‘This happened to me’ – Former school board member Kate West impacted by Concord housing crisis

By EILEEN O’GRADYand MICHAELA TOWFIGHI  Concord Monitor staff

Published: 1/7/2023 6:31:40 PM
Modified: 1/7/2023 6:28:31 PM

The day Kate West’s landlord gave 30 days’ notice to vacate her apartment, she went online to look for a new place to live. Immediately, she knew she was facing a problem.

It was early August in Concord, and the landlord had decided not to renew the lease on the two-bedroom apartment West had been renting on Jackson Street for the past two years.

West, who was paying $1,200 per month, wanted to find another two-bedroom for a similar price. As a sitting member of the Concord School Board, she also wanted it to be located in a certain slice of the city – Wards 1, 2, 3 or 4 – an area that includes downtown and west of the Merrimack River that she was elected to represent. The options she found were slim to none.

“I realized that the market had changed out of my price range to live in Concord,” West said. “I didn’t just look in my district, I looked all around Concord trying to stay here, because I have an investment in this community.”

West, a single parent, moved out of her apartment with her elementary school-aged child on the Sept. 9 deadline, and since then has been staying with friends – most recently with City Councilor Zandra Rice-Hawkins – in Concord while trying to find a permanent place to live.

“I believe that society looks at me from the outside and doesn’t think of me as someone that would become unhoused,” West said. “I worked for a prototype manufacturing company full-time, I played music in the community, I was elected to the school board, I’m a mom, I am active in my community and I care about it a lot. And this happened to me.”

West’s struggle to find housing is indicative of a larger issue, both in Concord and statewide where everyday people are struggling to find affordable housing. West has also seen firsthand that the laws in place to support and protect children who are unhoused do not extend to adults.

Is 30 days enough?

When she first moved in to her Jackson Street apartment in 2020, she was able to find a space for herself and her child that was both affordable and available.

This time around is an entirely new challenge.

West is currently working with different social workers in different organizations, who have been trying to find her housing for the past four months, to no avail.

“This is not a solo effort that I am failing at,” West said. “It is one that I do have community support and professional support in, and we are still not able to find a place that’s affordable and available for my child and I to live.”

With a rental vacancy rate of 0.3% in Merrimack County, finding an apartment is hard to come by. Even if one opens up, West’s budget of $1,200 for a two-bedroom apartment is now rare. In 2022, the median rent for a two-bedroom in the U.S. was $1,318. This was a 12% increase in price over the last five years.

West’s landlord gave her the proper 30 days’ notice to leave her apartment, but for Concord renters, finding a new place typically takes more than a month.

Some lawmakers are seeking to amend the 30-days-notice requirement this year, with HB112, a proposed bill that would increase the required notification length to 60 days for the sale of multifamily homes. But even 60 days is a time crunch in the current market, said West.

“Anyone struggling to find housing now will tell you that it definitely takes more than 30 days to find housing if you’re lucky enough to find it,” she said. “And if you do find it, it’s likely that it’s not affordable.”

There are also additional barriers to applying for apartments, such as application fees. If someone is applying to multiple places, $50 processing fees can quickly add up.

One thing after another

As an activist, West has advocated for the Housing First initiative, which prioritizes providing permanent housing for individuals who are experiencing homelessness in order to create stability to solve other issues, like employment, recovery or mental health. It’s based on the belief that once someone is housed, they can be more successful getting the support they need.

West also attended police clearings of homeless encampments to protest displacement.

Suddenly, she’s on the other side.

“Experiencing what it’s like to lose your housing for an extended period of time firsthand really puts into perspective how difficult it is to thrive and create an independent life when you aren’t able to have affordable housing and a shelter that you can go back to,” West said. “A place where you can organize and care for yourself and your child and take care of your mental health and make sure you’re eating the way that you should be and make sure you’re sleeping like you should be. You can’t do those things if you don’t have dependable shelter.”

After losing her housing, things escalated.

The stress began to take a toll on West’s mental health, but she was unable to access the treatment she needed for months due to high demand. This impacted her productivity at work, and she was let go from her job when just months before she had been on track for a promotion. She was removed from her spot on the School Board because she was living outside the district she was elected to represent. She’s actively job-searching now, but it needs to have the right health insurance to receive mental health treatment. She is currently enrolled in Medicaid.

West described it as a “spiral,” saying that if she hadn’t lost her housing, the rest would not have happened.

New Hampshire has long struggled with providing access to mental health care for all who need it, but the shortage of psychiatric and behavioral services was exacerbated by the pandemic when demand reached an all-time high. Outpatient counseling services are often booked months in advance or are not accepting new clients. Inpatient psychiatric beds are scarce, forcing people to seek temporary treatment in emergency rooms.

“It’s hard,” West said. “It isn’t a matter of asking for help once. You have to ask for help every day. You have to show up every day and beg for treatment every day.”

Residency requirement

On Jan. 2, Concord School Board members voted unanimously to declare West’s board seat vacant and begin the search for a new appointee, as West is no longer living in Zone A. According to the District’s charter document, board members forfeit their seats if they move out of their elected zone.

West maintains that she was “ousted” from the school board and disagrees with the decision to remove her, arguing that she didn’t choose to leave her zone; she has not yet taken up an permanent residence in any other zone.

Ironically, the friend’s house West stayed in for the majority of the past few months is located just down the street from her former Jackson Street apartment and was situated in Zone A before the 2022 redistricting.

The Concord School District Charter Commission wanted to codify that school board members must have their residence in the voting zone they represent. The requirement was placed on the ballot as a charter amendment and was passed by Concord voters in November.

Commissioners felt it would guard against an elected official making decisions from outside community. Some also felt the change would lead to more equity and diversity on the School Board, as it would prevent having a disproportionate number of members elected from one affluent neighborhood, like Ward 5.

For West, one of the younger and less-affluent members on the board, it had the opposite effect.

“That was the purpose behind the law, to create equity in that situation,” West said. “Unfortunately, that stipulation negatively impacts those that experience houselessness.”

According to the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office, people who are unhoused can list the address of a shelter, a friend’s house or their encampment as their domicile to vote in elections. To run for public office, they need to list a mailing address which can be a resource center, like the Coalition to End Homelessness.

While the vote to move forward with filling the vacant position was unanimous, not all Board members feel the decision was right.

“This situation has given us an opportunity to reexamine the ways we choose to govern this Board and how we recognize the validity of our district’s families,” said board member Sarah Robinson.

“The policy, as I understand it, does not contain any nuance to allow for circumstances such as this. I appreciate why it was put into place … but this issue is something entirely different. ”

West believes the Concord School Board should amend its charter and change the domicile requirement to make running accessible for people who are unhoused.

“I was raised to understand that if you recognize that a law is unjust, or is creating inequity, it’s your responsibility to speak up and try to change it,” West said.

Unhoused children

With the McKinney-Vento law in place to protect the educational rights of children amidst housing insecurity, the support for her child has vastly differed from West’s adult experience.

In the Concord School District, 117 students were unhoused in the 2021-22 school year, according to Department of Education data. This number has increased over the last few years, with 96 unhoused students in 2021 and 76 in 2020. All of these students still had access to education and all of the support services from the school district.

Districts receive funding to support unhoused students, which goes toward clothes and shoes to meet a dress code or to participate in physical education classes, student fees for programs, school supplies, food, immunizations, counseling and outreach services, among others, according to the state Department of Education.

When a student becomes unhoused in the middle of a school year, like what happened to West’s child, the student is eligible to remain in their original district. For following school years, the child’s “best interest” is taken into consideration when determining what district to enroll in.

In some cases, that’s their district of origin. But if transportation becomes too lengthy or they would like to move districts, unhoused students can enroll elsewhere in the state.

Each school district also has a liaison that helps identify unhoused students in the district and coordinates support for them.

When West informed her child’s elementary school principal about her housing situation, the first question was,“How can we help?” she said.

The principal has helped connect her to a social worker and provided personal support.

“On the school level … it was wildly different because you could sense that (my child’s) principal is day-to-day facing the reality of students that are experiencing homelessness, and which I think is different than the experience of those in the administration and on the board, so she speaks with empathy,” West said.

The support she’s received for her child cements the need for a law like McKinney-Vento to be in place but also highlights the need to have similar support systems in place for adults, West said.

“It’s difficult to understand at what point society thinks you age out of that need. There seems to be a point where society does not think that it’s important anymore for you to maintain that community connection, despite something that you can’t control, which is not being able to afford housing during a time when the price is exploitive,” she said.

West said she feels that the board would benefit from having an unhoused representative, due to the number of children in the district who experience housing insecurity.

When asked if she would ever run for School Board again, she did not hesitate to say yes.

“I did not want to leave my position. I worked hard to campaign, and I wanted to be on the board because I wanted to have a positive impact in my community, and I wanted to help students,” she said. “I still want to do that.”