A maze of invisible walls has divided Manchester since the 1920s, dictating what can be built where and, indirectly, where the city’s poorest residents can live. These walls, created by land use zoning laws, helped segregate the city based on income and race. Experts say that while this type of zoning is common, it slows efforts to address some of the city’s most complex issues, including housing shortages, persistent crime hotspots, and economic and racial segregation.
Anthony Harris, 39, is one of many Manchester residents whose path to finding a home has been redirected through these walls.
Two years ago, Harris and his girlfriend, Shaquwan’Da Allen, unexpectedly found themselves looking for a new apartment.
“We were homeless,” he said, “and it was difficult. Even though we had money, we didn’t have enough to get a seat.
After living without a car for four or five months, Harris and Allen started saving for their own apartment. Although she ran her own hair salon on Granite Street, money was tight. It took time to collect the money for the first and last month’s rent for a two or three bedroom apartment. But when they thought they had finally had enough, Allen started browsing the listings online.
Right away, the couple ran into trouble.
“So my queen is sending me all these apartments,” Harris said, referring to his girlfriend. Even though some of the listings looked good, scrolling down to the details raised some red flags. “I’m like, ‘Hey, look at the rent!’ ”
In areas where they preferred to live, which is anywhere outside of downtown, Harris said typical prices were over $2,000 a month for a two- or three-bedroom apartment. This was way over their budget of $1,000 per month.
Even after doing the search again – this time only for one bedroom apartments – they couldn’t get it to work. The most affordable listing they saw was $1,600 in some old factory buildings on the west side.
Harris and Allen looked around town. “When I say ‘everywhere’ I really mean it,” he said.
But having found nothing they could afford, Allen and Harris began looking in the part of town they’d rather not live in: Downtown, an area that in recent years has seen of relatively high poverty and crime, and whose neighborhoods are sometimes referred to as tree-lined streets. As someone previously incarcerated, Harris said he preferred not to live there because he wanted to leave that life behind.
Everywhere the couple looked outside of downtown, they were knocking.
“I was even telling my queen that we could extend it to $1,250, but then we have to sacrifice something to do it,” he said. “And it still wasn’t good enough.”
Eventually, the couple realized they didn’t have much choice. The best deal they could find was $650 a month to share a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate in the city center, so that’s where they ended up.
“We couldn’t afford to go anywhere else,” Harris said, standing in his apartment near Pulaski Park, where he often sees homeless people sleeping. “It’s like we have to be here and just be grateful that you know we have a place when a lot of us don’t.”
What Harris and Allen don’t understand, however, is why their choices were so limited to begin with, and why most affordable options were concentrated downtown.
With the housing crisis in Manchester and around the state receiving more attention in recent years, the Granite State News Collaborative over the past six months has examined the history of housing policy in Manchester, the largest city in the state, to help answer this question.
Conversations with historians and housing experts, as well as an analysis of historical zoning data, show that the roots of today’s affordable housing shortage can be traced back to the mid-1800s – to discriminatory housing policies during the reign of the United States. ‘Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, and exclusionary land use zoning laws since the 1930s. Zoning did not create the concentrations of poverty we see in the city today, but it maintained them, keeping the city’s poor in a handful of downtown neighborhoods by slowing multi-family housing construction elsewhere. The further one gets from City Hall, the higher the housing and rental prices, creating a series of invisible walls that have kept many of the city’s most disadvantaged residents from leaving the urban core.
Manchester City Government is now seeking public input to help it rewrite its zoning laws, which will be updated at the end of the year. A better understanding of Manchester’s housing history can help planners tackle some of the city’s toughest housing problems and can help planners design fairer solutions for the future.
“High rental costs have limited the housing options available to people at nearly every income level in the city,” observed an April 2021 report from Mayor Joyce Craig’s Affordable Housing Task Force. High house prices have hurt not only low-income residents, the report says, but also young professionals, seniors, families and middle-class residents — and this has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The statistics paint a grim picture for any aspiring homeowner or tenant. In the decade to 2020, median sale prices for all homes in Manchester rose 42%, from $190,000 to $271,000, according to online data from the NH Housing Finance Authority (NH Housing). In the decade to 2021, the median rent (including utilities) for a two-bedroom flat in Manchester has risen 58%, from $976 to $1,546 per month, according to a July report 2021 from NH Housing.
The same report estimated that for the median apartment to be affordable — meaning rent and utilities cost less than 30% of occupants’ combined monthly income — renters would need to earn nearly $62,000 a year. That’s about $12,000 more than a typical tenant household in Hillsborough County earns, according to estimates from the NH Housing report.
But stories like Harris’s highlight an aspect of the housing crisis that was not addressed in the task force’s report – even though it was mentioned in other city reports released in 2004. , 2013 and 2014 – namely that potential tenants in certain neighborhoods face even greater income gaps.
According to 2018 U.S. Census estimates, the typical household living a few blocks east of Harris (in Census Tract 13) earned just $46,000, about $16,000 less than needed income. to make a typical two-bedroom apartment affordable. A few blocks south, the numbers are darker. The typical resident living in tract 15 only earned $33,000. In the neighborhood extending south of Harris’ apartment, which includes Area 14, residents earn an average of $23,000.
Area 14 is home to the lowest household incomes in the city and the lowest rents, on average.
But the challenges of these neighborhoods go well beyond the rental market.
According to an analysis of census data from the NH Department of Health and Human Services, residents of Sector 14 were the most vulnerable in the state, meaning they were the most likely of any community to have need additional assistance in the event of a public health disaster.
“Overdose deaths, the risk of lifetime poverty and rates of communicable diseases are also concentrated in the poorest areas of Manchester,” noted a 2019 report from the city’s health department assessing health needs. of the greater Manchester area.
Over the past 30 years, these inequalities have also taken on distinctive racial connotations.
Area 14, for example, is nearly 40 percent non-white, according to the 2020 census. Next door, Area 15 was the only majority non-white census tract in the city or state.
In contrast, the city’s wealthier neighborhoods are expensive to live in and predominantly white. In part of the North End, an elite enclave since the late 1800s, the poverty rate is eight times lower than in tract 15, median incomes are three times higher, rents are 50% higher and the population is 87% white.
Why did these two parts of the city develop so differently? There are no easy answers to this question, nor easy solutions.
“I think urban planning, especially for people who want diverse cities, is extremely difficult,” said Elliott Berry, Housing Justice Project Co-Director at NH Legal Assistance.
“Unfortunately, sincere efforts to create diverse spaces [have] sometimes prompted wealthier residents to flee to the suburbs,” he said. “It’s not easy for planners to find the right place.”
Historians and housing experts suggest that the causes of the downtown challenges, while multi-faceted, can be narrowed down to two issues: the inequalities created by the discriminatory housing policies of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, and the obstacles to eliminating these problems. inequalities erected by local planning laws since the 1920s.
This article is shared by the Granite State News Collaborative partners in our Race and Equity Project. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.