A1 A1
N.H. Executive Council rejects $27 million in federal contracts related to COVID vaccination efforts

CONCORD — The vaccination contracts that sparked disruptive protests that shut down an Executive Council meeting two weeks ago were voted down at Wednesday’s Council meeting.

The scope of the two contracts included $27 million in federal funding that would have created 13 state health department positions for immunization work. The positions included vaccine outreach, assistance for health-care providers navigating the logistics of vaccines and support for data entry on the state’s immunization information system.

Councilor Cinde Warmington, a Democrat, was the only councilor to vote in favor of the funding.

The vote followed a period of intense questioning of Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibenette, an angry back and forth between Gov. Chris Sununu and several councilors, and a long statement from Councilor Janet Stevens hailing the importance of vaccine equity and combating disinformation, meant to preface her “no” vote.

In a statement issued after the vote, Sununu said the “vote showed a reckless disregard for the lives we are losing while they turn away the tools our state needs to fight and win this battle against COVID.”

Wednesday’s meeting took place at the state Police Standards and Training Council in Concord, a location officials chose in the wake of protests that required the last Executive Council meeting to be postponed. Officials said it was secure and large enough to accommodate members of the public, press and officials.

About 170 protesters filled the public section of the room. They made their opinions known early on in the meeting when federal funding for case management for refugees 60 years and older was discussed. Some protesters shouted they did not want refugees in New Hampshire.

As disturbances continued, state troopers did not hesitate to make arrests and escort loud and unruly protestors out of the meeting.

N.H. State Police arrested nine people, including Keene resident John R. Schmitt, 68, for disorderly conduct, authorities announced in a news release Wednesday afternoon. The others arrested were Frank N. Staples of Manchester, Terese M. Grinnell of Loudon, Monica A. Holm of Hudson, Marylyn T. Todd of Nashua, Emilee K. Spiller of New Ipswich, James E. Stuart of Rochester, Albert J. Todd of Nashua and Kathleen A. Bussiere-Appleton of Newton. The latter two were also charged with resisting arrest in addition to disorderly conduct, police said.

The contracts rejected Wednesday had come under fire from protesters and coordinated right-wing groups last month, who falsely claimed that a standard section in the contract would increase federal control and oversight of New Hampshire’s public health efforts.

Both Attorney General John Formella and Gov. Chris Sununu addressed and debunked these claims. The two reiterated key points from Formella’s prior statement that the language had already appeared in items approved by the council in the past, is likely to appear on future items, and the language of concern does not bind the state to any sweeping federal demands.

The council did approve federal funding for other COVID-19 vaccination efforts, including the expansion of a contract with On-Site Medical Services to provide mobile vaccines and funding to create a second mobile vaccine in partnership with ConvenientMD. Both efforts had been on hold following the cancellation of the last executive council meeting.

Other COVID-related funds were approved Wednesday too, including a retroactive contract with ClearChoiceMD for four public testing sites.

For protesters, the “no” vote on the contracts at the heart of their demands was a success. As soon as the contracts were voted down, the remaining crowd left the building, cheering.

Sentinel reader Rebecca Upjohn Snyder captured this calm moment last week on

Silver Lake in Harrisville, where fall colors were just beginning to appear. According to the N.H. Division of Travel and Tourism Development, the Monadnock Region is quickly approaching peak foliage, “and a few more cool nights should sweep the region into a magnificent display of seasonal splendor.”

New study links state’s high cost of living to the number of building restrictions

New Hampshire has one of the highest costs of living in the United States and the fourth highest number of building restrictions. A new study from the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy and St. Anselm College’s Center for Ethics in Society says the two are connected.

In a 50-page report published Wednesday, study author Jason Sorens says data analysis demonstrated a direct relationship between zoning regulations and the cost of housing in the state.

“Widely available measures show that New Hampshire is one of the most restrictive states in the country for residential development,” Sorens wrote. “By suppressing building, land-use regulations drive up the price of housing as demand rises.”

Sorens, the director of the Center for Ethics in Society, says it’s a relationship that can be seen nationally. States identified by the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulatory Index as having a high number of housing regulations, such as Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, also have the highest costs of living, as identified by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Sorens’ report noted.

“The relationship between housing supply regulation and cost of living over all 50 states is extremely strong and positive,” Sorens wrote. “As we have seen, there are good reasons to believe that a causal effect of regulation on prices is responsible for this relationship, implying that by reducing zoning restrictions, New Hampshire could substantially cut the cost of living for thousands of families.”

The report identified a number of New Hampshire municipalities that have put in place regulations that limit home building. Manchester requires an exemption to build housing higher than three stories. Portsmouth employs a web of zoning ordinances to protect historical districts and character districts, making new housing construction a complex and expensive process. Other towns use building permit caps to set a hard upper limit on the number of houses that can be built at all. And nearly half of Hanover is protected from any housing development at all, without the chance of variance.

The effect, Sorens and others say, is that New Hampshire towns have attempted to freeze themselves in time.

Sorens’s report found a correlation between building restrictions and migration out of the state.

That means that even as populations decline in certain areas of the state, housing prices often stay stubbornly high, breaking the traditional forces of supply and demand, Sorens said. Those inelastic prices are, in part, driven by “rent-seeking”; residents who use the high regulations to keep housing stock low, which in turn makes property values high and reduces newcomers, the report found.

Overall, the regulations have the effect of keeping out lower-income residents from certain towns and cities — and driving them into less-restrictive towns, the report found.

The report includes a map showing the highest regulation areas in the state — the Upper Valley, the Seacoast, the Lakes Region, and towns along the southeastern border with Massachusetts. Those appear to correlate with the areas in the state with the priciest housing. A second map shows the towns with the highest “excess price,” determined by comparing the price of houses in the town with a formula demonstrating a “predicted sale price” under normal supply and demand. The towns on that map are clustered in the same four regions.

Speaking at a panel at St. Anselm Tuesday, some housing experts said the report laid bare a dynamic that has grown for decades.

“They’re the kind of conclusions we would have come to ourselves,” said Ben Frost, managing director of policy and public affairs at New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. “But I think in an effort to essentially quantify these relationships, this is really important, groundbreaking research for New Hampshire.”

The report urges local municipalities to consider eliminating ordinances that tend to hold back housing development, such as minimum lot sizes, distance requirements from roads, and building permit caps.

And it advances some suggestions for statewide policies to alleviate some of the zoning barriers, such as a law requiring municipalities to reimburse landowners if they passed new zoning regulations that might lead to a drop in property values.

New Hampshire has made some strides in favor of housing development, including the creation of the housing appeals board to attempt to expedite zoning disputes that might otherwise end in court. But comprehensive legislation to address housing barriers has proven politically tricky.

A bipartisan bill seeking to streamline the approval process for affordable housing units was tabled earlier this year after some Republican lawmakers argued it needed more work.

“To get out of the arms race and make decent homes affordable to Granite Staters of all ages and walks of life, policymakers and citizens have to understand how local land use regulations affect the supply and price of housing,” the report concluded. “Better policies will come from a better understanding of the downstream effects of those regulations.”

top story
Report highlights need for food program access in Monadnock Region
  • Updated

For years, high food insecurity rates — higher than the state average — have been reported in the Monadnock Region, but many residents who qualify for state or federal nutritional programs that could help end up not enrolling.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its many roadblocks have only exacerbated these concerns, highlighting the need for expanding access to services for families and children.

A local group, the Monadnock Children’s Food Access Alliance (MCFAA), is working to do just that, using the findings of its latest report to develop a food access plan to fill gaps in local and federal programming.

“ ... A society that supports the individual to be their healthiest will see less sickness, less hunger, less addiction,” said Roe-Ann Tasoulas, director of the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition. “Its just common sense.”

The full report

The 80-page Monadnock Region Food Access Analysis was conducted by the Southwest Region Planning Commission this spring. MCFAA will use the findings of the report, which was published in July but given to The Sentinel last week, to address the highlighted issues in coming years.

The alliance — funded by a $20,000 grant from the nonprofit N.H. Children’s Health Foundation — was created by similar local coalitions, Healthy Monadnock and the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition (MFCC), to address and improve the overall health of families and children in the Monadnock Region.

More than 30 community partners are part of the alliance, including farm service organizations, food pantry managers, public health representatives, food policy experts and educators.

“MFCC has monthly work groups that meet, and our work group was originally ... about educating on the importance of eating local food and the benefits to the environment, but it morphed into food access,” Tasoulas said. “Before the pandemic, we found out that ... these nutrition programs were being underused and we wanted to find out why.”

Food insecurity is the disruption of food consumption or eating patterns because of a lack of money or other resources. It can cause several negative health outcomes, such as decreased nutrient intake, poor oral health, behavioral problems, asthma, greater risk of hospitalization and developmental problems.

In Cheshire County, the report says 9.5 percent of residents and 12.7 percent of children were food insecure, according to 2019 data from Feeding America, the most recent data available from the national food access organization.

Both rates are higher than the state’s average in 2019 of 8.8 percent for adults and 10.8 percent among kids, the report says.

In Sullivan and Hillsborough counties, child food insecurity rates remained high, at 14.4 percent and 10.9 percent, respectively.

Poverty is the number one risk factor for food insecurity, the report says, with a lack of transportation — specifically lack of a vehicle — a close second.

Childhood poverty rates in the Monadnock Region are the highest in Alstead, Hinsdale, Richmond, Stoddard and Winchester, according to the report.

Alstead is also one of five area towns with the highest percentages of households without vehicles. The others are Keene, Peterborough, Sullivan and Swanzey, the report shows.

But despite these high rates, eligible families aren’t applying for local or federal assistance programs. More data are needed to understand why, the report says, but Tasoulas said it’s likely because of the stigma surrounding asking for — and accepting — help.

“In our listening sessions [for the report] we heard numerous times ‘Others need it more than me/or our family.’ Clearly, there is a cultural component to this ‘I can’t make it on my own’ attitude,” she said.

The pandemic has only added to this, Tasoulas said, because people could receive money in other ways.

“Unemployment and [federal] stimulus checks have put food on the tables of many experiencing food insecurity,” she explained. “The increase in sign-ups for nutrition programs has been slight.”

And for some low-income households, federal benefits such as food stamps aren’t an option, making it much more difficult to buy food, the report says.

Feeding America’s data show 40 percent of food-insecure children in Cheshire County who are at or below the federal poverty line did not qualify for such assistance in 2019 because they didn’t meet all the requirements, such as having under $2,001 in their bank accounts. This is the same rate as reported across the state.

Hillsborough County — which includes the large cities of Nashua and Manchester — also saw a rate of 40 percent, the data show, while Sullivan County was lower at 27 percent.

Moving forward, the report offers several possible solutions to these issues.

These include working collaboratively with the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services to sign up more residents for food stamps (SNAP benefits) and the women, infants and children (WIC) nutrition program; launching an outreach campaign to increase awareness of such programs; expanding community transportation services, such as through volunteer driver programs or transit services; and making farm-fresh foods available in more locations.

The report — along with input on how to address its findings — will be outlined Tuesday during a virtual event from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., according to a news release from Tasoulas. To register, visit monfoodaccessforum.eventbrite.com or call 603-852-3198.

A recording of the forum will also be uploaded afterward to mfcommunitycoalition.org.

The alliance then plans to determine the five most effective projects to help with food access, Tasoulas said. By the end of 2021, she said the alliance will secure funding for three of those projects, with hopes of implementing them the following year.

The remaining two projects are slated to receive funding in 2022, she added.

Until then, Tasoulas said it’s important for community members to come forward if they need assistance.

“The most important shift all of us can do is to stop demonizing ourselves or others for asking for help,” she said, “especially if it means feeding ourselves or our families.”

top story
Brattleboro tenants, landlords still divided on security deposit cap
  • Updated

BRATTLEBORO — After three decades in Brattleboro, Kristopher Levine had to leave this summer.

Despite income from two different jobs, including one as an Uber driver, and strong personal references, Levine, 44, said he couldn’t find a new apartment in town due to high demand for very few open units.

His search widened to other communities in Vermont, where he said many landlords were asking for first and last months’ rent, in addition to a security deposit, at the start of a lease — a sum he felt he couldn’t afford.

Levine, who eventually found a seasonal cottage to rent on Spofford Lake, isn’t alone. Similar lease requirements led a group of Brattleboro tenants last year to push successfully for capping up-front rental costs in an effort to keep housing there affordable.

“That’s the difference of anywhere between $500 and $800, so that would definitely be a big help,” Levine said.

But Brattleboro tenants and landlords are split on the new rules.

Renters say the ordinance, which bars landlords from charging initial fees that exceed the first month’s rent and a security deposit equal to that amount, has eased a potential barrier to housing. Those costs often included final month’s rent in the past, they say, putting them on the hook for thousands of dollars in some cases.

Meanwhile, some landlords claim the prohibition gives them no way to ensure tenants will be able to afford rent at the end of their lease. That has made some wary of renting to people with less financial security, potentially undermining the ordinance’s intent.

Brattleboro’s selectboard voted 3-2 to approve the security-deposit cap late last year, following a series of public hearings at which board members heard many of those same arguments. It was enacted in February after a mandatory waiting period following its approval.

Town officials plan to review the ordinance’s impact next year.

Doran Hamm, an organizer with the local tenants union that proposed the measure, said Monday he thinks it has — as intended — helped workers of low income afford to live in Brattleboro.

Most landlords have so far been receptive to the new rules, Hamm said. He added, however, that housing costs continue to rise for Brattleboro residents looking to move elsewhere in town and also for people new to the area.

“It’s tight for the people who are born, raised and live here,” Hamm said. “It’s very hard for people trying to move here.”

New Hampshire landlords may not charge more than first month’s rent and a security deposit equal to that amount in most cases. But in Vermont, only Brattleboro and Burlington prohibit higher up-front costs.

The median monthly rent in Brattleboro — where Town Manager Peter Elwell has said about half of residents rent their homes — was $867 in 2019, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Nearly a quarter of all Brattleboro households spend a majority of their income on housing expenses, the Census estimated that year.

Organizers with the Tenants Union of Brattleboro, the activist group formed last year, have said they’d like the town to address those affordability issues by adopting a broader rent-control program. The tenants union proposed a security-deposit cap, though, because it seemed easier to enact, Hamm and other members have said.

But some Brattleboro landlords continue to argue that the new rules make it more difficult for anyone without a stable income or established credit to find housing.

Fric Spruyt, who owns a couple dozen units in town, said he previously required tenants to pay both their first and last months’ rent, in addition to a security deposit, at the start of their lease.

That arrangement meant he felt comfortable renting to people with limited financial means, such as college students and those still paying off student loans. Spruyt said he also worked with tenants unable to produce that cash immediately to create a payment plan.

Calling the security-deposit cap “shortsighted,” Spruyt said he’s no longer willing to take in people in those situations.

“I don’t know anyone who likes it, tenants or landlords,” he said of the ordinance. “… It just means I can’t be as flexible [in] who I rent to.”

As of Tuesday, Brattleboro had received just one complaint of a landlord still charging last month’s rent up front, according to Planning Director Sue Fillion. Town staff contacted that landlord to explain the new rules, she said. (The penalty for violating the security-deposit ordinance is $100.)

Selectboard Vice Chairman Ian Goodnow said he’s heard from several tenants that their landlord wasn’t complying with the ordinance. Those landlords were then alerted to the rent restriction, he said.

Goodnow, who voted for the ordinance, said he’s heard anecdotally that it’s helping make apartments more affordable.

He cautioned, however, that selectboard members have not yet fully examined its impact and plan to do so next year. Goodnow noted that a broad study of the town’s housing situation will also be completed in the coming months, offering policymakers more information about what is needed to address an issue he said has reached “crisis” levels.

“I think it’s really important that we look at the data and take some time to reflect on these decisions,” he said.

With local officials preparing to study the issue, landlords like Ibrahim Dahlstrom-Hakki say the new ordinance makes it more difficult to determine whether tenants are financially reliable. Dahlstrom-Hakki, who owns 17 units in Brattleboro, said he can count on people who are able to pay three months’ rent.

Under the new ordinance, he said he may still rent to people with low income or otherwise shaky finances. But in those cases, Dahlstrom-Hakki said he wants additional security to ensure their rent will be paid fully, such as a parent to co-sign the lease.

“If we think somebody would be a good tenant but may be risky financially … we’re looking for these other ways to mitigate that,” he said.

The new rules may also prompt Brattleboro landlords to raise rent, Dahlstrom-Hakki said, so they have some insurance in case a tenant can’t pay the last month of their lease. He added, however, that natural market pressures are forcing housing costs up, too, thus masking the ordinance’s effect.

“It’s hard to separate where the market is going and the impact of this new ordinance,” he said.

Hamm, a member of Brattleboro’s planning commission, which drafts land-use policies, said that panel is also trying to address housing affordability issues. The selectboard recently adopted a slate of recommendations from the commission that are meant to encourage new housing by relaxing density restrictions, among other measures.

Beyond those relatively minor changes, Hamm said he’ll continue to push for a statewide rent cap and more regulations on Airbnb units to turn those into long-term rentals.

“It feels like a Band-Aid to a gushing wound to be perfectly honest,” he said of the security-deposit ordinance. “It’s good. It’s important that it’s there … But the wound is deep and not going anywhere. If we’re using that analogy, it’s gotten gangrene.”

And the housing search remains daunting for many.

Levine, whose lease on Spofford Lake ends Dec. 1, said he recently took a full-time warehouse job at United National Foods Inc., a wholesale food distributor with a location in Chesterfield. Even with that income, as well as any earnings from a social media application he’s launching to connect marijuana users, he expects it’ll be hard to find a new apartment.

Levine said he may be forced to find a long-term hotel room or to sleep in his car. It’s a decision he’s not quite ready to face.

“I’m the kind of person that if I’m scared, I put it off,” he said. “I’m scared, so I’m putting it off.”