‘The perfect storm’: Housing shortage pinches the Upper Valley

By: - July 8, 2021 6:15 am
Abubakar Khan, a Dartmouth graduate student, stands in front of the exterior staircase of his Hanover apartment building.

Abubakar Khan in front of the Hanover apartment building where he lives. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story has been updated on July 8, 2021 at 11:55 am to reflect that Keys to the Valley collected housing shortage data in a study of the Upper Valley. 

When Tishya Srivastava received an acceptance letter for a master’s program at Dartmouth, it was good news.

But the excitement about moving to Hanover didn’t last long. Even though Srivastava started looking for housing right away, more than a month later all of her housing leads have evaporated. Srivastava is currently living in Mumbai, India, and searching for a place to live from thousands of miles away is stress-inducing.

“I hardly even had the time to digest the fact that I’ve gotten admission from a great university,” Srivastava said.

“The moment I got my letter,” she said, “I was on the real estate website just trying to figure out a place to stay, which I still haven’t been able to do.”

Srivastava has been glued to the real estate website, as well as Facebook pages where listings are sometimes posted. But other graduate students said listings are often claimed within a few seconds of posting. Of the hundred or so emails Srivastava has sent about prospective properties, the most common response she’s gotten is, “Sorry, not available.”

And even for the listings that do become available, Srivastava has no way of verifying them from Mumbai.

“As an international student I can do only so much,” Srivastava said. “I can’t physically be going to check if that place is there, if the owner is legitimate.”

She thinks the college could do more to help students in her position. A small gesture would go a long way, she said, and the least they could do is recognize that they have some responsibility.

The college did put together a lottery for some housing that became available. Srivastava entered but wasn’t chosen. And the rates were “mind-boggling”: $1,200 for a room, with a kitchen and common spaces that would be shared among 15 or 16 other people.

Searching for housing has become disheartening, Srivastava said. She’s already increased her budget from $800 a month to more than $1,000 before utilities. And even now, if she’s unable to secure housing she doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to enroll in the fall.

“At this point, I’m feeling very helpless,” she said.

On online forums, some students have started looking farther afield – as far east as Concord, which is about an hour’s drive. But for Srivastava, who doesn’t have a license or a car, that’s not an option. She needs housing that’s either within walking distance of the campus or accessible by public transit. And those places are hard to come by.

“There just aren’t options available,” she said. “I’m facing a very big problem.”

And she isn’t alone.

Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin said the fall is always the worst part of the year for housing – when the crunch is especially acute. Of the 800 registered rental units in Hanover, anywhere between 500 and 550 are occupied by undergraduate students living off campus.

The lack of student housing feeds into a general lack of workforce housing. Griffin doesn’t think Hanover, or the Upper Valley more generally, is an exception to the housing problem that exists throughout the state. Students gobbling up workforce housing adds to the same pressure that exists elsewhere, she said.

Following the pandemic, that pressure is especially acute.

This year, faced with a particularly high shortage of on-campus housing, Dartmouth offered undergraduate students a $5,000 stipend for rent should they choose to live off campus.

Less than 200 students have taken the college up on that offer, and about 130 students are still on a waiting list for housing. But that, in turn, leads to more of a crunch for graduate students and workers in the area.

“There’s never been enough units to satisfy everybody’s desire to be living in this community,” Griffin said.

This year is worse than usual because of the pandemic. The college’s study-abroad programs have been suspended along with other off-campus programming, and the Upper Valley has seen an influx of people fleeing urban areas.

“It’s the perfect storm of a housing shortage in a community that’s already got a housing shortage,” Griffin said.

Some students are pushing for the town to take action to alleviate the housing crunch.

Town zoning currently allows for only up to three unrelated individuals to live together. Students introduced a petitioned warrant article to raise that limit by allowing up to two people per room. There will be a vote on the warrant article at town meeting next Tuesday.

But Griffin said the town was not supportive of the option because a lot of students living together translates to more complaints about noise, garbage being left out, and late-night activity. She also said there are safety concerns, and the condition of rental housing is often troubling. Fire hazards are a major concern.

“It just creates a greater likelihood of unsafe living conditions,” Griffin said.

“We all lose sleep over the fire that ends up killing people or the, you know, the roof collapse because of poorly maintained structure and people are caught,” she said.

The town is already facing a half-a-million-dollar lawsuit from a resident who lives next to a rental housing unit that’s in a state of disrepair.

The housing shortage extends throughout the Upper Valley. Data recently collected and analyzed by Keys to the Valley shows that the region is short by about 10,000 units.

Griffin says that looking at the data available is sobering. It didn’t come as a surprise because Griffin and other town officials have been talking about these issues for at least a decade, but the problem is getting worse. In the past four years, the shortage has more than doubled.

Griffin said that, at least in Hanover, Dartmouth needs to build more student housing.

“This community desperately needs the college to prioritize building 600-plus additional rooms, and that would go a long way toward opening up workforce housing in Hanover,” she said.

The town is likely to approve building projects proposed by the college, Griffin said.

But even if the college does act, new housing wouldn’t be available for another three to five years. And in the meantime, people are still struggling to figure out where they can live.

“It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck time for this region,” Griffin said. She urged employers to step up and get directly involved in constructing housing.

The town is also working with Twin Pines, a nonprofit affordable housing developer. In several instances, the town has donated land, which would otherwise be cost prohibitive to the organization, so it can begin construction on affordable housing.

In town, the shortage has pitted graduate students against undergraduate students, and that’s on top of the underlying tension between students and permanent residents of the town, often alums or faculty at the school.

Graduate student Lan Nguyen said the problem is especially challenging for international students, people of color, and people earning a low income. Nguyen, who is from Vietnam, is currently in her fourth year of doctoral work.

“This housing issue is another diversity and equity issue,” Nguyen said. “International students who don’t have a car or can’t physically be here to search for housing will be disadvantaged.”

In the four years Nguyen has been living in the Upper Valley, she hasn’t seen any improvement on the issue. She began her own search for housing six months before she was looking to move. Ultimately she ended up taking over a friend’s lease. But she believes housing is a human right that everyone should have access to.

She called on the university to take responsibility, and said that so far Dartmouth has not done enough.

“The administration has not been listening to the student body,” she said.

Dartmouth did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But Abubakar Khan has been listening. He’s a fifth-year doctoral student in molecular and cellular biology and the Guarini International Mentoring Fellow at Dartmouth.

Students have been reaching out to Khan for help with housing.

“I’ve tried to help each and every one,” he said. “But then again, there’s not much I can do because there’s no housing available.”

He said the college has neglected the issue. In past years, the school turned North Park, which was once graduate student housing, into undergraduate housing. That has since been reversed, but it’s not enough and it’s expensive. 

Price is another issue for graduate students earning a $2,200 stipend. Khan himself decided to leave the two-bedroom apartment where he’s been living for the past several years when the rent climbed over $2,000. In 2017, he started renting that same apartment for $1,425.

The anxiety of looking for a new place was intense.

“There were days I will just keep my phone logged into the real estate website or the Facebook page,” Khan said. “I was just not getting anything.”

Khan said the college should subsidize housing or increase graduate student stipends to help alleviate the crunch. In the end, he managed to find a more affordable room through Dart List, a website like Craigslist that Dartmouth students use to post items for sale and find roommates.

But for now, Khan said, the students he has been trying to help from afar are getting desperate.

“They’re coming from oceans away, to a different culture, to a different country,” he said. “So whatever they get, they’re going to sign the lease, and that’s what I’ve been instructing them now.”

“I am on the ground, and I realize what the situation is. I’m just telling them: ‘Whatever you get, just sign it.’”

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.