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With rent rising at downtown apartments, tenants worry about future

The notice Laura Tobin found on her door July 2 was categorical: Her monthly rent will rise from $800 to $1,200 next month if she wants to stay in her second-floor apartment on Keene’s Central Square.

For Tobin, 38, who has lived in the building since 2016, the rent hike comes at a particularly bad time: The marketing work she’s done for several years as an independent contractor has dried up recently, leaving her largely reliant on another part-time job at Toadstool Bookshop in downtown Keene. Without public assistance, she likely won’t be able to stay in her apartment, where she lives by herself.

The notice asked Tobin to tell 1-3 Central Square’s owner — the Salem-based real estate firm Commonwealth Collective — by July 5 whether she planned to sign a new lease at the higher rate. As of Wednesday, though, she still hadn’t responded.

“It’s embarrassing to say I don’t make enough money to afford an apartment,” she said.

Many tenants at the Central Square apartment block — which has 25 rental units, mostly studios, and Rock, Paper, Scissors hair salon — expected their rent to go up after the Commonwealth Collective bought the building for $1.8 million in April, according to Tobin.

The company, which owns several apartment buildings in Manchester and also has residential properties in Maine, is rehabilitating 1-3 Central Square, including installing a keyless entry system, repainting the halls and putting new appliances in some units. Commonwealth Collective co-owner Michael Ketchen told The Sentinel in May, however, that it didn’t plan to replace any residents or the first-floor salon.

“We’re trying to maintain the tenant base in the building,” he said at the time. “We like the people.”

Ketchen confirmed Tuesday that his company is hiking rent for the Central Square apartments, saying the increases are meant to bring those units — featuring large stained-glass windows and views of downtown Keene — to their proper market value. Studios in the area typically go for at least $1,000 per month, he said, explaining that the building’s previous owner, Dorrie Masten, had been charging much less than that.

“The problem is the existing rent for some of them was far under market value,” he said. “[The increase] sounds like a lot, but it’s really only a lot if you were the guys at $700.”

The lack of affordable housing in New Hampshire and locally has become a top concern for many advocates and public officials. The median rent, including utilities, for a two-bedroom apartment in Cheshire County has risen by more than 5 percent, to $1,100, over the past five years, according to a new report from the independent state agency N.H. Housing. The county’s vacancy rate has dropped from 4.5 percent, which experts say is healthy, to 1.7 percent in that time, the data show.

The ongoing rehabilitation work at 1-3 Central Square also contributes to the rent increase, according to Ketchen, who said eight people left the building soon after the Commonwealth Collective bought it. Filling the vacant units, he said, has shown the demand for that real estate — even at a substantially higher rate than before.

“I have a waiting list,” he said. “I physically can’t get people into these apartments fast enough.”

Ketchen said his company plans to raise rent for all 1-3 Central Square tenants as their respective leases expire, though he didn’t know Tuesday how many will be affected at the end of this month, when a national eviction moratorium is set to expire. The firm also doesn’t know whether residents will leave instead of paying the higher rent, he said, adding that people might stay after realizing they’d had the units for well below market rate.

Tobin isn’t sure that’s an option, however.

An Elm City resident since graduating from Keene State College in 2006, she worked at a local bank before “stumbling into” part-time marketing work, which has included brand promotion and web design, several years ago. That, combined with her job at Toadstool, where she makes a $10 hourly wage while working about 20 hours a week, has typically covered her bills, Tobin said.

But with the lack of marketing opportunities recently, that arrangement could be in jeopardy.

“It doesn’t pay what you would need to afford an apartment,” she said of her work at the bookstore.

Tobin, who said the Commonwealth Collective has told tenants that it would wait for late rent payments “as long as there was a plan in place,” contacted Southwestern Community Services after getting the rent notice earlier this month. The organization, which offers social services to area residents, encouraged her to apply for financial aid from Keene’s welfare office and from a $200 million rent relief program that New Hampshire is running with federal funds.

City staff were “compassionate” about her situation, she said, and offered a monthly loan of up to $650 that Tobin said requires a lengthy application. She hadn’t filled it out as of Wednesday.

She did apply to the state’s rent relief program but noted that those requests — nearly all of which are approved — often take weeks to fulfill and that the program will expire before her new lease would. Even if she gets that aid, though, Tobin argued that it would essentially help fund the renovations on her apartment that would “ultimately force [her] to leave.”

Her options are further limited because she has epilepsy, which keeps her from driving a car, meaning she needs to live within walking distance of downtown.

“I don’t have a plan,” she admitted. “Basically, I’m trying to figure out if I can stay and if I can leave. Because at this point, I can’t do either.”

Ketchen acknowledged Tuesday that raising rent could force some tenants to leave the building, saying that “moving’s a headache.” But he called those decisions the “unfortunate side” of the real estate industry and said the Commonwealth Collective — which also recently bought Centerfold Laundry on Vernon Street and the apartments above it from Masten — needs the extra income to avoid losing money on its Central Square property.

“No one’s going to be happy,” he said. “… It’s a tough part of the business, but at the end of the day it is business. You have to do what the market dictates.”

Another tenant at 1-3 Central Square, who wished to remain anonymous, said he knows of at least three residents, including Tobin, whose rents are “going up huge” in August. Residents had been expecting a monthly increase of about $200, he said, adding that while the recent upgrades to the building have been positive, the new rates are too high.

“Some of the apartments are rather small, and $1,100 is a lot for the size of the apartment,” he said.

Rock, Paper, Scissors co-owner Heather Fish said a rent hike would be “detrimental” for the salon, which has been at its Central Square location for more than six years. She hasn’t been told that the rate will go up but said the business may look for a new space if it does.

“I imagine if it’s happening for some of the residential tenants, it’ll happen for us as well,” she said.

Several of Tobin’s friends have offered to host her if she can’t afford her new rent, she said, but she worries about being forced to eventually leave Keene.

Between applying for rental aid, looking for backup housing options and tracking down her epilepsy medication, which she said often doesn’t make it from the distributor to the pharmacy, she’s not sure when she can pick up another job to supplement her income from the bookstore. Other tenants likely face the same problem, she said.

“I’ve become pretty good at advocating for myself, but it’s a full-time job. What about everybody else?”

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After 'painfully slow' start, restorative justice program tries to reset
  • Updated
  • 9 min to read

Two years ago, a group of volunteers set out to do justice differently in Cheshire County.

The program itself was modest. Certain low-level defendants, accused of things like shoplifting or alcohol violations, could be diverted out of court and into an alternative process, sparing them criminal records that would later weigh them down. But the ideas behind it were big. Organizers hoped to nudge the legal system away from its focus on guilt, punishment and shame toward a model that emphasizes healing and making amends — a philosophy known as restorative justice.

It was the type of reform that would gain more attention nationally a year later, after a police officer murdered George Floyd. But as calls to rethink public safety spread across the country, Cheshire County’s restorative justice program was languishing. It had handled just a handful of referrals, to the frustration of organizers.

In America’s highly decentralized criminal-legal system, reform often depends on intensely local factors. Cheshire County’s program had at least some buy-in from the relevant officials. But decisions about which cases to take — as well as sometimes-differing views about when restorative justice could be a true alternative to court — appear to have limited the program’s reach.

In the past year, Cheshire County has taken steps to strengthen it. The county attorney’s office now has a paid employee whose portfolio includes restorative justice. And the program has accepted its first two felony-level cases this year, a significant step up from the petty offenses it started with, though Cheshire County Attorney D. Chris McLaughlin says he doesn’t see it becoming an alternative to prosecution in many such cases.

“I am cautiously optimistic that the restorative justice program will be taking off, and will be a very successful program,” said Cheshire County Commissioner Robert J. Englund. “And clearly it was very slow, painfully slow, in getting started.”

‘Not imposed by a judge’

The Cheshire County Restorative Justice Program’s core organizers — Leaf Seligman of Peterborough, Bridget Hansel of Keene and Sandy Swinburne of Marlborough — connected through classes that Seligman, a Peterborough-based writer, educator and restorative justice advocate, taught at Keene State College.

Sentinel file photo by Michael Moore  

Leaf Seligman, left, and Bridget Hansel, two of the organizers of the Cheshire County Restorative Justice Program, stand outside Cheshire County Hall in this file photo from June 2019.

The group approached McLaughlin — the county’s chief prosecutor — about trying restorative justice at the county level. He was receptive to them handling some low-level cases as an alternative to court, they said. While Seligman had broader ambitions for restorative justice, she was willing to start wherever they could get buy-in, she said.

It launched in April 2019 as what’s known as a diversion program.

Diversion, or referring certain criminal cases out of the standard legal process, takes many forms and doesn’t need to involve restorative justice. It can involve a referral to counseling or services, a requirement to do community service or simply a probationary period of good behavior.

Generally, a key goal of diversion is to give people a chance to avoid a criminal record — which can make it harder to get jobs, housing and education — while reducing the huge number of criminal cases, many of them minor, taking up court time and administrative resources.

In the Cheshire County initiative, diversion took the form of successfully completing a restorative-justice process — a model Vermont has used for decades.

Advocates of restorative justice describe crimes as violations of relationships, ruptures in the community that community members should try to mend. Rather than seeking to prove guilt and determine a proper punishment, restorative justice identifies the harm that was done, what the victim needs to move forward and how the person who caused the harm can seek to repair it.

That plays out in structured conversations between the defendant, trained volunteers and — if they choose — the victim or other affected people, such as relatives or neighborhood residents. It’s meant to focus on the people harmed by a crime and get the person who committed it to reckon with how their behavior hurt others.

That person must own up to what they did and commit to specific actions to make things right, which could include restitution, work in the community, an apology or tackling the root causes of their behavior through counseling.

“Accountability — the restorative world, you have to demonstrate it,” said Patrick Heneghan, the county’s director of restorative justice and victim/witness services, who was hired in October. “It’s not imposed by a judge.”

A slow start

As Cheshire County’s program started up, McLaughlin made clear it would be limited to minor cases like shoplifting, underage alcohol violations and driving on a suspended license — situations with either a corporate entity as a victim, or no victim at all.

Cases with “non-corporate victims of felonies or serious misdemeanor offenses” are an “entirely different animal” and would require the involvement of his office’s victim/witness coordinators, he wrote in an email to Seligman and other stakeholders.

“I do not intend to put a damper on people’s enthusiasm for the CCRJP, but I just want to make sure it is clear what can be done with the program at this point,” he added.

Two weeks later, Seligman wrote to County Administrator Christopher C. Coates that she found it “a little disheartening” that the program wouldn’t be able to work with actual victims. As she told The Sentinel around that time, her goal was not just to divert people away from court, but also use restorative justice to resolve conflicts — like a bar fight that leads to simple assault charges or a person who steals from their family to buy drugs.

McLaughlin said at the time that he didn’t object to such cases being handled through restorative justice in principle. But it would require staff time to work with victims, and his office’s two victim/witness coordinators were already stretched thin, he said.

By the end of that June, about three months in, there had been no referrals, and the county commissioners were wondering why.

The decision to offer restorative justice was ultimately up to individual prosecutors in the local misdemeanor courts, not all of whom work for the county attorney’s office. Prosecutors generally have wide discretion in how they handle cases, including whether to prosecute them at all, making them key gatekeepers for diversion.

McLaughlin sent those prosecutors several emails about the new program over the following months. “Just a gentle reminder that this program is an option for certain cases,” he wrote in a June 26 email, noting that the county commissioners were asking him about the lack of referrals. “Please consider referring those cases that you feel are appropriate.”

The program got its first case a week later — a woman accused of providing alcohol to her girlfriend, who had not yet turned 21, according to emails reviewed by The Sentinel. A second referral occurred in October. But by January 2020, with no additional cases, Seligman and Hansel were expressing concerns it had stalled.

McLaughlin, meanwhile, said he was hearing from front-line prosecutors that few defendants were interested — in part because it was limited to such minor offenses that it often made more sense for a defendant to accept a slap on the wrist from the court.

At an August 2019 commissioners’ meeting, according to the minutes, “McLaughlin said that part of the problem with the lack of potential participants is that the program is focused on very low-level infractions (fineable violations) where it is easier to just pay a fine and not be involved in a lengthy restorative process. He said that the higher misdemeanor and felony crimes where jail time can be avoided through a diversion program such as restorative justice would be the only way to immediately add more people but the program is currently not open to that level of charges.”

It’s unclear how often prosecutors were offering diversion. McLaughlin said he heard from them anecdotally but wasn’t tracking that systematically, though he asked them to report those numbers in a July 2019 email.

Rick Carpenter, Jaffrey’s police prosecutor, said he has offered restorative justice in several cases and all the defendants accepted, though one was returned to court after failing to follow through. Other district-court prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment.

In May 2020, Seligman was contacted about a felony case — though not, it turned out, to offer an alternative to prosecution.

The case involved someone charged with preparing the method by which she and her partner attempted suicide. Seligman thought it was a “family systems kind of issue” better handled in a restorative setting than a courtroom, she said recently. But the prosecutor had not referred the case to diversion; rather, Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David W. Ruoff had recommended the family contact Seligman and Hansel for help facilitating supervised visits, according to court records. When Seligman asked the lawyers involved to clarify her role, she was told that any restorative process the family might do would have no bearing on the case’s outcome.

In a long email to Ruoff and other stakeholders, Seligman laid out her concerns. She said that while she was willing to help however she could, “there is a limit to what I/we can do on a volunteer basis.”

The volunteers, she went on, could facilitate a restorative process, “but if that has no bearing on whether the defendant might face jail time or fines or a criminal record, I don’t understand how we are moving away from a criminal legal system that compounds harm instead of ameliorating it. Providing pro bono social work, while important and noble work is not the intent of our CCRJP.”

In advance of a Zoom meeting soon after, Coates, the county administrator, let Ruoff know Seligman planned to ask about the group, in her words, “not being given a chance to implement restorative justice.”

In response, Ruoff said prosecutors, not judges, held the cards. “Restorative Justice is an alternative to prosecution, under Leaf’s model,” he wrote in an email to Coates. “Thus, the gateway to the program is the prosecuting authority. Not the Court. I cannot compel the State to agree to forego prosecution of a case (even when I really think it should go to [the] restorative justice program).”

Ruoff, who has since transferred to Rockingham County, confirmed through a spokesperson that he thought that case should have gone to restorative justice, but the prosecutor did not.

In an interview, McLaughlin said his office was never going to decline to prosecute a case of that nature.

“It wasn’t being referred as a diversion case because it was a serious event,” he said.

Taking the next steps

That October, the restorative justice program took a step forward with the hiring of Heneghan — who had joined the team as a volunteer the previous year — in the newly created position of director of restorative justice and victim/witness services.

The job, based in the county attorney’s office, met McLaughlin’s request for another victim/witness coordinator to share the workload, while also advancing the commissioners’ interest in restorative justice.

“I’ve got a foot in two camps,” Heneghan said. Helping victims navigate the court process gives him insight into the legal system, he said, as well as a window into upcoming cases. “And then I’m thinking on the other side, ‘Wow, this has great restorative potential.’ ”

Aaron Lipsky for The Keene Sentinel 

Patrick Heneghan, Cheshire County's director of restorative justice and victim/witness services, outside County Hall on Thursday.

Hansel and the other organizers said they think it’s made a difference to have someone in an official position, advocating for restorative justice from the inside and educating attorneys.

“He’s sort of the extra nudge that they need,” Hansel said.

The focus has also shifted from petty misdemeanors to cases with higher stakes.

The program handled its first felony-level referral this winter. Three young people had gone into an empty house that was up for sale and caused thousands of dollars in property damage. In lieu of prosecution, they participated in a restorative “circle” — via Zoom, of course. Heneghan said the homeowner declined to participate directly, but agreed to write a statement about what the house meant to him and how he felt about the damage.

“When I read it out to the individuals who had committed the harm, you could see a transformation,” he said. “They had no idea that property damage has an impact on a human being.”

The trio paid restitution, wrote apologies and did cleanup work in the community, and their charges were dropped, Heneghan said.

The program has just started to work on its second felony case, a domestic violence/reckless conduct incident, which like the vandalism case could result in a dismissal, according to Heneghan.

Heneghan said restorative justice can grow alongside the existing legal system, as a forum for healing at any stage of the process — not just as a pretrial alternative to prosecution. He recently offered it to two individuals who were already sentenced and participating in the county’s behavioral health court program (they declined). Returning to society after prison is another opportunity, he said.

McLaughlin said he doesn’t see restorative justice being used to divert many felony cases, but as an option alongside the regular court process. “It’s just a component of a criminal case that can be utilized by victims and defendants who are interested in it,” he said. “It’s not gonna drive necessarily what a prosecutor decides to do.”

A prosecutor’s aim is “to end up with a just result, and that isn’t always just focused solely on the victim,” he said. “I mean, there’s general deterrence, specific deterrence, rehabilitation and punishment. Those are all legitimate sentencing factors that have to be taken into account in determining how to resolve a criminal case.”

If a defendant engages meaningfully in a restorative process and tries to make amends, that might be one factor a prosecutor weighs, he said. “But a straight-out felony with a victim, if you do restorative justice, the case goes away — that’s going to be a small number is my guess, if any, really.”

Seligman said she understands her views of justice and accountability differ from those of many legal professionals, and it takes time to change minds. “We continue to try to meet the county wherever the county will meet us,” she said.

At the same time, she is looking beyond the legal system, working to root restorative justice in the community more broadly, as a way to resolve conflicts in schools, workplaces and neighborhoods — a vision Heneghan also shares.

“Certainly there are prosecutors that are arguing to consider some cases for referral, and that’s wonderful, and I want to applaud them,” Seligman said. “And I want to acknowledge that any time any prosecutor considers doing that, that’s a paradigm shift.”

“I believe that it’s hard,” she added. “It’s a glacial pace to ask people that are embedded or entrenched in a system that’s adversarial and retributive to just wholeheartedly embrace a worldview that is not.”

This reporting was supported by a grant from the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network. The Sentinel retained full editorial control.

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In-person health care may be back, but telemedicine is here to stay
  • Updated

After pausing nonessential services early in the COVID-19 pandemic, most local health care providers have reintroduced them. But, that isn’t stopping many patients from continuing with telemedicine instead.

“The pandemic has taught people that health care can be delivered by telehealth in some situations, and that’s not likely to be reversed,” said Phil Wyzik, CEO of Monadnock Family Services in Keene and Peterborough. “... It’s a tool that is proven to be very effective, so I don’t see the days where we will go back.”

Telehealth, or telemedicine, refers to patients and doctors connecting virtually through video conferencing or telephone conversations. Nationally, it has long been part of strategies to increase access for patients, including those living in rural areas.

Last March, Gov. Chris Sununu issued new temporary guidelines to expand access to teleheath services, requiring they be covered by insurers.

Because of this, many health care providers across the state have introduced or expanded their telehealth services amid the pandemic to continue serving as many patients as they can.

The video software used is secure and compliant with HIPAA, a federal law that contains patient-privacy provisions, to prevent patients’ medical information from being tampered with.

At Monadnock Family Services — the region’s community mental health center — Wyzik said about half of its services each month are still done remotely. This is down from last summer, when he said about 85 percent of clients were using telemedicine.

“If they have transportation problems or if their other treatment is elsewhere, telehealth is a really useful tool,” Wyzik said.

Jill Burns, associate executive director at Maps Counseling Services in Keene and Peterborough, said she isn’t sure what percentage of clients are still using telehealth, but that only those who “really need to be in the office” have shifted away from it.

“We’re taking it slow and with everyone’s comfort in mind,” she said.

It’s gotten easier to use telemedicine throughout the pandemic, Burns added, but there are still challenges, like trying to read a client’s body language over a computer screen.

“We do recognize, as some of us are getting back into the office, how much different [telehealth] is than being in person,” Burns said. “We get to see the whole person instead of just their headshot, which tells a lot more.”

Both Burns and Wyzik said clients continuing with telemedicine are doing so out of convenience rather than concern about contracting COVID-19.

But for some, telehealth isn’t a plausible option.

“Everyone’s situation is a little bit different, and some people don’t always have a private space in their home to provide the quietness or privacy that they might want to have when they are talking with a therapist,” Wyzik said.

Dr. Michael O’Shea, medical director and vice president of ambulatory care services at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, said between 5 and 7 percent of patients are using telehealth. At the height of the pandemic, he said that number was upwards of 25 percent, and has steadily dropped since.

He said every specialty in the hospital, an affiliate of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health system, has a telehealth option, though some lend themselves to it better. For example, he said primary care is much easier to handle virtually than, say, a general surgery consult.

The hospital will continue to “embrace” telemedicine moving forward, O’Shea said, but it boils down to what its patients want.

“I think we’d all prefer to see much more of it,” he said, “but ... so much of it is dependent on patient preference.”

Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough has about 14 percent of patients still using telehealth, down from around 30 percent around February and March, according to Telehealth Coordinator Hannah Ladeaux.

Once the colder months hit, she said, the hospital plans to encourage more people to again use telehealth because of bad weather and cold and flu season.

That way, Ladeaux said providers and patients aren’t “trying to battle the snow and ice to come in” and can still keep appointments.

Dr. Aurora Leon, co-owner of Monarca Health in Keene, reported a much smaller share of patients using telemedicine — about 2 percent.

Monarca Health, which opened on West Street in late September, is a direct primary-care facility — a model that allows patients to pay a monthly fee directly to their provider, rather than the provider billing the patient’s insurance for services.

By design, the clinic has a smaller patient load, so Leon said people have been comfortable coming in to see their doctor in person, even when COVID-19 cases were high. Those who are choosing to use telehealth, she added, are doing so because they don’t live near the office.

Similar to the local mental health providers, the doctors interviewed by The Sentinel said that telehealth, while convenient, isn’t without its faults.

“The downside is we can’t see all of you or check for things like your blood pressure ... so we don’t have a lot of the data we would get in person,” Leon said.

Ladeaux and O’Shea echoed this, both adding that the lack of reliable Internet in the Monadnock Region is also a huge hurdle.

“We battle against it almost every day, whether you’re in Greenfield and the wind is blowing or you’re in Rindge and it’s snowing, all of that stuff really can affect it,” Ladeaux said.

Despite these issues, providers agreed that, overall, telehealth is a useful tool to not only keep up with current patients, but to increase access to services.

“I definitely think there [are] a lot of great things about being in person, but I don’t want that to be a barrier,” Burns, of Maps, said, “because any treatment is better than no treatment.”