EPPING — For a year, Renee Duval and her boyfriend, Jeff, split time living in her brother’s basement and in a Hampton hotel after the cabin they had lived in for 11 years in Newton was torn down to make room for condos.
Only a month ago, they moved to a two-bedroom manufactured home on a rural Epping road where deer, turkeys and rabbits are their new neighbors.
The couple isn’t ready to welcome hundreds of new people to the neighborhood should a developer succeed in building a 315-apartment project diagonally across the street.
“We can do whatever we want and no one hears us,” Duval, 55, said the other day from her front porch.
Yet, “we’re five minutes from everything,” Jeff said.
Housing is all about location: who benefits and who may be harmed.
“You want it. But you don’t want it in your backyard,” Duval said. “Who does?”
This town of 7,200 is centrally located, with two major highways, routes 101 and 125, providing convenient access for commuters working on the Seacoast, in Manchester or in Massachusetts. That pushes up housing and rental prices.
The land in question is the same parcel that last year was proposed as the site of a distribution center. Then Fremont and Epping officials got in a spat over the wear and tear on Fremont’s end of two roads, caused by heavy trucks from commercial properties in Epping. In response, Fremont selectmen put a vehicle weight limit in place, which killed the distribution project.
So developer Tom Prieto switched to housing.
“I believe affordable housing is a civil right,” Prieto said.
Michelle Hogan, assistant director at the local library, said buying a house in Epping “is not even an option” for her.
“At some point, most people ask themselves, would you pay this much to live in this area if I can get a better value somewhere else?” Hogan said.
Major apartment project
The zoning board recently rejected Prieto’s project — valued at between $50 million and $75 million — which called for 315 apartments, including 64 “workforce” apartments priced below market rates.
The zoning board approved Prieto’s 53-foot-tall buildings, but limited them to two stories. The plans called for three and four stories.
“It’s not economically viable at two stories,” Prieto said. “Certainly, I would never build it with 27-foot ceilings.”
Fire Chief Don DeAngelis sent a letter to town officials saying more stories would be preferable because of better emergency access and that “the best interests of public safety will be incorporated into the project.”
The developer leaned on the state’s workforce law, which states that municipalities “shall provide reasonable and realistic opportunities for the development of workforce housing, including rental multi-family housing... .”
Prieto’s attorney, Amy Manzelli, said the zoning board initially rejected the project in April and “did not express a single consideration of workforce housing law.”
She said the town’s actions have “resulted in discrimination against workforce housing.”
Nick Taylor, executive director at Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast, said developers need to make a profit in order to provide some apartments at below-market rates.
“When you deal with cutting back units, restricting density, you start not to make it feasible to create the units that are below market rates,” Taylor said. Prieto’s project “is a clear example of a project that would make a big difference to businesses in town, and putting potential unnecessary roadblocks to that is disappointing.”
As proposed, the apartment complex would feature five buildings of four stories or six buildings of three stories, built on 12 of the 38 acres on the site, Prieto said.
The 64 workforce units would rent for $1,572 a month, according to a government formula.
Prieto said two-bedroom units he’s seeing are going for between $1,800 and $2,100.
According the New Hampshire Housing, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Rockingham County is $1,708, though the New Hampshire Housing Survey found rents up to $3,500.
But Prieto can’t start building.
He is appealing the zoning board’s denial to the New Hampshire Housing Appeals Board. From there, either side could appeal to the state Supreme Court. Should Prieto win his appeal, the project would still need approval from the town planning board.
Opponents in town expressed concern over a four-story building fitting into the character of the neighborhood, the project’s impact on nearby trails and the potential for more crime, according to minutes of the May 25 zoning board meeting.
Manzelli alleged “obstructive conduct pervades the town.”
In the town’s response, attorney John Ratigan denied the allegations about town officials discriminating against workforce housing or being obstructive.
Town Administrator Gregory Dodge declined to discuss Prieto’s project because it’s under appeal, or to respond to the comments contained in Prieto’s filing with the appeals board.
During the June 15 zoning board meeting discussing the project, board member Kim Sullivan “does not see it being in the public interest because of the size and the increase in population,” according to minutes of the meeting.
Another board member cited safety reasons.
Manzelli told board members they were citing factors outside their jurisdiction.
Finding and securing affordable housing is an issue found across the state.
A new report says a family would need $68,300 in yearly earnings to afford the median $1,708 monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Rockingham County, which includes Epping. That is based on dedicating 30% of a household’s income to housing.
The vacancy rate for apartments of all sizes came in at 0.5% statewide and 0.4% in Rockingham County. Statewide, a record low 0.3% of two-bedroom apartments were vacant, according to a new report from New Hampshire Housing.
“It’s amazing and wonderful we have such a low unemployment rate and a strong economy,” said Rob Dapice, the agency’s executive director and CEO.
But it’s “very challenging for employers who want to hire and talk to people who can’t find a place to live,” Dapice said. “That hinders business growth.”
Epping’s population grew nearly 13% between 2010 and 2021, more than twice the statewide rate.
“Housing is a problem everywhere as well,” said Dodge, town administrator for more than a decade after 32 years as Epping’s police chief. “I know there is not a lot affordable for rentals and even ownership is hard to find.”
He noted two proposed developments, including Prieto’s, that would offer some below-market rentals.
“We have two workforce housing projects we’re looking to approve at some point,” said Dodge.
Hogan, the library worker, has noticed competing wants and needs between new arrivals and longtime residents.
“In Epping in particular, there’s friction between families here for a long time and families moving here,” Hogan said.
“I’d say it’s a fair argument,” said Dodge. “Those who live in town for a long time are complacent with the lifestyle.”
He illustrates the point with a trash example.
“Living in town, I go to the dump. To me, it’s a very normal thing to do,” Dodge said. “Others coming in from where they had curbside pickup (say), ‘I have to take my trash to the dump?’”
New Epping housing
In late July, residents began moving into Pleasant View Farm, a condominium community located on Route 27. It features 166 duplexes with two bedroom each.
Fourteen units are under contract, with a new group now going on the market for just under a half-million dollars.
“There’s a mix of people who are down in Florida part of the year and they’re coming up, or they’re trying to downsize to something smaller,” said Kevin Salemi, marketing manager for Lewis Builders Development in Atkinson.
Rising interest rates haven’t curbed interest in the project.
“I think a lot of people buying in this range are paying cash, so financing is not an issue,” he said.
Joshua Manning, general manager at Lewis Builders Development, praised Epping officials.
“They had a very fair and equitable approval process at the local level,” Manning said.
The project, however, took longer than normal to gain state environmental approvals.
“It certainly adds to the costs, the delay,” that are passed along to the buyer, Manning said.
Two required permits took about 18 months and could have been granted sooner had Lewis Builders responded sooner to requests for additional information and had the developer pursued needed reviews simultaneously, said Philip Trowbridge, manager of the Land Resource Management Program, which consists of the Wetlands Bureau, the Subsurface Systems Bureau, and the Alteration of Terrain Bureau.
Michele Shore, who is in favor of the Prieto apartment project, which is located about two miles from her current Epping apartment, said she is looking to move but can’t find any apartments in the area for her, her husband and 10-year-old grandson.
Renting a house in a nearby town costs more than $3,000 a month, which is like “paying people’s mortgages,” Shore said.
Epping schools are having trouble hiring for some jobs.
“We are having difficulty filling paraprofessional and substitute positions,” said Christine Vayda, the school district’s business administrator. “Those smaller positions we’re not filling.”
Some custodians who get hired “don’t stay,” leaving after one month.
Epping has hired 13 new teachers for the upcoming school year.
“We’re not being super picky either,” Vayda said. “The majority we’re getting are a lot of first-year teachers.”
She hasn’t heard any complaints about locating housing, but the state is seeing many more veteran teachers leaving the field.
A first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes $40,173 a year in Epping. One with a master’s degree starts at $42,472.
A yoga class made up the bulk of visitors at the Harvey-Mitchell Memorial Library in Epping’s downtown, a tranquil area compared to the heavily trafficked commercial strip on Route 125.
“People talk about housing all the time,” said the library’s Hogan, who also is the youth services coordinator and program director. “Working here, definitely you’re talking to patrons priced out of the area.”
Families who have lived here for generations are moving away because of rising costs. But the town is welcoming others coming from more expensive communities.
“People priced out in Portsmouth or Exeter or Boston, people come to the area and are still close to those places and still accessible to (Route) 101,” Hogan said.
Hogan’s friends who lived in Portsmouth moved to more affordable Dover, she said.
She asked a question many business people and leaders are asking themselves.
“Who are the people who are going to work at the schools or the restaurants if they can’t afford to live here on those wages?”