Housing shortage crimps search for cancer cure

·4 min read

May 23—LEBANON — Add this to the list of things the state's affordable housing shortage is crimping:

Curing cancer.

"The single biggest impediment to us growing our attempts to find the next great way to prevent or cure cancer here in the Upper Valley is the lack of affordable housing," said Dr. Steven Leach, director of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center.

"It's very difficult, for instance, for a young Ph.D. researcher with a young family to find a place to live, an affordable place, to live in the Upper Valley," Leach said in a recent interview, "and it's something both our college and our health system leadership, I know, are actively addressing."

More than 15,000 people commute to work in Lebanon.

As housing prices rise, more people are turning to social service groups for help with food and utilities.

"Folks we're seeing, most have jobs but can't afford the cost of living in this area, so they can't make ends meet," said Kyle Fisher, executive director of Listen Community Services in Lebanon.

The group's food pantry has helped feed 1,060 more households this fiscal year than the previous year, a 46% increase. It also has served 16,079 more to-go dinners at its community hall in White River Junction, Vt., in the first nine months of its fiscal year compared to the previous year, a 68% spike.

"A lack of affordable housing has created a lack of workforce, and that's one of the biggest things that could stifle the local economy," said Fisher, whose organization serves 25 communities, including 11 in New Hampshire.

Even with 1,400 new housing units approved or under construction in Lebanon, the region needs another 2,000 to 4,000 to be built, according to Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland.

Hiring signs are everywhere.

"All of our employers say the same thing: 'We don't have enough workers, and/or workers have to commute great distances, because housing is so expensive,' " Mulholland said.

"One thing we don't have is an unemployment problem here," Mulholland said. "We have an underemployment problem here."

A recent check of homes on the market showed only nine homes listed for sale in Lebanon, eight in Claremont and six in Hanover, according to Dave Cummings, director of communications for the New Hampshire Realtors.

"It certainly shows a dramatic lack of inventory," he said.

Shenia Covey, a Realtor with CG Shepherd Realty in Grantham and president of the Upper Valley Board of Realtors, sees 20 to 30 potential buyers at some open houses. Nearly every home goes for asking price or above.

"If we see houses under $300,000, they're going instantly because there are so many buyers in that price range and not enough houses in that price range," Covey said.

Some buyers are coming from other New England states to buy second homes.

"Then the others coming to the area are professionals working at DHMC, Dartmouth College and Hypertherm," Covey said.

"So many towns are enforcing their strict zoning ordinances and things like that and not allowing new construction in the area, new buildings for apartments, and people need housing," Covey said.

Available apartments also are in shorter supply, with people staying longer because they can't afford a new home. And more homeowners are using places they might previously have rented to work remotely instead, she said.

For the year ending April 30, the median home sale price in Hanover was $740,000, more than double the statewide mark of $350,000. Lebanon came in at $288,000, and Claremont, where many commute from, was $149,950, according to the state Realtors group.

Those communities, however, saw smaller increases in the median price than the statewide 15.5% rise for the year ending April 30, compared to the previous 12 months. Hanover rose 8.1%, Claremont 7.1% and Lebanon 1.4%.

"We draw the young people here through new jobs at the hospital or education at the college and they can't stay here," said Meghan Butts, executive director of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission.

Availability, type and price all hamper efforts to find suitable housing, she said.

The commission is focusing on housing, suggesting among other things eliminating regulatory barriers and streamlining the process to build more units.

"Hopefully more housing is going up, and not just in Lebanon," Butts said. "Lebanon can't take all that burden. Although a lot of people are traveling to Lebanon, there's a lot of other places people are going to."

What's Working, a series exploring solutions for New Hampshire's workforce needs, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and is funded by Eversource, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the New Hampshire College & University Council, Northeast Delta Dental and the New Hampshire Coalition for Business and Education.

Contact reporter Michael Cousineau at mcousineau@unionleader.com. To read stories in the series, visit unionleader.com/whatsworking.