsafe for human habitation, forcing residents to find new places to live in early March. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A six-unit apartment building on the corner of Maple Street and Seminary Hill Road in West Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, March 22, 2024. The building was declared unsafe for human habitation, forcing residents to find new places to live in early March. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Signs warn against trespassing at a condemned apartment building at 3 Maple Street in West Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, March 22, 2024. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Signs warn against trespassing at a condemned apartment building at 3 Maple Street in West Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, March 22, 2024. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America – Alex Driehaus

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-25-2024 6:24 PM

Modified: 03-25-2024 6:25 PM


WEST LEBANON — In a rental market as precarious as the Upper Valley’s, a water leak can have a ripple effect.

Last spring, Rosemary, 58, known to most as Rose, was banging a broom handle against the ceiling of her apartment as a “waterfall” from an upstairs unit flooded into the building on the corner of Main and Maple streets where she’d lived for nine years.

“My bathroom got pretty much stripped,” she said.

Earlier this month, a year after the flood in Rosemary’s building, the city of Lebanon condemned the six-unit property for what Fire Chief Jim Wheatley characterized as “structural stability concerns.” Residents were forced out into the tight real estate market, where historically high rents are quick to box prospective tenants out of an already limited housing stock.

The chaos of the leak prompted an engineering assessment of the building — where the average rent for the five units occupied at the time was about $1,400 a month — from a firm hired by Real Property Management Beacon. The Lebanon-based company manages the building for an owner in Connecticut.

The final report, dated Feb. 15, noted “signs of structural overstress and member failure” in “several locations” throughout the building. But the engineers’ findings were no surprise to Rosemary, who asked to be referred to by her first name out of concerns for her safety. She said she’d brought concerns about a stress crack in the wall of her apartment to her Section 8 liaison years ago.

Then, cracks “started showing up one after another,” Rosemary said.

Before the engineering assessment for Rosemary’s apartment building was made official, the property managers knew the lifespan of the structure, at least in its current state, was coming to an end. A notice on Feb. 6 gave residents until Feb. 18 to vacate the building.

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As other residents located alternative housing — one moved into Maple Manor, public housing across the street from the building owned by the Lebanon Housing Authority — Rosemary struggled to find a new spot.

With the average rental vacancy rate at 2% in Grafton County, according to 2023 data from the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, the median rent for a single-bedroom apartment in Grafton County clocks in at over $1,100. Rent for two-bedroom apartments has increased by 83% over the last five years.

Rosemary hunted for a one-bedroom apartment that accepted federal rental assistance in the form of her Section 8 voucher and also accommodated her disabilities (she has two forms of chronic pain and knee problems). “I just wasn’t finding anything,” Rosemary said. With nowhere else to go, she continued living at the hazardous building on Main Street past the deadline to move out.

On March 8, an official from the Fire Department told Rosemary, the final tenant remaining, that she needed to leave, she said.

City officials secured a hotel room for her at the Residence Inn off Route 120 between Hanover and Lebanon. She’s been there since, in a ground floor room with her 5-year-old cat, Twister. It costs around $160 a night, she said. While Rosemary paid the first six days of her hotel stay, the city has fronted the money for the rest, and has a legal obligation to continue to “provide temporary emergency housing” until Rosemary can secure permanent housing, wrote Human Services Director Lynne Goodwin in an email.

“While the deadline (to move out) was not hit by everyone,” Brendan Whitney, the property manager wrote in an email, the City of Lebanon’s Fire Department, Department of Planning and Development, and the Human Services Department were all involved in the efforts to evacuate the building, which has now been vacant for several weeks.

The management company “understood the issues this request would likely place on tenants, and worked with each tenant individually to assist in their particular challenges surrounding such a quick move out period,” Whitney wrote, “even placing one tenant in a vacancy managed” by the company. The managers also reimbursed February’s rent and returned residents’ security deposits.

The transition from her apartment to the Residence Inn was “overwhelming,” Rosemary said. The first few nights in the hotel were especially stressful, as she and Twister struggled to readjust. Advance Transit, which Rosemary relies on for much of her transportation, doesn’t come near the hotel as often as it did for her previous set-up.

Now it’s left to the owner, Essex, Conn.-based Princeton Realty Holdings, to decide what to do with the property in its next chapter. A message left at a number listed for Princeton Realty went unreturned by deadline.

“While we don’t know the future of the building, (the management company) is working closely with various parties and the property owner to evaluate costs associated with the building repairs, which will ultimately determine next steps,” Whitney, the property manager, wrote.

The apartments are no stranger to turnover. Before a 2006 bust by Lebanon police, the 150-year-old building, then under a different owner, housed what was thought to be Lebanon’s first-known methamphetamine lab.

After this most recent closure, if the building were to ever reopen to any use, the city would require a permit stating that the structural concerns had been resolved, said Planning and Development Director Nathan Reichert.

Whatever the future of the property may be, its decline turned Rosemary into an unwilling symbol of the Upper Valley rental crunch. “This all just goes to show the availability for an actual one-bedroom is very slim,” she said.

Rosemary’s search for a new place to live continues.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.