When rents at 5 Chapel Street went up, a group of N.H. tenants tried to fight back
The news arrived in the form of an email one morning last summer. It was expected, but still enough to ruin Sean and Donna Hogan’s breakfast: Their rent was going up.
The Hogans had lived in a one-bedroom unit at 5 Chapel St. in Newmarket for seven years. During that period, they coasted by with a rent that amounts to a great deal for the Seacoast: $785 per month.
“I agree, it probably was time for it to increase. Like, no doubt,” Donna said. “We kept being like, ‘Anytime now it's going to increase.’ ”
Their building is a rusty red hulk of a structure just a block from downtown Newmarket. It has 14 apartments, at times unreliable laundry machines, and parking for tenants. It was built in 1835, and the years show: The Hogans had problems with mice, with a toilet, and frequent issues with antique door knobs. The floorboards in many rooms are rippled from wear.
When a new property management company, Condor Capital, purchased the property in June, the Hogans figured a rent increase was inevitable. But they were shocked when they read the email from Condor announcing the new rent: $1,775, an increase of nearly $1,000 per month.
In the current red-hot housing market, rents approaching $2,000 per month in the Seacoast have become the going rate. But compared to the Hogans' previous rent, and what they viewed as their apartment’s deficiencies, it felt like a robbery.
“One might tolerate that if you were doing that to live large,” said Sean. “This place isn’t living large.”
Still, it had been their home, the place they lived and worked and shared with their dogs, until their pets passed away recently. The Hogans first came to New Hampshire in their early 30s after Donna was accepted into a Ph.D. program at the University of New Hampshire. She now works as a software developer; Sean is a former professional dogwalker and an environmental planner.
The Hogans say they had plans to save money for a down payment. As they approached their 40s, they also wanted to start stashing money for their retirement. That wouldn’t be possible if they stayed at 5 Chapel St. Finding another apartment anywhere near their previous rent in the region also seemed like a longshot.
The Hogans saw themselves as the newest victims of a housing market that has turned ruthless against tenants. With demand outpacing supply, and construction of new units failing to keep up with growth in some regions of the state, rents have ballooned by more than 30% in the last five years.
Facing only what they saw as only bad choices, the Hogans decided to do what a lot of tenants who get rent increases fantasize about doing: They organized alongside their fellow tenants, and tried to fight back.
'This is not going to stop unless we band together'
One beautiful evening in August, the tenants of 5 Chapel St. walked down the hill and gathered at a riverside park. They had invited legal aid lawyers, local politicians and housing organizers, including Brandon Lemay with the progressive group Rights and Democracy.
“This the nicest tenant meeting location I’ve ever been at,” noted Lemay. “It is usually church basements.”
Lemay is in the early stages of organizing a tenants rights movement in the state, modeled in part on similar groups nationwide, including KC Tenants, a Kansas City based group that garnered national attention after some members chained themselves to a courthouse to protest evictions during the pandemic.
As Lemay sees it, a tenants union in New Hampshire could serve as a counterforce to landlords, who they see as holding all the chips.
“I cannot promise you a win. I can promise you a fight. That’s my motto,” Lemay told the tenants sitting around a picnic table. “Essentially, this is not going to stop unless we band together for long lasting change.”
Exactly how to fight back, however, was unclear. Nothing Condor Capital, and its owner Ben Stebbins, had done was illegal. He had given proper notice, and there is no limit, under state law, for the size of a rent increase. With no clear legal options, the tenants settled on a more public facing campaign that would highlight the plight of renters in a housing market they see as skewed against them.
First, they requested a building-wide meeting with Condor, which Stebbins declined. The Hogans and others also took to social media, sharing their story. They reached out to journalists, including NHPR, and Sean spoke at a town council meeting.
But the centerpiece of their activism, they decided, would be a public protest, planned with the help of state Rep. Ellen Read of Newmarket.
On a Saturday in September, Read, along with her bullhorn and a dozen or so tenants and friends of 5 Chapel St., gathered on Newmarket’s Main Street. Flashing signs including “Keep Newmarket Livable” and “#screwed by stebbins” passing cars let out an occasional honk in solidarity.
Ciara Wright, a former tenant who moved out of 5 Chapel as soon as the building sold, brought a sign depicting a condor, the large bird, nesting atop a pile of money.
“I had to end up winding back up at my folks place, just for a bit, while I’m saving up and hopefully something affordable will come on the market, some day,” said Wright.
Not in my backyard
In total, eight of the building’s 14 units changed hands after Condor took ownership and increased the rents.
Stebbins says he was aware of the protest, but didn’t attend himself. He also stressed that the reason the rent hikes were so large — in some cases, more than doubling previous rates — was because of how little the previous landlord had been charging.
“This one was a little bit more of a rent increase than we typically see,” said Stebbins. “Most landlords stay closer to market [rate].”
The Hogan's old rent of $785 a month is practically unheard of at this point. The previous building owner, Tom Ferrari, said he knew he was charging less than he could at 5 Chapel St., but in the end, limiting tenant turnover had its benefits.
“My theory was, it cost me zero if they didn’t leave,” said Ferrari. “So I figured, if they were a good tenant, and they didn’t call me and bother me unless something that needed to be repaired, then I wouldn't raise the rent, pretty much.”
Ferrari also knew he was going to cash in when he eventually sold the building, which he purchased in 2005 for $500,000. This summer, Stebbins paid him $1.7 million.
In recent years, Condor Capital has purchased or co-invested in multifamily properties in Lee, Rochester, Somersworth and Dover. In Newmarket alone, he now rents out about 60 units.
Stebbins said that he has agreed to gradually increase rents for some tenants at other buildings, if requested. He also accepts Section 8 housing vouchers and works with a variety of local nonprofits to provide housing to those in need.
At 5 Chapel St., he installed new refrigerators in most units, painted and made other small improvements.
But he says the relationship with the tenants of 5 Chapel St. turned adversarial, in part, because they brought in outsiders, including Read and her bullhorn.
“They were given more of a, ‘Hey, let’s grab a bullhorn and signs and this is going to fix rent.’ That’s not how rent is fixed,” said Stebbins. “It’s showing up to town meetings, it's showing up to planning boards. If you want to protest someone, it's to protest NIMBYS that don’t allow development in town.”
NIMBYism, restrictive zoning ordinances, and local planning boards rejecting or scaling down proposed developments are often pointed to as key drivers for the state’s current housing shortage.
But for the tenants of 5 Chapel St., at least some of the finger-pointing should be directed at landlords who, like hedge fund managers, scour the market for investment opportunities and squeeze their profits out of tenants. Stebbins told NHPR that he is already receiving unsolicited offers from other developers who want to buy 5 Chapel St., suggesting rents could be pushed even higher.
No matter who owns the building in the future, Sean and Donna Hogan will no longer be living in unit 12.
In late September, they packed moving boxes into their Subaru, and headed to stay with family in New Jersey until they found a new place to live.
Despite their lives being uprooted, they see some slivers of hope from their organizing: None of the former tenants of 5 Chapel St. ended up homeless, which was an initial concern. The public protest was covered by a few news outlets, meaning more public awareness of the plight of renters, and the fledgling Granite State Tenant Union, still very much in its infancy, signed up more members.
Still, for Sean, stepping into the spotlight has carried its own burdens. Deep down, he says, he’s not the bullhorn type.
“I really hate doing this," he says. "But I felt that in the building we were the least destroyable if that makes sense."
The Hogans weren’t worried about getting a reference for a future apartment. They have a steady income, and friends and family they could stay with. In short, they saw themselves as the best positioned, compared to some other tenants in the building, some of whom were on fixed incomes or had other complications in their lives.
“I just thought it was my job to stick our necks out a bit," Sean says, "because we could afford to take the hit.”